Veteran Conservative MP Michael Chong has ruled out making another bid for his party’s leadership, but knows what he wants to see from the next person in the job.
Chong, who finished fifth out of 14 candidates running for the top Tory crown in 2017, said in a news release Wednesday that after weeks of discussions with family and supporters, he has concluded “now is not the time” to seek the leadership.
The MP for the rural Ontario riding of Wellington-Halton Hills was the only contender in the last contest to advocate for a revenue-neutral carbon tax, a sharp break from his party’s orthodoxy that sometimes saw him booed during debates.
Watch: Michael Chong fends off boos during 2017 leadership debate
Chong said in the release that whoever replaces Andrew Scheer in the role must unite the “diverse” groups of the Conservative coalition, from fiscal conservatives and social conservatives to libertarians and social progressives.
But they must also grow the party’s base with an “ambitious agenda” that includes fighting climate change and taking a clear position on Quebec’s secularism law, he said.
“Canada has not met its international commitments on climate change, overseas development assistance and NATO for decades,” he said. “We need a leader who will restore Canada’s place in the world.”
Chong is the father of the so-called Reform Act, which seeks to empower ordinary MPs to, among other things, trigger a leadership review and have the final say on expelling members of caucus. He said the next Tory leader should be committed to strengthening democracy in Canada.
The party needs “a leader who believes in reforming the House of Commons to strengthen the role of MPs – Canadians’ only elected representative at the federal level – so that they can better represent their constituents and better hold the government to account,” he said.
Next Tory leader must take stand on Bill 21: Chong
Chong also made headlines in the last race by forcefully speaking out against controversial proposals from rival contender Kellie Leitch to screen newcomers for so-called “anti-Canadian values.” Chong accused Leitch of running a “race-baiting” campaign.
In his release Wednesday, Chong threw down the gauntlet that the next Tory leader must be prepared to take a stand on Quebec’s Bill 21, and defend “our fellow Canadians who wear the hijab, the kippa and the turban.”
Bill 21, which became law in June, prohibits civil servants in positions of authority, such as teachers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols on the job, including turbans, crosses and hijabs. The restriction does not apply to people hired before the bill became law.
Bill 21 became a flashpoint during the fall federal election campaign. Scheer said that while a government led by him would not intervene in legal challenges against the law, a ban on religious symbols in the civil service was “not something we would pursue at the federal level.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would only go as far as leaving the door open to “intervening at a later stage.”
The Bloc Québécois, which defended the Quebec government’s right to advance the policy, won 32 of the battleground province’s 78 seats.
Chong also ended his release with an appeal that the “next leader must be proficient in both of Canada’s official languages.” Former cabinet minister Peter MacKay, seen as an early front-runner, is already facing questions about his level of proficiency with the French language.
Ontario MPs Erin O’Toole and Marilyn Gladu are, so far, considered MacKay’s top challengers. MacKay and O’Toole are the only declared candidates who’ve also met the first benchmarks for entry into the race — a $25,000 payment and 1,000 signatures from party members representing 30 ridings across seven provinces or territories.
Those who hope to be on the ballot when Tories choose their next leader in June must pony up an additional $275,000 and 2,000 signatures to the party by March 25 — a threshold that could be too onerous for lesser known contenders to meet.
Chong is just the latest big name to pass on the contest. Former Quebec premier Jean Charest, former interim Tory leader Rona Ambrose, and Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre have all announced in the last two weeks that they won’t pursue the job.
Earlier Wednesday, businessman Rick Peterson said that he will make another bid for the Tory leadership. Peterson finished in 12th place in 2017.
New Brunswick MP John Williamson told reporters on Parliament Hill that he is also mulling a campaign.
“I think it’s clear that Peter MacKay has sewn up the Red Tory bloc and there is a huge element of blue conservatives on the right which are looking for a candidate,” he said. “Erin O’Toole is moving in that direction, trying to occupy that space, but that’s not his natural home.”
With a file from The Canadian Press