Tory leadership: rivals should focus on policy Bergen says

OTTAWA — Conservative interim leader Candice Bergen says leadership contenders should avoid calling those they disagree with on policy “not Conservative.”

Bergen, who was first elected in 2008 and has led the party since early February, says Conservatives shouldn’t play “identity politics” by pitting one group against another — for instance, social conservatives versus Red Tories.

“When you wedge, divide and polarize, people are pulled down, they’re not lifted up. So as a party, we should not be doing the same thing, we’re criticizing the Liberals for doing,” she said in an interview Thursday with The Canadian Press.

The Manitoba MP and former deputy leader took over the party’s top job after a majority of MPs voted to oust Erin O’Toole following weeks of anger and tension that built behind closed doors.

The Conservative party is set to pick its new permanent leader Sept. 10.

At least eight candidates have entered the race, including former Quebec premier Jean Charest, Brampton, Ont., Mayor Patrick Brown and Ottawa-area MP Pierre Poilievre.

Two more have launched campaign-style websites, but haven’t officially announced a bid, including former Conservative deputy leader Leona Alleslev, who in 2018 crossed the floor from the Liberals and was defeated in last year’s general election.

Poilievre’s campaign has dismissed Charest as being a Liberal for having led the federalist Quebec Liberal party after his time as leader of the former Progressive Conservative party in Ottawa.

Bergen says she believes leadership candidates must account for their past actions and honestly tell members where they believe the party needs to go in the future.

“That’s all fair game,” she said. “I would very much encourage the leadership candidates and the people with them to challenge each other on those things.”

But she said that need not involve questioning whether they are really Conservatives.

“I think that we should not be calling people not Conservative, if they have policy that might be different than my particular one or someone else’s particular one.”

As interim leader, she steers the party through its third leadership race in the last six years and a lengthy spell as the Official Opposition to the Liberal government.

She also took over as protesters with large trucks blockaded downtown Ottawa, blaring their horns incessantly, demanding that COVID-19 health measures end and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau be removed from office.

Many Conservative MPs greeted the protesters upon arrival in Ottawa and cheered them on, while police and municipal leaders came to see the demonstration as an occupation.

Bergen was among those who lent the convoy her support. At the time, she defended doing so by saying she felt it important to listen to protesters, despite disagreeing with their tactics.

On Thursday, she said every action carries consequences.

“Do I make decisions based on what the media tells me? Is (that) going to get me the most points publicly? Or what the polls are saying? No.”

“I don’t do it so the polls show popularity or not, I do something because I think it’s the right thing to do.”

The Conservatives Thursday continued pressing the Liberal government in the House of Commons to lift all remaining federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates, which apply to domestic air travelers and public servants.

A Conservative motion to end all federal vaccine mandates immediately was defeated by a vote of 212 to 117 on Thursday evening. Liberal MP Joel Lightbound voted in favor alongside Conservatives.

Since taking over from O’Toole, Bergen has relocated from the hotel she said she had been staying at in Ottawa into Stornoway, the taxpayer-funded residence saved for the leader of the Official Opposition. She is there with her husband.

The timing also worked out, as spread of COVID-19 in Canada has become more manageable than it has been in months, which Bergen says has allowed more of their caucus to travel to Ottawa and meet face-to-face.

“That just obviously helps when it comes to working through issues and collaboration.”

Bergen also says her relationship with O’Toole remains good.

“Things happen very quickly, not something that I had planned or expected. But I think we both recognize that our goal is our party, our country, our movement, and that guides our relationship and the way that we interact with each other.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2022.


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