If the Conservative Party of Canada truly wanted to turn its party-of-angry-old-white-men image on its head, to herald a new era or principled conservatism, and to reach out to voters who have not considered them in the past, then members would choose Leslyn Lewis as their new leader.
But they should not do that.
This year’s Conservative leadership is particularly interesting for two reasons: the party has just four candidates, all of them with some credibility; and it has a solid shot of unseating the scandal-plagued Liberal Party, which is suffering death by 1,000 cuts under its faltering leader Justin Trudeau.
So, the Conservatives need to pick a leader who expects to be in opposition for a potentially short period of time, and who will be ready to hit the ground running as Canada’s next prime minister.
As members consider their options, Leslyn Lewis has a number of qualities that are not just interesting, but actually quite exciting. She is Black, female, an immigrant from Jamaica, and a successful lawyer and businesswoman. She has impressive academic credentials (Juris Doctor and a PhD from Osgoode Hall Law School, as well as a masters degree in environmental studies from York University).
She has been a community activist and, as host of a TV show called Law Master, she has refined her public speaking ability to the point where she can articulate ideas concisely and without hesitation.
She’s also shown her willingness to take one for the party. She stepped in as a replacement candidate in the Scarborough-Rouge Park riding in 2015 after the then-candidate was dismissed following a scandal. Although she entered the race late, she came in second with 13,604 votes behind the Liberal, who polled 29,906.
Lewis is also the newfound darling of the social conservatives in the party. She is an avowed Christian who is completely unapologetic about her “pro-life” position, and desire to reign in the country’s still unregulated abortion practices. Though I differ with her on that point, I find her boldness to be a refreshing counterpoint to CPC leader Andrew Scheer’s almost shy, don’t-hate-me Catholicism.
So what’s the problem? There are two concerns, and both of them pretty much fatal to her bid for the job.
The first is her lack of federal political experience. Lewis has never won office, has never sat in Parliament and speaks with the voice of someone who hasn’t had the chance to learn the cut-and-thrust gamesmanship that is key to not only leading one’s own party but also finding ways to build bridges with other parties. (The fact that Trudeau didn’t have that experience either merely reinforces the point.)
She needs to be part of a governing party, to try her hand in a cabinet portfolio, and to learn lessons on how things get done.
The other major shortcoming is her near-complete lack of command of French. Her performance in the Quebec leaders’ debate drew damning reviews as she read from speaking notes and was nearly incomprehensible when she didn’t. Like it or not, in a bilingual country, not knowing one of the official languages is unacceptable.
Now, no question Lewis is a quick study, and she will master the French language in time if she applies herself. However, it won’t be in time for the next election, and that would put the Conservatives at a huge disadvantage in Quebec. Sadly, none of the four candidates is highly fluent in French, but Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole can at least hold their own.
This is not to give up on Lewis. Her record of personal accomplishments, her ambition, her obvious smarts and her ability to learn quickly stand her in good stead for the future. With some experience and dedicated mentorship, she has the potential to be perhaps the first great prime minister of the 21st century – one day.
“I believe I’m the right person at the right time for this job,” Lewis said, during a recent online Q&A hosted by Canada Strong & Free (formerly the Manning Institute). Respectfully, Ms Lewis, I demur.
Think of Lewis not as the next Conservative leader, but perhaps the next, next leader. One day, if all the pieces fall in place, she might well be ready to lead this nation forward.
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.