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The real wedges in the Conservative leadership race

There are several different kinds of conservatives: social, economic, geopolitical. Looking at where the 13 federal leadership candidates stand on key issues reveals the sort of challenge the winner will face in uniting these strands.

Although, given the lead Quebec MP Maxime Bernier appears to enjoy, the real question may be how he merges his own strongly libertarian views with the traditional wings of the party.

The third rail of Conservative politics involves the social sphere. Saskatoon-University MP Brad Trost supports legislation that would impose limits on abortion rights. He would protect the rights of citizens to decline services to sexual minorities based on conscience or religious belief. And he would protect the rights of parents to raise – and discipline – their children as they see fit.

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Former Ontario MP Pierre Lemieux also supports pro-life policies. Other candidates are mostly silent on the issue. But among the front-runners, Regina-Qu'Appelle MP Andrew Scheer stands out for promising tax relief for parents who send their children to private schools.

The next Conservative leader will need to craft a social policy that accepts same-sex marriage and a woman's right to an abortion – because this is the law – while promoting stable families and the right of parents to raise their children as they think best.

Conservatives have a proud tradition of support for open immigration. John Diefenbaker's government dismantled policies that discriminated against non-white immigrants; Brian Mulroney opened the floodgates, permitting 250,000 new arrivals a year; Stephen Harper was the only conservative leader in the developed world supported by immigrant voters.

But the new crop of candidates are, for the most part, leery of taking in large numbers of immigrants. Simcoe-Grey MP Kellie Leitch famously calls for individual screening of all new arrivals, testing for their adherence to "Canadian values."

Mr. Bernier, from the Quebec riding of Beauce, believes: "Our immigration policy should not aim to forcibly change the cultural character and social fabric of Canada, as radical proponents of multiculturalism want." Other major candidates promote some combination of steady levels of immigration, restrictions on temporary foreign workers and increased screening. Only former immigration minister Chris Alexander would, if economic circumstances permit, actually increase immigration intake above current levels.

A policy of reducing immigration from the current level of 300,000 down to the 250,000-person level used by prime ministers from Mr. Mulroney to Mr. Harper, accompanied by toughened screening procedures, would probably unite the party. But how will it play in the immigrant-dominated suburban ridings around Toronto and Vancouver, where elections are won and lost?

Geopolitical conservatives tend to favour a muscular, values-based foreign policy, in concert with the United States, the Anglosphere and NATO, while casting a skeptical eye on the United Nations. Most candidates advocate for some combination of increased defence spending, a return to a combat role in the fight against the Islamic State and confronting Russian expansionism. Conservatives are also strong supporters of free trade. Durham MP Erin O'Toole would negotiate CANZUK, a trade and security pact involving Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand that would include "the freedom to live, work and invest in these countries."

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Finally, there is every Tory's favourite topic: the country's finances. All the Conservative candidates favour some combination of lower income and corporate taxes and reduced government spending. Mr. Bernier would have only two income-tax rates; Mr. O'Toole would offer tax relief for people leaving school and entering the work force; Wellington-Halton Hills MP Michael Chong would impose a carbon tax to fight global warming, while cutting income and corporate taxes.

All candidates would make balancing the budget a top priority. Mr. Bernier and Mr. Scheer would do it within two years, come flood or perdition.

The next Conservative leader should have no great difficulty in forging a platform that emphasizes tax cuts and a balanced budget, increased defence spending, a renewed emphasis on free trade, parental choice and a cautious approach to immigration. Such a platform would unify the caucus and membership and might appeal to a plurality of Canadian voters.

But how will this fit with Maxime Bernier's wish to withdraw the federal government from health care by transferring tax points to the provinces; to privatize Canada Post; to downsize the CBC; to gut the CRTC; to "fix" the equalization program (whatever that means); to eliminate protection for the dairy and poultry industries?

Mr. Bernier believes these policies are saleable to both the party and the country. And he appears to have the fundraising, organization and popular support needed to win the leadership. If so, Conservatives may soon be offering Canadians a very bold alternative to the status quo. Very bold, indeed.

Video: Tory leadership candidates react to O’Leary quitting race (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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