The cautionary tale of Kellie Leitch

Stephen Maher: Leitch’s run as a would-be Trump tapping into anti-immigrant tensions was a bust. But there’s no reason to be complacent.
Kellie Leitch rises during question period in the House of Commons in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/CP)
Kellie Leitch rises during question period in the House of Commons in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/CP)

Today is a good day to wish Kellie Leitch all the best in her medical career and thank our lucky stars that her political career is ending with a whimper.

Leitch, the pediatric surgeon who ran a populist campaign in the 2017 Conservative leadership race, announced on Wednesday that she is going back to healing children. This is disappointing for her but the rest of us can be happy that Canada is not the kind of country that would reward her approach to politics.

Her political career started with great promise in 2010 when the late Jim Flaherty, then the finance minister, recruited her to run in Simcoe-Grey after Flaherty and Stephen Harper pushed Helena Guergis out of the Conservative caucus in the middle of the “busty hooker” scandal.

The Tories thought Leitch—an accomplished woman from southern Ontario—had the right stuff. They made her a parliamentary secretary, then promoted her to labour minister.

Things started to go bad for her when, in the 2015 election, a desperate Tory campaign wheeled her and Chris Alexander out for a campaign announcement proposing a snitch line for “barbaric cultural practices,” an anti-Muslim dog whistle. Leitch tearfully apologized for that announcement after the election, but in the leadership race that followed, she doubled down, proposing a values test for immigrants, praising Donald Trump and refusing to denounce racist supporters.

READ MORE: How Kellie Leitch accidentally revealed Canadian values

Former staffers were surprised to see her take a strident anti-immigration line, suggesting that she was doing so only because her campaign manager, Nick Kouvalis, had observed a possible path to victory in the crowded race. Kouvalis, the strategist who made Rob Ford mayor of Toronto, is a populist svengali, cleverly finding issues that will resonate with voters disenchanted with elite consensus politics.

He did his best to win Leitch the leadership. She followed his script, blew the dog whistle and for a while it looked like she might win. But she didn’t have the personal quality—call it relatability—that voters like, and in the end she came a humiliating sixth, with seven per cent of the vote.

Scheer, who needs to open doors in immigrant communities if his party is going to win an election, did not give Leitch a critic role, so now she is pursuing a different career path and will, hopefully, help heal many children.

Leitch was not a natural politician. She had an arrogant, chilly personae. She would likely have done better if she were more approachable, but I don’t think she would have followed Trump’s path to victory, because racial divisions are not as painful in Canada as they are in the United States.

Still, there is no reason to be complacent.

Pollster Frank Graves, who recently completed a polling project for the Canadian Press to explore the prospects for northern populism, sees a shift in Canadian attitudes about the economy, immigration and trade that could provide an opening for someone like Leitch.

“I think Kouvalis was likely onto something in that this was a more resonant strategy,” Graves said Wednesday. “I think Kellie Leitch was mining a vein of this new ordered-populist outlook, which is expressing itself in the United Kingdom with Brexit and with Trump in the United States.”

Graves polled thousands of Canadians, putting them on a spectrum from open—pro-trade, with positive views on immigration—to ordered. He found a growing group of Canadians—particularly in southern Ontario—who are anxious about their economic prospects, hostile to the elite policy consensus, anxious about immigration and skeptical about the benefits of trade.

The highest scores were in Oshawa, Barrie, London, Hamilton and Windsor, places where many workers have had to leave traditional industrial jobs, much like the rust-belt voters who made Trump president.

The trend has reversed somewhat since 2015, when Justin Trudeau was elected, but Graves believes there is a significant constituency for a populist message, based mostly on economic pessimism. “It begins with economic despair but then mutates into fear of others, nativism, racism,” he says.

In 2002, 68 per cent of Canadians described themselves as middle class. By 2017, it had fallen as low as 43 per cent. Many people feel they are losing ground, and they are not convinced that the elites are looking out for their best interests.
“They say, quite rightly, this didn’t work for us,” says Graves. “We’re pissed off.”

But I don’t think that this means we can expect a Trump-style figure to arise in Canada. It’s hard to put together an anti-trade message that works in a country as dependent on exports as Canada is, and we are likely better at smoothly managing immigration than any other country in the world.

Ford, the most successful populist in recent Canadian history, was politically incorrect but he succeeded politically because he connected with non-white voters.

The Reform Party, which once flirted with anti-immigrant messages, abandoned those ideas and, after merging with the Progressive Conservatives, sent Jason Kenney around the country to connect with ethnic Canadians, a key part of their winning election strategy.

Conservatives who watched the party lose in 2015 after playing with divisive anti-Muslim rhetoric, do not think it is a winner at the ballot box. “For every vote you win that way, how many do you lose?” said one strategist.

There may come a day when anti-immigrant messages help someone like Leitch get ahead in Canadian politics, but her political career is a cautionary tale that ambitious would-be Trumps will ignore at their peril. In that sense, we should be grateful to her for her public service.