TORONTO – Former federal finance minister Joe Oliver has lost his bid to become a Progressive Conservative candidate in the next Ontario election – one of several former Tory MPs to be passed over by local party members.
Oliver was one of several former Conservative MPs who were defeated in 2015 and have been trying to secure provincial nominations, attempting to hitch their wagons to a party doing well in the polls, and one that is helmed by their former caucus colleague.
Though some have won their races, several high-profile Conservatives have not. Oliver, the former MP for Eglinton-Lawrence, was vying to become the PC candidate for York Centre ahead of the June 2018 Ontario election, but was defeated Sunday by lawyer Roman Baber.
Though his victory may have surprised political observers, Baber suggested it didn’t come as a huge shock to himself.
“I think it was generally known that we’ve been working very hard at this and made significant outreach efforts around York Centre, so we’re happy those efforts paid off,” he said.
Baber said before the nomination race the riding association had only about 100 members, and his campaign signed up 1,314 new members. He was told Oliver’s campaign signed up roughly 550 new members. Oliver did not respond to an interview request through a spokeswoman.
Baber, who worked on party leader Patrick Brown’s leadership campaign, said he followed Brown’s lead.
“I subscribe to Patrick Brown’s message that it’s incumbent on us to expand the Conservative base and welcome new Conservative voters to the party,” he said. “I modelled my campaign after that premise and reached out to the Filipino, the Russian, the Vietnamese, Tamil and Lebanese communities. Second of all, we made sure that no stone was unturned in terms of organization and thankfully were able to bring a good ground game to get us to win.”
Conservative strategist Will Stewart said Oliver’s loss shows that the nomination process is truly an open one, but that also means the party leader doesn’t necessarily end up with the team he wants.
“That is the risk, that you get people who are extremely good local organizers, but may not have the name recognition that will help convince voters that the Progressive Conservatives have a big team to govern with a lot of experience,” he said.
There has been grumbling about the nomination process in other ridings over the past few months, with some disqualified candidates saying they were treated unfairly.
Ex-Conservative MP Bob Dechert recently withdrew from his bid to be the Mississauga Erin-Mills candidate, complaining to the Toronto Sun about the nomination process. Reportedly among his concerns was the sale of new memberships, describing them to the Sun as “bogus and fraudulent instant members.” Media outlet iPolitics reported that Dechert was unlikely to win, having sold just 80 of the 2,100 memberships.
Another former Tory MP, and current president of the Ontario PC Party, Rick Dykstra, also failed to secure a nomination in the riding of Niagara West-Glanbrook, losing to a 19 year old who also won the riding in a byelection in November.
The same tactics Baber described helped Brown – who served as an MP in Stephen Harper’s government for nine years – to win the leadership in 2015 over Christine Elliott, who was seen as the establishment candidate, Stewart said.
“Good old-fashioned hustle actually makes a difference in a competitive situation,” he said. “Without casting aspersions on Dykstra or on Oliver, sometimes when you’ve been in politics a long time you tend to rest on your laurels a little bit more than a younger, hungrier person that is trying to break in.”
Baber was born in Russia, moved to Israel when he was eight and moved to Canada when he was 15. He went to high school in York Centre and now his law practice – he has a personal injury and commercial litigation firm – is in the riding. He believes his background will serve him well in a riding that, according to Statistics Canada, is home to more immigrants than non-immigrants, and has large populations of people from Russia and Jewish people.
Former Conservative MPs Paul Calandra and Daryl Kramp both won their nomination battles.