Jean Charest’s itinerary sounds like the departure announcements at a bus depot: Oshawa, Lindsay, Peterborough, Napanee, Kingston. That was last week, but in the weeks and months since Charest took on the task of leading the Progressive Conservative Party, most weeks have been like that—days that start with meetings at breakfast and run through meetings at lunch and meetings at night and end finally about midnight. When he went to Florida for a rare family vacation in February, there were some grumbles in the party and in the media that he had missed a visit to Ottawa by U.S. President Bill Clinton. Helping Conservatives come to terms with the depth of their defeat in the 1993 election has been, he says, with not a trace of unhappiness, “all work and no glory,” and he fully expected it would be that way. But last week, Charest got an especially poignant reminder of the price that must be paid. As he was preparing to go off again to work, his seven-yearold son Antoine had a question. “Where are you going?” the boy asked. “You’re always gone.”
It is a question that every busy father has trouble answering. But it is one that is notably difficult for Charest to deal with as he prepares for this week’s two-day Conservative convention in Hull that will confirm him as leader of a party that has two seats in the House of Commons (one of them his), faces a popular government on a seemingly perpetual honeymoon with the voters, and remains dogged in the public mind by the excesses of its years in power under Brian Mulroney. It is hardly a party on the cusp of power. A man has to do what a man has to do, but must that hoary saying include an endless round of town halls and rubber chicken to rebuild a party as thoroughly humbled as the Tories? Not surprisingly for such an instinctive political animal, Charest’s answer is affirmative. “Because of the nature of Canada, we depend on national leaders and national parties to bring us together,” he told Maclean’s last week before sneaking off for a family lunch. “That’s why it’s important to rebuild. It’s important for the future of this country and for that reason alone, it’s worth doing.”
Not all the news on the Tory front is bleak. More than 1,300 delegates have signed up to attend the convention— which opens on Friday and will confirm Charest as leader by acclamation—despite some predictions that it would be a poorly attended fiasco. Party officials swear that every delegate is paying the full attendance fee: $325 for adults, $175 for youth members. Mulroney will not be there—he will be in Japan on business—but many former members of his cabinet are scheduled to attend, as are former leaders Robert Stanfield and Joe Clark. But there will also be new members, organizers say, who joined during a cross-country restructuring process last fall that has led to recommendations for more rank-and-file control over the party leadership and greater party control over the activities of its fund-raising arm, the PC Canada Fund. While the Tories remain in debt, the party is far from a financial writeoff. It raised $4.2 million last year and ran an operating surplus of $1.3 million, which was applied to bring its debt down to $4.4 million. And while the polling news is hardly good, some surveys suggest that many Canadians—for what the sentiment is worth in the absence of support—would like to see the party endure. The mood among party activists, Charest says, is upbeat: “When some Canadians are asking themselves whether or not we are going to continue, they want to be there to answer the question.”
With Premier Gary Filmon’s Tories leading in the polls on the eve of this week’s Manitoba election, and an election call imminent in Ontario, one of the factors that makes Conservatives optimistic is the strength of their provincial parties. The party is in power in Alberta, where Premier Ralph Klein is a friend and ally of Charest—the two men recently went together to an Eagles concert in Calgary. In vote-rich Ontario, Mike Harris has returned the party to respectability and is a strong contender to become opposition leader, if not premier. While the Reform party, which has no provincial wings, has made some inroads into the Ontario Tory organization, Harris and Charest have built a close relationship. In all four Atlantic provinces, the Tories are the strongest opposition party facing the governing Liberals. Richard Johnston, a University of British Columbia political scientist who is teaching this year at Harvard, says those provincial roots are a crucial reason why the party will probably survive.
Still, Johnston and other analysts do not suggest that survival will come easily. “Recovery is possible, but it is not a trivial task by any means,” he says. And Charest himself sometimes slips from being professionally optimistic that victory could be won in the next federal election to acknowledging that it will more likely take a long time, that his hard work will pay dividends “for another time.” A Gallup poll taken in mid-March among 1,000 voters put the party at just nine per cent nationally, well behind the 16 per cent of the vote it received in the 1993 election (and light-years behind the Liberals, with 62-per-cent support). Only in the Atlantic, where New Brunswicker Elsie Wayne holds its second seat, is the party solidly in double figures—22 per cent. In its former western bastion, it badly trails both the Liberals and Reform. The bad news was confirmed by the three February byelections. While the party was squeezed out by polarization between separatists and federalists in the two Quebec seats, the most telling results were in the riding of Ottawa/Vanier, where the Tory candidate came second in 1993 but trailed both the victorious Liberals and Reform in February. In an Ontario riding with a large francophone minority, the results in Ottawa/Vanier were pitiful for a parly that tells itself over and over that it is a national force. Some political observers have questioned whether the Tories now face the same problems they confronted after their punishing 1935 defeat, when they remained out of power for 22 subsequent and miserable years. But, says Joe Clark, the difference now is that the party has roots in French Quebec, “one of the enduring positive legacies of Brian Mulroney’s leadership.” Those roots, however, are hard to find these days, and even party stalwarts admit that its organization has atrophied, squeezed as federalists side with the Liberals and separatists move to the Bloc Québécois in anticipation of a sovereignty referendum. “Our people are divided,” acknowledges Marcel Danis, a former Mulroney minister who advises Charest on Quebec strategy. Those people will return to the fold eventually, Danis says, but he concedes that a delay in holding the referendum will make the task in Quebec that much more difficult. But even if the referendum is held this year, as Premier Jacques Parizeau has promised, the Tories must also hope that the Bloc disappears. “We are after the same seats,” Danis says.
Jean Charest seeks to revive the thoroughly humbled Tories
The biggest problem the party faces is that the coalition built by Mulroney has dissolved, taken largely by the Bloc in Quebec and by Reform in Ontario and Western Canada. “They were beaten more by the Bloc and Reform than they were by the Liberals,” says Ottawa pollster Darrell Bricker, senior vice-president of the Angus Reid Group. Although Clark says that at least the party is not divided in defeat, as it has been through much of its recent past, his point misses the fact that the dissenters have already left. “Reform was put together by former Conservatives,” says Calgary Reform MP Stephen Harper, himself a onetime Tory. Lucien Bouchard is a former Mulroney cabinet minister whom Charest once considered a mentor. There has been some talk, mostly in the media, about a merger between Reform and the Tories, but Harper and others in both camps say that such a union is unlikely. Instead, the two parties will continue to fight over largely the same voters. That complicates a Tory comeback, as Conservatives must not only rely on the miscues of the governing Liberals, but also hope that the Bloc disappears and that Preston Manning will be incapable of making Reform more than just another western protest party.
Some forces in the party believe that the road to salvation lies in a sharp turn to the right. One of their champions is Toronto columnist and businessman David Frum, a former editorial writer with The Wall Street Journal, who said in an interview that Charest should come out in favor of Americanstyle Republican policies—including a large tax cut, more free enterprise in health care, smaller government and a tough line on law and order. Others, including Clark and Bricker, say such a prescription would be a disaster that would confirm the Conservatives as a permanent minority. ‘Tories don’t win from the right,” says Bricker. “The way they are going to win this is not by out-right-winging the Reform party.” Charest himself says he does not want to get bogged down in a fight over labels, but adds: “It would be a grave error to apply a right-wing position that sells well in the United States and apply it wholesale in the Canadian context.” But the Tories are still some distance from worrying about how to regain power. First, they must find a way to survive.
To avoid annihilation, says Johnston, the Tories have to move onto Reform territory, but they cannot risk alienating Quebec voters, who tend to be more centrist, especially on social issues, and who may feel that some Reform policies are anti-French. The dilemma for Charest and the Tories is that they have heard all the advice before about how to fight Reform and the Bloc, in October, 1993, and it has become no easier to follow now than it was then. As he listens to the political counsel this week, Charest might wonder again about his son’s lament—and the wisdom of putting party ahead of family.
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