The speeches are over at the PC leadership convention. It looks like a good, well-run convention. The numbers are excellent and they have drawn a field of strong candidates, each with a resume that warrants consideration.
The focus today will be on the speeches. I love that part, and I've even written a few of those for various leadership candidates. But they matter least of all at a typical convention – just ask Prime Ministers John Crosbie, Jean Charest, and Ken Dryden, all of whom gave epic speeches at the end only to find that there weren't enough undecided delegates to matter. That said, in a seven-way race, a great speech can change someone’s second-ballot plans, and a few votes could decide which long shot breaks out of the pack and gets to a final ballot (like Stephane Dion beating Gerard Kennedy by two votes to get to third place and ride their pact to an upset win).
The speeches also show the rest of us what Tories have been seeing, hearing, and thinking about. They will also be dissected in Liberal back rooms for clues about where the new leader is strong, where they are weak, and what internal pressures will make certain issues uncomfortable straddles for them. Today will make the ballot question between the two old-line parties a bit clearer. What will the Tories say the next election is about, and which leader best exemplifies that message.
The elephant in the room is the language divide, of course. Both 2010 and 2014 were change elections, but they were very different along language lines. Unlike the language-balanced caucuses that emerged from two close Lord-Graham elections, we moved to polarized caucuses. The NB Power fallout meant that the Liberals were competitive in francophone NB, but 2010 was a killing field in anglophone ridings that saw the proposed sale as not just a mistake, but a betrayal. The result was a PC government that didn't have a lot of voices to explain French NB to their leadership, and it showed – the 2014 election was two elections. In English NB, Brian Gallant’s rookie mistakes led to an unpopular premier roaring back to win most seats. In French NB, it was never even close, and only Mado Dube’s status as a political Loki in Edmundston saved the Tories from a wipeout.
Now the Liberals have a caucus that seems tone deaf to anglophones. Just by reversing the close losses in English seats the Tories can win a slim majority. This leads to an internal tension – PCs in the south see the challenge as scooping up anti-Liberal voters in a few ridings, and avoiding a split of anti-government votes with the “good government” appeal of Dominic Cardy’s NDP in the cities and the blunter language appeal of Kris Austin in the rural areas. They want a race focused on jobs with attacks on Liberal spending, debt and bailouts, and aren't anxious to water down that message to lose Tracadie by 3000 votes instead of 5000. Other delegates see ridings they held not long ago and want desperately to return them to the competitive ridings they were under Bernard Lord, fearing that accepting two consecutive blowouts will restore the old Liberal hegemony.
That's the real split – those who fear the lesson of 1991 because the Anglo PC coalition shattered versus those who fear the lesson of 1991 is that you can't spot the Liberals an 19-1 lead and win. Behind this are a few issues, such as spending, corporate welfare, which economic sectors are priorities, etc – that also draw sharp regional differences.
Few candidates have broken out of their local silos. That isn't necessarily fatal – the supporters of Mike Allen and Blaine Higgs aren't divided by any unsolveable breach as much as simple friendships and familiarity – but they do show there is no obvious saviour figure for them. Also, I've spoken with a lot of Tory friends who are also weighing not just who can win, but who can govern well. After all, we have seen a lot of one-term governments because the baggage-free face that can win has become the experience-free premier who can't win twice. Tories would like to win twice, this time
There appear, from my many chats with Tories and my wild-ass guesses from experience, to be three possible winners. Monica Barley and Mel Norton seem to have the most support beyond their natural constituency. The third, unknowable choice, is whichever guy emerges from the Higgs-Allen-MacDonald-Stewart knife fight/alchemy contest to assemble that central NB vote. If it grows enough to get a final ballot showdown with Barley, there is a path.
There was a lot of similarity in the speeches. They all believe in hard work, team work, public service, and presumably good hygiene and keeping your desk tidy. But there were moments in the cliches that speak to the deeper choice. Having seen the speeches, here's how the pitches go.
Jean Dube is a thoughtful, experienced politician. He entered late and seems to lack the resources to break out. He is running to give the party a northern voice, which is a public service we should all thank him for. He has done well enough to give himself an ongoing presence in that role, if he wants it. That is a win for him.
Mike Allen is attempting something difficult – to become a leader after being part of an unpopular, defeated government. His weapons are deep roots in the party, a highly likeable personality, and a record of occasional dissent from Harper that would be modest in many governments but heroic in that government. His leadership would be a personality contrast with Gallant – a likeable, human face on traditional NB government instead of the packaged, distant Gallant. He would focus on Gallant’s record. Gallant might mention Harper now and then. There would be few surprises.
Jake Stewart has added a lot to the race. Because he wasn't a front-runner, he has been willing to speak to policy and values beyond the cliches. No one’s supporters seem more passionate about their choice than Jake’s, and I suspect he could deliver more of his supporters to someone else if that moment came. His “OneNB” pitch, with echoes of Dief, speaks at a frequency many traditional Tories love to hear. He can excite a base. His speech needed to show he can also build a winning coalition. He's grown impressively as a speaker, but that is the question that was less clear. If he wins, there is an opportunity book of inflammatory quotes you will likely hear in Liberal ads a lot before he gets time to introduce himself.
Brian MacDonald showed why he is the most polished political performer of the pack, and the stagecraft of his introductions and Lord-throwback jacket removal show he has watched the game well, to his advantage. He's sneaky-good on policy, and there were some moments of insight in his speech. In an era where people distrust government, he may simply repeat some of Gallant’s strengths and weaknesses – a bit too smooth, a bit inscrutable. But if Tories are simply looking for someone who can stay as smooth as Gallant and scoop up some southern seats, he made a strong pitch. My Liberal friends tell me the government takes him seriously, but they have a deep oppo folder on him. His fight with Gallant would likely involve two smooth pols trying to shatter the other’s image in what could become negative, quickly.
Blaine Higgs is like the veggie tray at the office Christmas party. Everyone knows they should like it. People are proud of the fact it's there, because it shows they considered good choices. But somehow, the meatballs and sweets, with their short-term rush, go first. There's often this kind of candidate in New Brunswick. Bernard Richard came third in a hall of delegates all whispering that he probably deserved it. Every crowded field has a Higgs, a guy everyone says is smart and honest and would be fine but….he doesn't really get politics. Higgs speech showed a hidden strength -- he's a great orator when he speaks about what he believes. The downside is that he's a lousy orator when he has to play politics. That makes most normal people like him a lot, and many local fixers convinced he can't win. He also makes enemies, in that unfair way politics makes honest people polarizing – because he sincerely believed in pension reform, he defended it passionately enough that opponents remember him more than the many career pols who just mumbled party talking points. This is called “baggage”. For all that, there has been a late surge towards him, and if he can assemble second ballot votes and squeeze Norton for the final ballot, he has a path. Liberals will attack his past as a COR member (which he has disavowed, but still) and record in the Alward government. But if he rope-a-dopes Gallant into packaged attacks on the past while he speaks bluntly about the future, it could get fun. This is a high-risk, high-reward pick. He reminds me of what one Tory strategist said of Bob Stanfield – “I don't know how the hell we get him in there, but if we do they'll never get him out of there”
Mel Norton is from Saint John. Next to Fredericton, that's been the hardest place for a guy to win the leadership from, because they both stir up a bit of resentment (and are the hardest places to get re-elected). As mayor, he made municipal politics more like C-SPAN and less like Big Brother. He's calm, competent and the kind of candidate urban Tories like. He makes Liberals in urban areas anxious, and Liberals don't have a lot on him. His campaign has been a bit safe and traditional, mostly taking stands on reversing things in safe Tory ridings that Liberals did because they were only unpopular in safe Tory ridings. His campaign would likely be professional, smooth, and pick a few more things to change that impact a bigger variety of swing ridings, including some in the North. He has spoken with passion and depth about some issues like poverty that will allow him to get centrist votes in the urban seats they need. Watching him and Gallant square off will likely be a chess match – no passion and big themes, but a strategic battle for the fifteen seats that will settle the election. There's a reason the Liberals tried to hand him tough files at the end in Saint John – they don't want to face him.
Monica Barley – A fluently bilingual Moncton lawyer known in the party back rooms but with no political experience, backed by numerous veteran operators? Have we seen it before? Sure. Of course, you're seeing it again because it worked for the PCs in 1999 and the Liberals in 2014. Her speech showed that there is a long way to go in political skills, as she was scripted and stilted. But she can hit her marks, and her appeal to put every seat in play is at the heart of her candidacy. She is the candidate most likely to battle Gallant everywhere, within appeal that could be provincial. She has also scooped up a lot of former Liberals in Moncton, and those who are still on the Gallant/LeBlanc enemies list have found a home with her. She is known as a formidable court presence as a lawyer, and her one-on-one meetings are widely seen as impressive, which is why many believe that the policy and political communications lessons will be learned quickly if she wins. Her strength is that she reminds people of 1998 Bernard Lord. Her weakness is that she reminds people of 2012 Brian Gallant. If she wins, expect Liberals to look at the Alward playbook against Gallant—take a few key stands, make her choose a side or get hit for straddling, try to communicate that whatever Galllant’s early struggles, she represents nothing but a restart of the learning curve. The interesting thing about that strategy is that it all comes down to her – if she performs more like Lord than Gallant, the results could look more like 1999 than 2014. So,yes, you've seen this movie – but it always comes down to the lead actor.
My prediction: There's always a bias toward the least interesting outcome. MacDonald and Higgs will fight for third, but at least one of the also-rans is going to see an opportunity by helping Barley grow. This will be because she has an opening for southern lieutenants, and because there is a LOT of pressure from party sages on the guys in the middle of the pack to avoid a southern coalition ganging up to stop Barley. There's real fear about the optics of Mike Allen and Blaine Higgs teaming up to stop Barley (that isn't fair, but I can tell you it has been said often these last 2 weeks). Someone will surprise with a Barley endorsement, and it will mean she and Norton head into a third ballot already knowing what the math says – Monica Barley over Mel Norton on the third ballot.