Commentary by Susan Delacourt in Ottawa
The good news for Kellie Leitch — and she might need some right now — is that many Canadians believe this country needs young, female political leaders.
The bad news is that most Conservatives — the people who make up the party Leitch wants to lead — do not share that view.
These findings come from new research by Abacus Data. By sheer happenstance, Abacus and the Leitch leadership campaign were out in the field in late August, doing some survey work that touched on Canadian values. The two surveys dovetail in some fascinating ways.
The Leitch survey asked, controversially, whether respondents would support screening immigrants for “anti-Canadian values.” This was quite the surprise coming from the MP for Simcoe-Grey, once the federal labour minister, who only months ago was apologetically backtracking for her role in the infamous “barbaric cultural practices” tip line proposal of the 2015 election campaign.
Now, we seem to be back in the middle of a debate we thought had been settled in the last election. Maybe it wasn’t.
The Abacus survey sounded people out on the traits and values they’re seeking in political leaders. Leitch and her supporters no doubt will be heartened to hear that 54 per cent of respondents to the Abacus poll said they would prefer a woman leader. Moreover, a whopping 65 per cent — nearly two-thirds — said they would rather have someone under 50 years of age. Leitch, 46, comfortably meets both criteria.
The problem for Leitch, however, is that her own fellow Conservatives aren’t as enthusiastic about young female leaders. Almost 60 per cent of Conservative respondents to the Abacus poll said that if they had their choice between someone over 50 and someone under 50 to lead a political party, they’d select the older candidate. Only 13 per cent said they would prefer a younger, female leader.
Those results are even more striking when compared to the views of Liberal and NDP supporters who participated in the Abacus poll. Nearly 70 per cent of Liberals and 77 per cent of NDP supporters said they’d opt for a woman leader given a choice between a man and a woman of equal qualifications.
The obvious conclusion, then, is that Leitch is running for the wrong party. Then again, she might have trouble selling Liberal or NDP voters on the idea of screening immigrants for potential anti-Canadian values.
Even some folks in her own party (her leadership rivals, anyway) are balking. Michael Chong called it “dog-whistle politics.” Maxime Bernier, taking a more practical approach, called it an “unworkable” idea.
Abacus conducted its poll online in late August, asking 2,010 Canadians of voting age all kinds of questions about their ideal political leaders. When they got around to the subject of leadership qualities, the results turned out to be highly interesting.
The top two traits? “Understanding different parts of the world” and “thinking about what’s right for the next generation.” Respondents also placed a high value on leaders who “think a lot about the future of the world”, are “open-minded about different lifestyles” and “care about the poor.”
Buried in the list, however, is a possible rationale for Leitch’s controversial survey question.
Only 18 per cent of the respondents to the Abacus poll said that a leader must embrace the idea that “immigration is good for Canada.” Understanding different parts of the world is one thing, apparently, while welcoming them here is another matter entirely.
Nick Kouvalis, Leitch’s campaign manager, has said that the survey was based on what the campaign had been hearing out on the road over the summer. Kouvalis, for those who may have forgotten, has not been shy in the past about courting controversy with provocative survey questions. His firm, Campaign Research, was scolded by the Commons Speaker several years ago for polling Montreal residents about Irwin Cotler’s allegedly imminent resignation. (Cotler, then the MP for Mount Royal, protested in the Commons that the survey breached his parliamentary privileges, though he did eventually step down before the last election.)
Kouvalis, let’s also remember, was one of the early backers and staffers for former Toronto mayor Rob Ford (he was also one of the first to walk away when things started to go crazy in Fordland). Kouvalis was on John Tory’s team in the last mayoralty election in Toronto and helped B.C. Premier Christy Clark pull off an unexpected victory in 2013.
On Twitter, Kouvalis has been predicting that all the leadership candidates eventually will perform some “world-class gymnastics” to embrace Leitch’s views on screening immigrants for anti-Canadian values. Clearly, her campaign manager believes this issue taps into a rich vein of support, at least in Conservative circles. Which could explain why Bernier called the idea “unworkable” rather than, say, “egregious.”
Among the other admirable leadership qualities cited by respondents to that Abacus poll were the ability to “ask for help when you need it,” to “seek advice from smart people everywhere” and to “apologize when you make a mistake.”
One can’t help but notice that Leitch hasn’t apologized for this survey question — perhaps on the advice she needed from people she considers smart.
“Oftentimes, debating and discussing these complex policies requires tough conversations — conversations that go well beyond media sound bites and simplified labels,” Leitch wrote in an emailed statement after the controversy.
“I am committed to having these conversations, to debating theses issues, and I invite Canadians to give their feedback.”
So, like it or not, immigration may become a hot-button issue in the Conservative leadership race. Consider this an early warning — especially for those complacent Canadians who say that Donald Trump’s rhetoric on immigration couldn’t possibly work here.
The people in Leitch’s Conservative party may not be the biggest fans of female leaders under 50, but this particular candidate could be giving them the campaign’s sleeper issue. In other words, the debate about “barbaric cultural practices” didn’t die in 2015; it’s simply been slumbering, waiting for an opening.