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Poilievre vs. Charest — a Conservative leadership race where sparks could fly


‘Even if they are very different, they are also very similar and that’s what is going to make this race even more interesting. (…) On each side, they should not be underestimated’

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More than 20 years separate them. One has a large social media presence, the other has none. One has been an MP for seven consecutive terms, the other has extensive experience as a former premier and in the private sector. One is adored by the current membership of the party. The other is now seen as an outsider from a party he left more than two decades ago.

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And yet, Carleton, Ont., MP Pierre Poilievre and former Quebec Premier Jean Charest are similar in more ways than one. Both are excellent debaters in both official languages. Both have great political instincts that led them to get elected at a very young age. And both might be running against each other in hopes of becoming one day prime minister of Canada.

The National Post spoke to partisans from both camps and strategists who agree that a Conservative Party of Canada leadership race opposing Poilievre and Charest, among others, would be not only a battle of strong personalities, but also for the soul of the party.

“I don’t think it would be exaggerated to say it would be metal on metal,” said Marc-Andr​​é Leclerc, principal at Maple Leaf Strategies and former Conservative strategist, borrowing an expression from former Liberal cabinet minister Jean Lapierre to show that sparks would fly.

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“Both are good debaters and have mastered the art of the clip. So I think that even if they are very different, they are also very similar and that’s what is going to make this race even more interesting. (…) On each side, they should not be underestimated.”

Charest has not yet confirmed he will be running for leader of the Conservative Party even though sources say he remains “very interested” and has started to garner support. Earlier this week, four MPs and one Senator came out in a letter published in the National Post pleading that “Canada” needs him to unite the country and to restore its reputation on the world stage.

“There are a few things missing in this letter,” wrote Jenni Byrne, CEO of Jenni Byrne + Associates and Conservative strategist on Twitter.

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Byrne, who is working on Poilievre’s campaign, gave a glimpse of what Charest can expect if he chooses to run. She described Charest as a “Liberal who campaigned against ⁦Stephen Harper” as a Quebec premier. “He supported the long gun registry, raised taxes, brought in a carbon tax and worked for Huawei while the Chinese (government) detained kidnapped Canadians.”

“Charest is indeed a real Conservative,” shot back Leo Power, former director of the Conservative Fund Canada and one of the signatories of this week’s letter in support of a Charest candidacy. “The comments from Jenni Byrne were insolent and petulant and that type of nasty discourse is unhelpful on so many fronts,” he added.

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Leclerc said it might be “a bit more difficult” for Charest’s team to attack Poilievre on his positions.

Poilievre has, after all, been a Conservative MP most of his adult life, whereas Charest carries some political baggage after having been with the Progressive Conservatives, then having left to the Quebec Liberals to save his home province from separatists before governing and being booted out after a major student crisis that cost him his job.

Yan Plante, vice-president of TACT Conseil and former strategist, expects Charest to put an emphasis on the message that “Canada has never been so divided since the referendum in 1995” and that he has “experience in saving the country” and that “he will do it again.”

“He’ll want to stress that Canada is not in a good place and that it takes someone with grey hair, someone with experience and with finesse to make sure the country will bounce back.”

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Power thinks Charest would “present as a serious leader to a significant mass of people” to the general electorate “seeking an alternative to the madness of Liberal excessive spending and excessive taxation, the war on energy producing provinces, policy overreach, weakness on the global stage.”

But for Senator Leo Housakos, who was a field organizer for Charest in Montreal in 1993, Charest has had his moment and his time is done.

“I think that every politician has their own time and place,” said Housakos, who is now co-chair of Poilievre’s campaign. “In public life, the country needs to look forward and not return to the past and to some of the divisive wars within the Conservative Party that is part of the legacy of Jean Charest back in the 90s when he was leader of the Progressive Conservatives.”

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Then there are allegations of corruption still looming. Housakos spoke of Charest’s reputation as being very “tarnished” as an anti-corruption unit investigation is still looking into Charest’s time as Quebec premier after eight years.

“Jean Charest has a very sordid past and a very questionable legacy and he will not be able to run from it,” said Housakos. “And the Conservative Party should not be saddled with defending that legacy. It would be very unfair, unfair to the party and unfair to the country.”

Ben Woodfinden, doctoral candidate and political theorist at McGill University, wrote in The Hub earlier in the week on how Poilievre should focus his leadership message around a speech he made last spring called “The Gatekeepers”. The speech painted “a picture of bureaucratic and well-connected elite gatekeepers who are stifling growth and opportunities for ordinary people.”

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In an interview, Woodfinden said that “Charest, in many ways, might be the kind of perfect target within a Conservative leadership contest” to test that message with the membership of the party. He said Charest “fits the mold” with his “ties to corporate Canada” and the fact that he’s from the “old guard.”

Leclerc agrees that the membership, as it stands, will not be inclined to vote for Charest.

That is why the rules of the race, as defined by the committee, will be crucially important for his decision. Already, Poilievre’s supporters are pushing for a quicker race before the summer in order to be up and ready for the fall. But that scenario would make it more difficult for others to enter the race and sell enough membership cards to garner support.

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“It’s like soup. Mr. Charest will have to put some water in the soup to change the consistency and the texture of the soup,” said Leclerc. “Better for him to wait to see the rules of the race to see if he’ll be able to change the soup’s texture.”

Poilievre is already off to a good start. He announced three weeks ago that he would be running to become leader, and has already garnered a lot of support in caucus with 28 MPs and two Senators. He also announced his four co-chairs of his campaign: MP Tim Uppal, former ministers John Baird and Gail Shea, as well as Housakos.

Plante thinks that a leadership race with Poilievre and Charest could prove to be beneficial to both politicians in time for the next election.

If Poilievre wins against Charest, who is an excellent debater, then going face to face in a general election against Justin Trudeau or another Liberal leader could prove to be a piece of cake, he said. And if Charest manages to win the race in which Poilievre started off with so much support, he’ll be in a good position to unite Canadians.

“I think that, in a sense, they need each other.”

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