Why Kellie Leitch is sticking to her controversial Canadian values pitch
Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch speaks during the Conservative leadership debate in Saskatoon, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. (Liam Richards / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
OTTAWA -- Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch has drawn significant attention since she launched her campaign - most of it negative. From anti-Canadian values screening to aligning herself with U.S. president-elect Donald Trump, Leitch has sought and achieved a place in the headlines.
She's also managed to put an otherwise dull Conservative Party leadership race on the radar.
But it's already cost her the support of much of the Conservative establishment, including some of her former cabinet colleagues, and forced interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose to distance the party from Leitch's Canadian values proposal. Conservatives have questioned why the MP who helped propose a "barbaric cultural practices" tipline, thought to have been a turning point in an election the party lost, would return to the same well of controversial ideas.
"This strategy by Kellie Leitch is to differentiate herself from the pack and to establish herself as one of the frontrunners," said pollster Nik Nanos, president of Nanos Research, who compared the race to the TV show Survivor.
"In a very crowded race with numerous candidates, the first challenge is to differentiate yourself and to stand out from the crowd... Candidates that are boring get voted off."
So far, it appears Leitch is lucky that her colleagues aren't the only ones who will be voting. The Conservative MPs who survived the party's massive 2015 loss to Justin Trudeau's Liberals -- and some of those who didn't -- have little time for any proposal that harkens back to a disastrous campaign. That includes policies that make them look anti-immigration or seem to be targeting any single community.
In response, Leitch has doubled down on the Trump strategy, saying she doesn't care what the "elites" think and referring frequently to having policies in common with the president-elect.
"She's trying to emulate [Trump’s] success now," said Rachel Curran, who served as director of policy to former prime minister Stephen Harper and now supports Conservative MP Lisa Raitt in the leadership race.
"[Trump has] been very successful with that strategy and I think she's thinking that she can build on that."
For Trump, it didn't matter how much of the news coverage was negative. Leitch's strategy is similar: being in the headlines is the goal. And given her anti-elite bent, any distaste demonstrated by the Conservative hierarchy or the media simply reinforce the narrative crafted by Leitch -- a surgeon who also holds an MBA -- and her campaign team.
"Running against the elites plays very well," said Nanos.
"It plays very well everywhere because it casts society in an us-and-them type of mind frame."
The tactic is so successful, in fact, that it doesn't matter if the politician is a billionaire -- or a surgeon who did her residency at the University of Southern California.
"People overlook the messenger [and] focus on the message... when I look at the U.S. election, it's more about anger and punishment than anything else," Nanos said.
The Leitch team's strategy is not without risk. Leitch has lost the support of some long-time allies from the Progressive Conservative side of the party, including Graham Fox, who served as chief of staff to Joe Clark from 2001-2003, and retired senator Hugh Segal. Both have stepped back from partisan politics because of their jobs (Fox heads up the Institute for Research on Public Policy and Segal runs Massey College at the University of Toronto), but both have known Leitch for decades and initially supported her bid to be leader.
"I suspect we are all being dismissed as part of the 'elite'," Segal wrote in an email to CTV News. "As the son of a cab driver, that strikes me as a pretty hollow defence."
While the Trump comparison is easiest given its recency, elements of Leitch's strategy may also recall memories of another controversial, wealthy politician with an anti-elite message: the late Toronto mayor Rob Ford. That's thanks to Leitch's campaign manager, Nick Kouvalis, who ran Ford's successful mayoral bid. Several Conservatives quietly attribute Leitch's Canadian values policy to him, noting Leitch had never raised any of these concerns prior to the leadership race.
One former cabinet minister, who sat at the table alongside Leitch, told CTV News he doesn't recognize her anymore, while Leitch's fellow leadership contestant Chris Alexander referred to her as trying to import American anger "for crass political purposes."
Curran says Leitch never raised anti-immigration policies or values screening when they were in government. (Alexander, who was with Leitch when they announced the "barbaric cultural practices" tipline, says it was the central campaign that assigned them to the announcement.)
"This came up for Kellie Leitch literally on the heels of a survey that they sent out to party members relatively recently," Curran said.
"I do think people can sense that lack of authenticity."
Those issues never came up simply because Leitch was the minister of labour and minister for the status of women, she told CTV News in an interview.
"I was not minister of immigration," Leitch said.
"I now have the opportunity to talk about the things that I am passionate about and what I'm hearing. And as I say, I plan to be the prime minister for the average Canadian."
The Canadian values screening is prominent in her campaign due to conversations she's had in towns across Canada, Leitch says, pointing to a Forum Research poll that found 67 per cent agreed with screening for anti-Canadian values. Forum conducted the interactive voice response poll by phone in early September, sampling 1,370 randomly selected Canadians 18 years and older. It's considered accurate plus or minus three per cent, 19 times out of 20.
Leitch also points to her fundraising, which she says is as strong as it was in the first two quarters of the leadership race. Elections Canada records show Leitch raised more than $450,000 to the period ending Sept. 30. That was four weeks after she proposed the anti-Canadian values screening, and new records won't be filed until the end of December, so it's hard to gauge whether the proposal has had an impact on how much cash is flowing into the campaign.
"We're doing better in the third quarter than we were doing before," Leitch said, though she declined to provide numbers, pointing to the regular filings due at the end of the year.
"You'll see the numbers when everybody else sees the numbers. I don't understand why you'd ask me to reveal my numbers... I'm delighted that average Canadians are stepping up and donating," she said.
One possible snag with Leitch's anti-immigration message is Canada just doesn't have the same concerns as other countries. While the U.S. shares a long land border with Mexico and Europe sits much closer to a number of countries that produce large numbers of migrants, Canada is comfortably positioned between the U.S. and three oceans, surrounded by water and far enough from less developed countries that it can carefully control who enters. So Leitch's Canadian-values strategy -- while it will find limited support -- isn't likely to win her the party's leadership, Curran said.
A poll released Tuesday by Abacus Data seems to agree, suggesting that being aligned with Trump may not win many Canadian votes. Forty-four per cent of those we surveyed were "really dismayed" by Trump's win, with another 22 per cent "somewhat disappointed," Abacus said in a news release. Even among Conservative Party supporters, 44 per cent were dismayed or disappointed with the Trump victory. The online poll queried 2,200 Canadians aged 18 and over from Nov. 11-13, 2016. A random sample of panelists was invited to complete the survey from a large representative panel of over 500,000 Canadians. The margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample of 2,200 is plus or minus 2.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20.
Still, at least one poll at the beginning of the month showed Leitch with a slight lead in the Conservative race.
Curran says the message about elites has a greater chance of success than the immigration proposal. Leitch reinforced that message Tuesday, explaining away the loss of Fox and Segal’s support as party elites caving to media pressure.
"A lot of conservatives are inclined to believe that there is kind of an elite consensus in Ottawa - a political one, a media one, an academic one, that they are not part of," Curran said.
Leitch says she's had a hugely positive response to her proposals.
"What I'm finding is literally every day we receive hundreds of positive emails into my office -- people who want to join my campaign either as a volunteer or to donate -- and so I'm feeling really good about what we're talking about, and it's giving me the confidence that we're talking about what the guy and gal on the street are talking about," Leitch said.
"What I think is really important about our campaign is that we're talking about issues that are important to the average Canadian."
Conservatives, average or not, will have their say in the matter when they vote in the May 27, 2017 contest. If she loses, her policies won't be further tested through a federal election.
Regardless, Nanos says Leitch has very obviously managed to stand out in a 12-person race.
"The fact [is] that Kellie Leitch has almost single-handedly put the Conservative Party leadership on the radar."
Correction: This story has been changed to correct an editing error that mis-stated the dates when Graham Fox worked for Joe Clark.
This story has been changed to correct the date at which Elections Canada’s current fundraising records end.