Column

A leadership worth running away from

Geoffrey Stevens April 20 1998
Column

A leadership worth running away from

Geoffrey Stevens April 20 1998

A leadership worth running away from

Column

Geoffrey Stevens

Anyone who has been watching television in recent weeks can only be in awe of the worthy souls who read the network news—their rigorous self-discipline and the stern grip they keep on their emotions. Not once has either of the Peters (Mansbridge or Kent) or Lloyd (Robertson) done what any other Canadian would surely do—convulse with laughter or roll hysterically on the floor and have to be removed from the set while reading the latest news of the once-proud Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

That anyone still takes the Tories seriously is a reflection of the party’s past, not an expectation for its future. It has become a headless rump with fifth-party status in a five-party Parliament—and it would be gilding the lily to describe its future as bleak. In truth, the party has no future at all unless at least two of three things happen: the Reform party self-destructs in the West; the Bloc Québécois vanishes from the federal scene; Ontario forgives Brian Mulroney.

The loss of Jean Charest is a grievous blow to a party still struggling to crawl out of the graveyard of the 1993 election when it took just two seats.

With Charest, it made a bit of progress in 1997—to 20 seats and official party status again. An exceptional individual, he had some appeal in Ontario and offered a breath of hope that the party might again be able to attract anti-Liberal votes in Quebec and to regain a degree of respectability in Western Canada. He was the only good thing the Conservatives had going for them.

The vacant leadership is the sort of prize that any sensible politician would run away from, not for—and most of the credible figures in Torydom are doing just that. Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon withdrew his name before anyone even had time to think of him as a candidate. The Ralph Klein boomlet was a figment of the news media’s overheated imagination. Klein is not a fool. He has a perfectly good job running Alberta with a good prospect of getting re-elected; he knew if he went to Ottawa, he would have a perfectly horrible job with no realistic prospect of ever becoming prime minister. Stephen Harper, the bilingual former Reform MP, spent enough time in Ottawa to know he doesn’t want to go back there to try to unite the right. John Crosbie is too old and still doesn’t speak French. Barbara McDougall has too much sense. Perrin Beatty has the only post in Ottawa—president of the CBC—that’s worse than Tory leader, but at least he has job security.

A few people are interested. Rookie MP Peter MacKay, son of Elmer, is pawing the ground. Brian Pallister is actively taking soundings. And who’s Brian Pallister? Ah, he is from Portage la Prairie and

Allan Fotheringham is on vacation.

used to be minister of government services in Manitoba. Then there is Jim Dinning, the ex-treasurer of Alberta, who reminds his admirers of a young Joe Clark with spectacles.

With no horses on the course yet, the early leader is Ontario’s Hugh Segal, the 47-year-old veteran of three decades in party back-rooms whose closest brush with elected office came in two failed bids for a Commons seat in the early 1970s. A charter member of the long-disassembled Big Blue Machine, Segal has worked for former Ontario premier Bill Davis, former prime minister Mulroney and, of late, as a constitutional adviser to Premier Mike Harris. He has been running, unofficially, for the leadership ever since the debacle of 1993, positioning himself as the One True Tory who will keep the remnants of the party out of the Vile Clutches of the Reformers. Segal’s greatest asset may be his sense of humor, which is a rare commodity among

Conservatives. He’ll need it.

Of course, whenever there is a perceived front-runner, there has to be a stop-the-front-runner movement. The Stop-Segal movement consists of two elements: those Tories who fear he would lead the party to the left in a bid for mainstream respectability, and those who are panting to leap into bed with Reform. Their problem is finding a candidate to rally behind. Odd as it may seem, their current candidate of choice—pending the emergence of someone more suitable to the right wing—is Joe Clark. Yep, the same Joe Clark who was regarded as a Red Tory when he won the leadership in 1976. Rehabilitated by adversity and age, Clark, now 58, may still be pink, but it is a pale pink next to the scarlet of Segal. (It’s quite a prospect. In the Tory context, Clark would be the champion of the redneck right battling Segal, the darling of the leftist hordes.) Clark would have the support of many Mulroney-era party luminaries, including, ironically, the Brian himself. “Mulroney will support Joe,” says a prominent Segal backer, adding snidely: “But that’s not to say he’d vote for him.”

If history means anything, Clark, as an Albertan, would be the more auspicious choice. Since Sir John A. Macdonald, the Tories have never had a leader from Ontario who could win Western Canada. But they have had three westerners—R. B. Bennett, John Diefenbaker and Clark himself—who won in Ontario. Segal, in fact, would have to turn traditional Conservative strategy on its head. In pre-Mulroney days, the party customarily wrote off Quebec and concentrated on trying to win enough seats in Ontario and the West to form a government. Under the bilingual, moderate Segal, the Conservatives would find themselves writing off the West and hoping to dislodge the Liberals in Ontario and the Bloc in Quebec. If the future seems bleak for the Tories, it is. But these are early days, and where there is time, there is hope. A savior may yet emerge. Or perhaps an albatross. Would you believe Kim Campbell? Remember, this is serious stuff. No laughing allowed.