Rules for Conservative leadership race could winnow out the field

OTTAWA — The clock's now officially ticking down on the race to replace Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, with the release of rules and deadlines for the contest likely to winnow down the field of contenders.

Nominations formally opened Monday and the dozen or so people who've thrown their names into the mix for the contest — including a former Quebec premier, a former cabinet minister and at least three current MPs — have begun the task of trying to mount campaigns in earnest.

Veteran Conservative organizer Georganne Burke, who is managing current MP Marilyn Gladu's effort to enter the race, said she's confident Gladu will make the cut, though it won't be simple. 

"We know it is going to be an uphill climb for everybody," she said.

"They have made it purposely more difficult."

Candidates will have three hurdles to jump over to get their names on the ballot.

To be approved as an applicant, they have until Feb. 27 to pay the first instalment of the $200,000 entry fee, plus gather 1,000 signatures from party members from 30 ridings spread over seven provinces or territories.

After that deadline, candidates need another 1,000 signatures and must pay a $100,000 compliance deposit and one more instalment of the entry fee to get access to the party's membership list and spots in any debates.

On top of those requirements, they still need a further 1,000 signatures, and to pay the rest of the entry fee, and get that done by March 25.

The three steps up the ante over what had been in place for the last leadership contest, won by Scheer.

In 2017, the cost was $100,000, divided between a refundable compliance deposit and a non-refundable segment. Only 300 members' signatures were needed, though they had to come from 30 ridings in seven different provinces or territories then as well.

The race spooled out for over a year. The rules were published in March 2016, the deadline to enter was Feb. 24, 2017 and party members elected the new leader on May 27.

This one will have launched and ended in a fraction of the time — the new leader is to be announced June 27.

The 2017 campaign had 14 names on the ballot, creating some grumbling about the impossibility of having substantive policy debates. Pressure was placed on the leadership race organizers this time to see if the rules could be structured to narrow the field.

In most leadership races, there are two tiers of candidates, said Jamie Ellerton, a conservative strategist with the firm Conaptus.

One group is considered to have at winning; the second tier is seen as people seeking to increase their profiles for some other political purpose.

But the rules this time, including the number of signatures and various deadlines, mean whomever enters already has to have a plan in place, he said.

"What I think these rules do is exclude the ability of a totally unserious candidate like Kevin O'Leary coming in, creating headlines for several weeks, and then getting out, because the barriers are so high," he said.

O'Leary — the business mogul and reality-TV star — briefly joined the race in 2017 but dropped out after a few months after failing to get enough support in Quebec.

Aron Seal, a former Conservative staffer who intends to run, said the rules could be interpreted as shutting out candidates. But he thinks they are necessary, as politics requires people who can prove they can lead.

"I've been talking a big game for months," he wrote in a message circulated on social media.

"The establishment has responded with an elegant, 'Prove it, kid.' Challenge accepted." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Jan. 13, 2020.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press