With the Centre Ice Conservatives
Physically, I mean. I went to Edmonton to hear them. Here's what centrism sounds like now.
It’s hardly the first time some people got together in Canada and said, “Let’s not.” According to legend, the country itself was founded, in part, by opters-out. At the time they were called United Empire Loyalists. They found George Washington and his lot a bit rambunctious. Their influence persists.
On Thursday the Loyalists’ spiritual descendents gathered at a Delta hotel in downtown Edmonton for what was billed, a bit ominously if you ask me, as the “First Annual LET’S GROW, CANADA! Conference.” The gathering was organized by the Centre Ice Conservatives. That group in turn was created by Rick Peterson, an investment banker who lost to Andrew Scheer in the 2017 Conservative leadership race, pondered a run in 2020 and decided that this time he’d rather influence the party, and Canadian politics generally, from the outside.
“‘Woke’ voices on the edges of the left and ‘populist’ voices on the fringes of the right are sucking up all the oxygen in what passes for political debate in Canada,” Peterson wrote in a kind of manifesto in April. Lord knows it’s a popular sentiment. These days I hear a variation of this who’s-on-second lament in social conversations several times a week.
At the conference, Peterson told the 100-ish attendees that he has no intention of providing stalking-horse support for any candidate in the Conservative leadership contest, whose winner Pierre Poilievre will be announced in a month. (See what I did there?) “We’re talking about bringing together ideas and people who can have an effect on any political party,” Peterson said, “and anyone who runs for a leadership position.”
But there is another theory about the Centre Ice Conservatives, which is that it’s the vanguard of a coming split in the Conservative Party of Canada. Sewn together in 2003 from the remains of the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance, the CPC is in danger of decomposing into its constituent bits. Poilievre’s victory could be the catalyst for such a split, given that he’s shown limited patience for Charest, the departed Patrick Brown, and other “Liberals.”
That’s why Tasha Kheiriddin, another conference organizer, drew so much attention with her presence. She’s Jean Charest’s national campaign co-chair. She’s promoting a book. She’s suggested a divided Conservative party is one possible future, though she insists it’s not her preference.
The suspense was enough to get me on a flight to Edmonton, where I spent Thursday listening to the Centre Ice crew. I was able to do that — go to where the story was — because so many of you have become paying subscribers to this newsletter. I’m grateful for your support. I plan to travel more frequently, and more ambitiously, to cover other stories. You know what comes next, don’t you.
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Anyway. If the Centre Ice LET’S GROW, CANADA! Conference was a gathering of anti-Poilievre plotters or splittists, few of its participants said so out loud. The day was five hours old before the keynote speaker, former British Columbia premier Christy Clark, said, “I think Jean Charest would make a fantastic prime minister.” (She also said the Alberta Sovereignty Act, proposed by Danielle Smith, a leading candidate to succeed Jason Kenney as premier of that province, “is bat-shit crazy.”)
I didn’t hear anyone at a podium microphone advocate for a divided Conservative Party of Canada. Poilievre’s name was rarely mentioned in any capacity. At most there was some reasonably gentle ribbing. Colleague Andrew Coyne, who’s at the Globe these days but has previously worked with me in a few shops, said he was happy the day’s first panel was about economic growth, “instead of, say, about whether the World Economic Forum is going to take over the world.”
Away from the dais, some attendees were less shy. An Ottawa acquaintance buttonholed me during a break, made small talk for a few minutes, then announced, “If somebody else wins, I’m getting out of the Conservative Party and I won’t be alone.” Their next sentence was about Poilievre, in case the subtleties of the first escaped me.
If this had been a meeting to plot a centrist walkout of the Conservatives, that would be only fair. The old Reform Party was a less-centrist walkout of the old Progressive Conservatives. Sure, splitting now would help the Liberals in the short term. Among those who were unimpressed with an earlier version of that argument, when it was the Progressive Conservatives whose coalition collapsed, was a teenaged Pierre Poilievre. If politics is about both principle and tactics, one bit of tactical advice is that you should be careful about pursuing principle while there’s an exodus for the exits.
But note that the last paragraph began with a hypothetical. I don’t think this was a meeting to plot anything. Some speakers insisted they’re not conservatives, particularly, including the newspaper columnist David Staples and the economist Jack Mintz. Some participants would, I suspect, work in a Poilievre government.
Retired Senator Marjory LeBreton was on a few panels. When Stephen Harper was the leader of the Canadian Alliance and there were still Progressive Conservatives to fear him, LeBreton used to send me long emails detailing Harper’s unfitness for power. Then he ate her party and she worked with him, to excellent effect, on four consecutive campaigns. I asked her once about the apparent contradiction. “I’m a democrat,” she shrugged. “He’s the leader.” I suspect LeBreton is well and truly retired, but I suspect many would follow her model. Lots of people complain, even actively oppose, before getting into line.
Mostly people were here to vent. Coyne and Brian Lee Crowley, the founder of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, teed off against supply management in agriculture, which Poilievre would be the fourth modern Conservative leader out of four to defend. “You know, we’ve heard a lot about gatekeepers…” Coyne said.
Crowley: “There’s got to be something wrong with our politics when politicians are afraid of a cheap-food policy.”
Malcolm Bruce, the CEO of Edmonton Global, said over-regulation is killing Canada as an investment destination. “One investor in China said to me, ‘Malcolm, don’t talk to me about energy because you can’t get it to me.’” Readers will perhaps dock Bruce points for talking to an investor in China, but one doubts investors elsewhere are saying much different.
Talk-show host Ryan Jespersen, whose radio gig ended abruptly but who is enjoying a thriving post-career career on a bunch of digital channels, talked about growing up as a young Reformer and said, “I used to describe myself as a progressive conservative until both the progressives and the conservatives told me to fuck off.”
Leona Alleslev, who was elected in 2015 as a Liberal MP in the Trudeau wave before jumping to the Conservatives, said a lot of stuff about foreign affairs that the Conservatives’ current critic on the file, the very centrist Mike Chong, could easily have said. Another case where the Centre Icers’ dissident bona fides sometimes seemed hard to verify. Alleslev did get off a good line, though: “Cry ‘Compromise!’ and let slip the dogs of royal commission,” she said.
(I used to think of Alleslev as an opportunist, leaving the Trudeau Liberals right after Doug Ford crushed the provincial Liberals in 2018. But there’s not much opportunity for anyone in Aurora—Oak Ridges—Richmond Hill. It’s fertile turf for nail-biting election results. Alleslev barely won as a Liberal in 2015, barely won as a Conservative in 2019, and barely lost as a Conservative in 2021. The combined margin of victory across all three elections was 3,613 votes. If there’s a big party you want to help, go work for them in Aurora.)
A question from the audience for Christy Clark turned into a suggestion: the guy said he’d be happy if either she or Coyne led the Conservatives. The Coyne-for-PM constituency in this country is small but hardy. This is because Coyne says real stuff out loud and with panache, a double rarity. He proposed a “radical reform” of military procurement: “Procurement should be about procurement,” i.e. about buying useful kit at good prices, rather than using such purchases to launder regional-development subsidies.
A bunch of stupid economic policy — boutique tax credits, supply management, finicky environmental regulations that don’t actually reduce emissions — used to be “annoying” but survivable amid general prosperity, Coyne said. But a decade into economic doldrums, with a rapidly-aging population, “We can’t afford this stuff any more.”
Coyne’s most vivid remarks came during a panel on foreign policy, where for years he offered a kind of breezy John McCainism, eager to send American soldiers off to fix problems in what always seemed to me to be a jaw-dropping assortment of global hotspots. This policy is now under review, pending an assessment of the neighbours’ fitness to lead. “American democracy is under real threat,” Coyne said.
Crowley had declared that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marked the advent of a Cold War II. Coyne questioned the parallel: “In Cold War I we could be assured that the Americans were on the side of the democracies. … If we’re only talking about the Russian threat or the Chinese threat, I think we’re kidding ourselves.”
I think it’s possible to say it’s a very interesting point while having little difficulty understanding why actual elected Canadian officials would be careful not to say this quiet part out loud. “Yes, we’ll upgrade NORAD — just don’t shoot us” would be an awkward statement from the mouth of any Canadian foreign minister. Even by the elevated standards of the current holder of that office.
But perhaps the utility of gatherings like Centre Ice — sorry, LET’S GROW CANADA! — is precisely that they permit a level of thinking-out-loud that crass electoral and diplomatic calculus discourages. If a desk officer at the US embassy was watching the online feed from Edmonton — a big “if” — they would certainly have noted that one of Canada’s foremost commentators is deeply discouraged about events in Trumpland.
As for the main topic for us parochialists — the health of Conservatism after a Poilievre victory — that’s up to everyone in the party. And it’s simply not realistic for Poilievre, who’ll have won the job because he’s such a gleeful and gifted loudmouth, to order everyone else to behave. People are free agents, even in a country that apparently isn’t yet the freest in the world.
In this one-day Edmonton anteroom to apostasy, I spotted former senior staffers to Harper Conservative cabinet ministers, a former senior PMO official, think tankers and academics who used to defend Harper down the line. If we’re being honest, I came to Edmonton with half a mind to make fun of them, because everyone loves a funny column. But they’re Canadians, and none of us is ever required to snap to attention because a winning candidate is walking past. Many of these people did good work, recently, in a big tent. They could easily fit in one again. If any is on offer.