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Tories tweak leadership race approach, but not deadlines for candidates


OTTAWA — The deadlines for the Conservative leadership race will remain fixed, the party said Monday, over the objections of several contenders who say the rapid spread of COVID-19 demands a new approach.

The June 27 election for the next party leader has been thrown into flux by the rapidly evolving crisis brought on by the virus, with public-health officials now banning gatherings of more than 50 people and urging against all non-essential travel.

Supporter rallies and cross-country treks are staples of the leadership campaign circuit and with six candidates still trying to meet the March 25 requirements to raise $300,000 and get 3,000 signatures to be on the ballot, having those two avenues cut off is a major source of concern.

The party will now allow signatures to be submitted online, it said Monday, and is also offering to advertise one tele-townhall per campaign as a gesture of support. Debates planned for April will now be held without a studio audience as well.

But the contest needs to continue as scheduled, it said. 

"As Canada's Official Opposition party, we have an important role in our democracy, and we owe it to Canadians to have the new Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in place under the timelines we've announced," the party said.

"It’s important to the integrity of our process, and it’s important that we are able to hold the government to account, providing a voice for Canadians, especially in trying times such as what we’re currently witnessing taking place in this country."

One candidate, Rick Peterson, has now suspended his grassroots fundraising efforts, saying he'll look for alternative sources of financing.

"We’ll not be asking individuals to send money to a political campaign at a time when every dollar counts,” he said.

Candidate Marilyn Gladu said Canadians are simply not focused on the campaign at the moment, and the deadlines should be pushed back.

"There will be more than sufficient time to engage them in an effective leadership campaign when the immediate threat of pandemic COVID-19 has been eliminated," she said.

The two candidates already on the ballot, Erin O'Toole and Peter MacKay, have now pivoted their campaign messaging almost exclusively to their takes on how the government ought to be acting to address the crisis, with O'Toole suggesting Monday the country be placed on "war footing" and MacKay proposing a suite of fiscal measures to handle what's expected to be a massive economic fallout.

O'Toole said the federal government should invoke the Emergencies Act so the federal government can prohibit travel, enforce self-isolation and control assemblies, while also mobilizing the military to back up the health system.

"Now is the time to put our government and our economy on a war footing, with leadership from the top," he said in an email to supporters.

O'Toole and MacKay have been posting photos to social media showing them working the phones, though their campaigns have each been accusing the other of continuing to hold public events despite a promise not to.

As O'Toole demanded that the military be spooled up, MacKay called for the government not to just spend more of its own money to combat the economic challenges being created by the spread of the virus.

"Before the government spends on new programs, we should help people help themselves with their own money," he said, suggesting tax changes that could get more cash flowing in Canada.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2020.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

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