Over the past few days, I have had at least half a dozen phone calls and several emails from friends outside of Muskoka asking in effect, “Who the hell is Scott Aitchison and what makes him think he can be prime minister of Canada?”
It’s a good question from those that don’t know Scott and likely one asked by many who do, as well. To be clear, Aitchison, currently the Member of Parliament for Parry Sound-Muskoka and labour critic in the Conservative official opposition, has not yet announced that he will be a candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada. He has a number of hurdles to cross before he can do that. But the media leaks are there, the rumors are spreading, and those do not happen by accident.
I have known Scott Aitchison for at least twenty-five years. We served together on both Huntsville and Muskoka District councils and for a period of time we were also colleagues at a national strategic communications and government relations firm in Toronto. Over the years, we have had our ups and downs, but I have had the opportunity to watch him grow into a capable and experienced political animal who has a real chance to make it on the national stage.
Will Scott Aitchison succeed in becoming leader of the Conservative Party of Canada and then win a national election to become prime minister of Canada? That certainly remains to be seen and clearly at this point he will be the dark horse going into the race. But we live in strange times, where anything can happen, where people are exploring new ideas and looking for fresh leadership. Scott Aitchison has a number of personal qualities and skill sets that could well fit into that basket.
For one thing, he is an excellent “people person” and right now, on the political scene at both the federal and provincial levels, that is a rare commodity and one that is pretty important. Scott Aitchison has learned over the years, especially during his time as mayor of Huntsville, to be a conciliator, to empower the people he works with, and to communicate effectively with the public and with his political base.
In Ottawa right now, Members of Parliament from opposing parties barely speak to each other and acrimony is at a high level. It is hard to accomplish anything on that basis. A few days ago, Scott Aitchison rose in the House and addressed this issue directly in a compelling speech urging members to work more effectively together and to deal with their differences more respectfully. He pointed out that the behaviour of many members, on both sides of the House, would never be tolerated at the municipal level of government. The Brick HuntsvilleThis Saturday and Sunday, shop our 2 Day Deals and get great prices throughout the store. https://bit.ly/3xIsmDY
Equally important is the lack of unity within the Conservative caucus. That party will never govern until this is resolved. Andrew Scheer failed to achieve that and so did Erin O’Toole.
One person I spoke with this week reminded me about former prime minister Brian Mulroney who survived in power only because he had the skill to unite his caucus and to get full support when he needed it, even when there was not full agreement. He knew how to work the phones, to be there in times of trouble for his members, to make them feel an important part of the process and to be accessible, without members of caucus having to jump through a bunch of hoops to get to him. This person pointed out to me that Scott Aitchison had many of those same skills that, once again, are badly needed.
Scott is a middle-of-the-road conservative. He has the skill to reach out to both ends of the political spectrum of the Conservative Party and draw them together in a united front.
He has also earned his spurs in Ottawa and, in spite of the rancour, respect from members of all stripes. He is a regular speaker on behalf of the Conservative opposition in the House of Commons, a privilege not offered to all members. In addition, he has travelled the country helping Conservative Members of Parliament and candidates raise funds and wage successful campaigns. He has made a number of friends in high places by doing that.
So, the million-dollar question is: Does Scott Aitchison have a snowball’s chance in a hot place if he enters the federal Conservative leadership race? I admit initial surprise. I wasn’t expecting it this time around. But in retrospect, I do think there is a window here.
For one thing, he has the bit in his teeth. He really wants this, and he has for a long time. He sees that window and he is determined to climb through it and see where it takes him. When it comes to politics, he has never been shy about being ambitious. And he is doing his homework and not jumping into this blind. He has some caucus support and at least one of these a senior member.
Scott also knows he cannot be a candidate for leadership—and he cannot win—if he does not have a strong fundraising base and he has laid the groundwork for this. Getting out of the gate, to become an official candidate he must first raise $300,000, two-thirds of it as an entry fee and the last third as a deposit to be refunded at the end of the campaign as long as he follows the rules.
He will also need to raise in excess of a million dollars in order to wage an effective campaign. Party rules allow him to personally contribute no more than $25,000 to his campaign. Individuals and corporations are limited to about $1,600. So, by definition, if Scott Aitchison is able to raise enough money within these restrictions to enter the race and run a campaign, he will be a viable candidate with considerable support.
There are many people in the Conservative Party who are tired of the old guard. They are tired of the infighting and the backstabbing, and they are tired of the ideological tugs of war that prevent any kind of progress. Many could well be attracted to a fresh face, one who can establish a solid and traditional Conservative middle ground, promote unity and decency, and be prepared to form a government.
Could that person be Scott Aitchison? Only time will tell. In my view, however, if he does enter the race, he does have a window, however small, to either be the next leader of the Conservative Party or to be the kingmaker to determine who is. Either way it is a path to a bright political future, and it is worth a shot.
Sometimes it pays to be a dark horse.
A NOTE: I will be taking a break from Listen Up! for the next four weeks, but we have some great guest commentators, so keep tuning in!
Hugh Mackenzie has held elected office as a trustee on the Muskoka Board of Education, a Huntsville councillor, a District councillor, and mayor of Huntsville. He has also served as chairman of the District Muskoka and as chief of staff to former premier of Ontario, Frank Miller.
Hugh has served on a number of provincial, federal and local boards, including chair of the Ontario Health Disciplines Board, vice-chair of the Ontario Family Health Network, vice-chair of the Ontario Election Finance Commission, and board member of Roy Thomson Hall, the National Theatre School of Canada, and the Anglican Church of Canada. Locally, he has served as president of the Huntsville Rotary Club, chair of Huntsville District Memorial Hospital, chair of the Huntsville Hospital Foundation, president of Huntsville Festival of the Arts, and board member of Community Living Huntsville.
In business, Hugh Mackenzie has a background in radio and newspaper publishing. He was also a founding partner and CEO of Enterprise Canada, a national public affairs and strategic communications firm established in 1986.
Currently, Hugh is president of C3 Digital Media Inc., the parent company of Doppler Online, and he enjoys writing commentary for Huntsville Doppler.
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