OTTAWA—Candice Bergen will begin her final months at the helm of the federal Conservative party by taking a trip intended to send a message: the game of identity politics being played in her party right now needs to stop.
Bergen — whose political roots are in the Canadian Alliance — will travel to Atlantic Canada for Canada Day to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with former Progressive Conservative party leader Peter MacKay.
The two parties agreed to merge in 2003 and form the modern day Conservative party.
But the party’s current leadership race, now in its final months, has been characterized by personal attacks, allegations of racism and membership sales hijinks and a fundamental fight over what being a Conservative really means.
It all adds up to persistent questions over whether that once-unified party is at risk of total fracture.
Bergen said her trip is to make a point:
“I want to make sure everyone in our party knows that I mean what I say: I don’t think we should be doing identity politics in our party and dividing the Red Tories, the old PCers, the old Reformers,” she told the Star in a recent interview ahead of Parliament’s summer break.
“We are a coat of many colours.”
When Bergen took on the coat in February, it was showing marked signs of wear.
Brutal caucus infighting marked the final days of former leader Erin O’Toole’s tenure.
“We’ll never unhear some of the things that were said,” one MP told the Star at the time.
It all raised questions about whether the caucus as a whole could survive to the end of the sitting.
They have, though some of the grumbling persists — the Star reported Friday that Michelle Rempel Garner is on the outs with some of her fellow MPs who have threatened her with expulsion over concerns she’s no longer playing on their team.
Bergen had no comment.
But that’s one rough patch in what’s been largely a much smoother ride for Bergen than O’Toole had at the helm.
She credits her past roles in leadership positions within the party, and by sticking to a turn of phrase used by the party’s last interim leader, Rona Ambrose: the temporary boss is not the “interim leader, but the leader in the interim.”
“Being a leader, you have to see yourself as a leader amongst equals, you’re not a leader like ‘I’m the boss, or I’m the general,’” Bergen said.
“That is not the kind of leadership that I believe was needed in this situation.”
What that also meant was taking things back to basics.
When it came to policy, if it wasn’t in the party’s foundational document, they weren’t going to talk about it, which among other things had the effect of jettisoning the party’s support for carbon pricing, an approach adopted under O’Toole.
Part of that play, however, was also to give the party’s six leadership contenders room to breathe on the campaign trail.
“Candidates can articulate their views, our membership will decide and that will be the position that we take on issues like the carbon tax,” she said.
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She also moved to sharpen the party’s message in the Commons.
For question period, her team sent emails around to MPs asking for them to pitch ideas on pre-approved themes, an approach that led to some frustration in the ranks when MPs wanted to talk about other things.
But as she heads into summer, the Tories are flying high in the polls – one recent survey had them five points ahead of the Liberals.
It’s a number Bergen credits to her party’s focus on the dominant issue facing Canadians at present: inflation and the rising cost of living.
That Tories haven’t just railed at the government but have tried to put out ideas to solve the problem is reflected in the polls, she suggested.
She pointed to her party’s pitch for a break on gas taxes as an example.
“We wanted to be an opposition that would responsibly oppose the government but also propose solutions that were not crazy or outlandish,” she said.
“I think we’ve shown that what we proposed — other countries are doing, other provinces are doing, even Joe Biden has done it.”
There are signs the Liberals are caving to that idea, with MPs now saying it’s not being ruled out.
Bergen, 57, grew up in the southern Manitoba community of Morden, where it wasn’t uncommon to leave on vacation for two weeks with the house doors unlocked.
Her default is not to be afraid of things, she said.
So, she is perplexed by concerns being raised about the safety of politicians — she said she’s had a panic button for at least a decade and has never felt the need to use it.
What’s notable now, she said, is the broader fatigue and frustration with government as a whole, which she credits to the ups and downs of COVID-19 lockdowns, and changing science and people’s struggles to make sense of it all.
And, the Liberals’ political weaponization of vaccine mandates.
“The prime minister poked people in one of their most vulnerable times, when he could have tried to bring them together,” she said.
Trying to bring people together will also be a challenge for the Conservative party’s next leader.
The accusations of racism and name-calling that have been part of the contest are unfortunate, Bergen said.
Those are both things that you can’t take back, she said.
But she hopes that when it all wraps up on Sept. 10, there is a shift in tone.
“The minute the leadership race is over, that individual has to become the prime minister-in-waiting,” she said.
“That’s what I would expect whoever wins to do.”
Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz
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