Back in September 2012, I wrote a column suggesting that Jean Charest’s recent political retirement wasn’t the end of the story. A man in his mid-50s who’d spent almost his entire adult life in politics would find it difficult to irrevocably wash his hands of the whole business.
Now, on the brink of his apparently imminent return, that column seems prescient.
It wasn’t really.
A number of prominent commentators – from Conrad Black to Chantal Hebert – also believed that a permanent exit wouldn’t be consistent with Charest’s nature. There was nothing novel about my observation.
I thought his return would transpire within the realm of Quebec provincial politics. The particular model I had in mind was the late Robert Bourassa, who left the Quebec scene after his 1976 defeat and returned in triumph in 1983.
Charest, however, is reported as seriously eyeing a run at the federal Conservative leadership. That’s a proposition I’d have dismissed as deluded.
After all, the Reform schismatics destroyed Charest’s old Progressive Conservatives over two decades ago, eventually rolling the remnants under the new Conservative banner in 2003.
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So the idea that Charest, the epitome of an old-fashioned Red Tory, could be a credible candidate for leadership of the party that Stephen Harper built seems counterintuitive.
But if the stories are true, there are influential people who think otherwise.
That’s not all.
Another veteran, Peter MacKay, is also said to be gearing up for a run. MacKay served more than nine years as a senior member of Harper cabinets, which puts him in a different category from Charest. Still, it’s reasonable to classify him as a Red Tory.
What’s going on?
Has the late 20th-century upheaval in Canadian conservatism run its course and it’s time to return to pre-1993 business as usual?
Is a Red Tory really the only kind of Conservative who could win the country?
Much of this thinking can be ascribed to a disappointing performance in the 2019 federal election. When Justin Trudeau’s Liberals became unexpectedly vulnerable, Conservative hopes briefly blossomed. Hence the profound let-down for the party and its followers on the evening of Oct. 21. A result that Conservatives would’ve gladly accepted a year or two earlier was now a source of great angst.
And most of the blame has been assigned to leader Andrew Scheer’s socially conservative Catholicism and his inability to effectively respond to repeated questioning on that score.
It’s no longer enough, the argument goes, to pledge that you won’t introduce legislation curtailing same-sex marriage or the unrestricted right to abortion. You must now assert your enthusiastic personal support for both.
And if private religious beliefs get in the way, that’s too bad. If you want to be prime minister, you have to publicly disagree with that aspect of your religion.
On the way to a majority in 2011, Harper won 44 per cent of the Ontario vote and 73 of the 106 seats. It was Scheer’s comparatively dismal performance in the province – 33 per cent of the vote and 36 of 121 seats – that doomed the Conservatives in 2019.
But Harper didn’t win by pretending to be a liberal or abandoning his private beliefs. Instead, he neutralized the sensitive social issues by making it abundantly clear that there were certain subjects on which his government wouldn’t contemplate legislation.
Although his opponents tried to question his sincerity – the persistent hidden agenda meme – they couldn’t make it stick. Where Scheer came across as squishy and evasive, the perception of Harper’s personality was such that swing voters believed he meant it.
Nor was Harper susceptible to being bullied or badgered. Indeed, if there was bullying to be done, he was more likely to be the dispenser rather than the recipient.
I’m old enough to remember the 1960 U.S. presidential election when John F. Kennedy’s Catholic faith was perceived as a major impediment to victory. He didn’t try to avoid the questions but rather tackled them head-on.
Addressing a Houston gathering of Baptist ministers on Sept. 12, 1960, Kennedy framed the issue in terms of the absolute separation of church and state. There would no question of him seeking to enact Catholic dogma on sensitive issues like birth control, divorce or censorship. But he didn’t feel the need to personally disavow Catholic teaching in these areas.
Voters don’t respond well to weakness. Character counts. So does clarity.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.
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