Coronavirus: Tory leadership candidates attempt to navigate crisis

Peter MacKay addresses the crowd at a federal Conservative leadership forum during the annual general meeting of the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative party in Halifax on February 8, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Ease into the pitch slowly, get the cheques in the mail, plan to keep making new plans and above all else — don’t get complacent.

That’s the advice the Nova Scotia wing of Peter MacKay‘s Conservative leadership campaign circulated last weekend as organizers discussed how to stay on the campaign trail despite a request from the party to put their efforts on pause as the country grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The March 29 meeting also included a discussion of the need for the MacKay campaign to raise $40,000 over the next month in Nova Scotia.

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“We’ve got a good strong lead in every single province but we can’t afford to get complacent,” said Rick Perkins, the Atlantic chair for the campaign, during the meeting.

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A recording of the call was obtained by The Canadian Press. Its authenticity was verified by MacKay’s campaign.

On the recording, Perkins said he knows some people have concerns about campaigning.

“You should be comfortable doing it, and obviously it is a slow discussion when you talk to somebody before you enter into the issue of the leadership,” Perkins said.

“You start generally asking how they’re doing and then ease into it.”

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The call came three days after the party’s leadership organizing committee delayed the contest, which had been scheduled to end on June 27.

That group is to reconvene May 1 to figure out next steps, but in the meantime said it won’t process donations and asked candidates to refrain from contacting members.

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On the call, MacKay’s organizers said they’ll ask people to send cheques that will be held until donations can resume, noting they’ll need the cash when that happens.

“It’s going to be tough fundraising, so if anybody can donate, has the ability to donate, right now please do,” said Scott Armstrong, the Nova Scotia chair for MacKay’s campaign.

“The campaign does need to continue.”

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That’s the same tactic being used by Erin O’Toole’s campaign team, which has also been actively contacting members and soliciting donations in recent days.

MacKay wasn’t on the call, though had been expected to dial in.

While the leadership organizing committee cited logistical challenges created by physical-distancing measures in its decision to delay, the party had also been under pressure for ethical reasons. Many argued it was inappropriate to ask for funds or talk politics during a national emergency.

The party’s move to delay came days after most of the leadership candidates made changes to their campaigns, ending in-person events and travel as physical distancing requirements were implemented across the country to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

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MacKay, as well as his main rival O’Toole, switched quickly to using social media and tele-town halls to get out the votes and raise funds.

But MacKay called for the race to be sped up, citing the need for the party to have a permanent leader in place to navigate through the crisis.

O’Toole, along with another candidate, Derek Sloan, had argued for delay. The fourth candidate, Leslyn Lewis, took no position.

Her campaign also continues; on Friday, she announced her first endorsement from an elected MP, New Brunswick Tory Richard Bragdon.

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Though O’Toole asked for the delay, his campaign said it has no choice but to keep going, because O’Toole’s team also wants to be ready when the race officially resumes.

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His spokesperson said they’re trying to focus on pandemic response efforts.

“This is a profoundly emotional and difficult time,” Melanie Paradis said.

“We have hundreds of volunteers we are keeping engaged and feeling positive by encouraging them to help out in their communities.”

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Among O’Toole’s missives in the last week was one slamming the Trudeau government for continuing with a carbon tax as the country faces economic hardship.

During the MacKay call, Perkins said MacKay’s campaigners were watching their tone and would not be directly criticizing the Liberal government or directly commenting on rivals.

On Friday, an email from MacKay to supporters took a swipe at the Liberals for holding back data on COVID-19, and he promised that if he were prime minister, he’d make that information public.

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For now, the request to cease campaign efforts is not a hard-and-fast contest rule, but if it needs to become one, it will, said Conservative party spokesman Cory Hann.

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That would trigger the possibility for the party to fine candidates, and they’ll lose some of their $100,000 compliance deposit.

“Our hope is that won’t be necessary, so we will again ask campaigns to refrain from contacting party members until after a decision is taken on May 1, and remind them that those voting in this election are the very members that felt now was not the time to be campaigning.”

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