The Charest-Poilievre clash is a conflict over Conservative identity


We can already see an early theme of the Conservative leadership race: authenticity. So what does it mean to be a "real" Conservative these days, and what does it have to do with winning elections?

A truck carrying a sign opposing Jean Charest's bid for the Conservative Party leadership is parked outside the venue for Charest's campaign launch in Calgary on March 10, 2022.(Oseremen Irete/CBC)

A month ago, Pierre Poilievre used his highly weaponized Twitter account to announce a run for the Conservative leadership with a tightly staged three-minute video: the MP in a suit and tie, seated at a desk before an expansive bookshelf, vowing to deliver Canadians from oppressive government and elite control.

On Thursday, Jean Charest announced his own candidacy for the Conservative leadership by joining Twitter and posting a casual 22-second video — no tie, only a blank white wall behind him — to greet his new followers.

Viewed from one angle, Charest's opening foray may have looked dangerously unsophisticated in its approach to modern politics. On the other hand, the fact that he apparently somehow avoided Twitter's outrage machine up to now might be a mark of grounded maturity.

But whatever else Charest brings to the Conservative leadership race, he might at least offer a clear and viable alternative for a party with unanswered questions about what it should be.

Charest's story is certainly a fascinating one, with few precedents. A former minister in the cabinets of Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell, he led the Progressive Conservative party and was a significant presence in the 1995 referendum campaign that barely kept the country together.

He was recruited to slay the separatist beast as leader of Quebec's Liberal party — the province's primary federalist option in those days. He eventually bested the Parti Quebecois and governed the province for nine years before leaving politics in 2012.

Quebec Liberal Leader Jean Charest speaks briefly with Parti Québécois Premier Lucien Bouchard at the Quebec legislature on Dec. 15, 1999.(Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

John Turner came back to lead the Liberal Party in 1984 after nine years away from politics. Joe Clark returned to lead the moribund PC party in 1998 after leaving politics in 1993. But both of those leaders had substantial history with the parties they were returning to lead.

Charest's PC party was replaced by the modern Conservative Party of Canada in 2003 and today's CPC is only periodically willing to acknowledge anything that happened before that date.

The Poilievre campaign's response to Charest's candidacy has been to shout that he isn't really a Conservative — that his turn as leader of the Quebec Liberals showed his true place on the ideological spectrum. The Charest campaign's slogan — "built to win" — might be read as a response to that charge.

In his words and his style, Poilievre is offering Conservatives an opportunity to scratch a political itch — to be unapologetically and aggressively conservative, to air grievances and attack everything about Justin Trudeau and the Liberal agenda.

Poilievre presents himself as a fearless populist. His campaign cry of "freedom" followed on his enthusiastic embrace of the self-styled "freedom convoy" that occupied downtown Ottawa.

"Built to win" promises Conservatives something else — a chance to actually hold power. "Built to win" says that while Charest might not say or do all the things that the Conservative base wants, he's better positioned to win the next federal election.

In fact, he might be better positioned to win the next federal election precisely he doesn't say or do all the things that Poilievre does.

"Jean Charest is the tactful, experienced, and determined leader we need now," Charest's official website says. "There is no time for amateur politics. Our democracy is at stake. We need a leader who understands that winning a national government is built through consensus and unity, not through division and alienation."

An underwhelming campaign launch

The use of the word "tactful" is notable, but it remains to be seen whether Charest is the professional in this race. Too much can be made of a campaign's opening move — and maybe there's something to be said for an understated introduction — but the shaggy nature of his launch this week was not an overwhelming display of political skill.

The response from the Poilievre campaign was typically unsubtle: a 48-second attack ad repeating the claim that Charest is really a Liberal because, as premier of Quebec, he raised the provincial sales tax by two points, implemented a carbon price and supported the federal long-gun registry.

Each of those points could be useful grounds for a debate about what makes a proper Conservative in 2022 — particularly the question of pricing carbon.

In 2008, Charest's government in Quebec agreed with Dalton McGuinty's Ontario government to pursue a joint cap-and-trade system which establishes a price on carbon through the purchase and sale of emissions credits. Quebec's own system launched in 2013 and it was subsequently partnered with both Ontario and California.

When Stephen Harper embraced cap-and-trade

Mind you, Stephen Harper's Conservatives campaigned in the 2008 federal election on a promise to work with provinces and the United States "to develop and implement a North America-wide cap and trade system for greenhouse gases and air pollution, with implementation to occur between 2012 and 2015."

Harper's Conservatives gave up on that promise when federal cap-and-trade legislation failed in the United States. But Poilievre no doubt remembers running on that promise as a Conservative candidate in 2008.

Fourteen years later, Poilievre is vowing to do away with the federal carbon tax completely.

Charest, meanwhile, seems to have some problems with the Liberal approach — he told an audience in Calgary on Thursday night that it didn't make sense to go ahead with this year's annual increase in the federal fuel levy. He also told the Globe and Mail that his approach to climate policy would "include pricing."

The makings are here for a good debate, if Conservatives are interested in having it.


Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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