People just expect Hugh Segal to be funny. He made his national reputation as a political pundit, firing zingers in defence of Tories and Tory policies from a couch on morning television. Even casual acquaintances greet him as “Hughie,” and in political circles, his affable backslapping style has given him a reputation as “The Happy Warrior." Then there is the fact that people seem to assume anyone of Segal’s—how to put it?—upper-weight class is simply witty and jovial by definition.
Put him in front of a crowd and Segal lives up to his good-natured billing. “I look like a guy who got poured into his suit—and forgot to say when,” he deadpanned with a selfdeprecating jibe to an early-morning crowd in Toronto last week. It was a convention of food industry executives and they loved that
one. Like anyone else, Segal can bog down in the goo of a written text; jokes are his escape. His defeats as a Tory candidate in the 1972 and 1974 federal elections were a case of “25,000 people personally telling me to stay out of public life,” he told the crowd. Everyone chuckled. And then: “I want to assure you I am not a member of any organized political party.” The pause was perfect. “I am a federal Progressive Conservative.” No laughing matter that. The federal Tories are hurting. A fifth-place party. A mere 19 MPs, none west of Brandon. A $10-million IOU to the banks. And since last month, when Jean Charest jumped to Quebec politics, no leader. It is a vacancy Segal believes he is best-suited to fill, although officially he is still only “exploring” the notion. “No, no, it’s not a midlife crisis that’s driving me,”
laughed the 47-year-old Segal one afternoon last week, pushing back his chair in the 40thfloor boardroom of Toronto investment consultants Gluskin Sheff, where he works parttime. “I have a virus: it’s called Tory Positive. It is intrinsically optimistic about the party, and it believes the party is an intimate part of keeping the country together.”
The list of “exploratory” calls Segal has to return on this afternoon stretches into the dozens. Few in the party can compete with the connections he has made over a lifetime in Tory politics—he has spoken to more than 100 riding associations in the past five years alone. Charest never regarded those energetic activities as part of a plot against his leadership, but Segal’s ambitions for the top Tory job and a run at becoming prime minister are hardly a secret in high Tory circles.
His wife, Donna, “reafizes this is something guys like me have to get out of their system,” he recently told a friend who asked if his family wanted him to enter the race (the couple have one daughter, Jacqueline, 15). As recently as February, with Charest seemingly in place for the foreseeable future, Segal was moaning despondently to friends that his chance to run for the job might never come.
Charest’s departure changed all that. Segal had an embryonic campaign team in place almost instantly for the contest that will run between now and a vote sometime this fall. That makes him the early front-runner, a horrifying situation to the faction that wants to take the Tories hard to the right in order to woo back Reform voters. To them, Segal personifies Red Toryism, that “light-right” philosophy that is still addicted to big government in Ottawa and can’t stop itself from catering to Quebec’s constitutional whining. They grumble that Segal is stained by his association with Brian Mulroney (he was Mulroney’s chief of staff for the former prime minister’s last, dismal 20 months in office). And they suggest he is trying to do the nearimpossible: come out of the backrooms into the eye of electoral politics.
Hugh Segal has an eye on his party's leadership
So the search for a candidate to beat Segal began as soon as it became apparent that Charest was headed for Quebec. It is led from the shadows by longtime Tory fund-raiser Peter White, a business partner of newspaper baron Conrad Black.
White quit as head of the Tories’ fund-raising operation in December, walking out in frustration over what he felt was Charest’s wet left brand of conservatism and refusal to take a hard line on Quebec. To White, a Segal-led party would just present more of the same. White’s first choice to replace Charest was Alberta Premier Ralph Klein and, when that approach failed, he turned his ardor towards former Alberta treasurer Jim Dinning, who is now an executive with TransAlta Corp. in Calgary. With Stephen Harper, a former Reform MP, having withdrawn his name from consideration, the shrinking list is down to neoconservative columnist David Frum, and former Manitoba cabinet minister Brian Pallister.
Segal may not know who he will be up against but he knows exactly where his attackers will take aim. A 30-year career in politics has left tracks and a record to defend. The Mulroney tag may be the easiest to deflect. Segal does not duck mentioning Mulroney by name—he just will not use it in a sentence that does not include Robert Stanfield and Bill Davis, the two other Tory leaders he served. “None were perfect; a privilege to work for all three,” he says. (The back jacket of his 1997 book attacking neoconservative values, Beyond Greed, noted only that Segal had “been chief of staff to the prime minister of Canada.”)
Segal handles the more substantive accusation—that he is insufficiently conservative on economic issues—by taking an aggressive stance on fiscal conservatism. He seconded a tax-slashing motion from the party’s youth wing at the Tories’ last pre-election policy convention. And he now couples a message of tax cuts with fearmongering suggestions that the Liberals are about to embark on an old-fashioned spending spree. Combined with his more accommodating instincts towards Quebec, Segal calls his platform “balanced conservatism,” and he is hoping it will bury his Red Tory label.
It is easy to change policies; harder to doctor an image. “It is not impossible to overcome, but it is very difficult to change the mindset that you are a backroom wheeler-dealer,” says Tom Axworthy, who was principal secretary to prime minister Pierre Trudeau in the early 1980s and who also flirted with the idea of running for Parliament later on. Many Tories are also skeptical about Segal’s abili-
ty to duck his Red Tory past. “I believe Hugh is a fiscal conservative at heart,” said one Ontario Tory loyal to Premier Mike Harris. “But he is going to take the beating for all Red Tories from right-wingers who want to change this party.”
Yet the bilingual Segal has a great advantage over any rival, especially one trying to make the jump from provincial politics in the West to the federal level. The leadership race will be fought on the same basis as a general election: each of the 301 ridings carries exactly the same voting weight. There are no youth delegates, no campus clubs, no party hacks getting a vote on an ex-officio ticket. Ridings where Tories are barely organized (pick just about any riding in Saskatchewan) have the same clout as a suburban Toronto riding with hundreds of members.
The mathematics of that system favor a candidate with the organizational clout to establish a presence in most ridings. It also means Segal might be able to win the leadership on a platform appealing largely to Tories in the 210 ridings east of the Ontario-Manitoba border, where ultra-conservative politics have far less appeal. And it certainly leaves Segal free to attack the Reform party rather than cozying up to it as more right-wing Tories are urging. “Reform built their organization on anger,” says Segal. “If you are going to be for the ‘outs’ in society, you don’t turn your back on people who are poor through no fault of their own, on people who are different, on new immigrants who want to build a country made strong by immigrants. If you reach out only to the winners, you will be preaching to a very small congregation.”
His leadership ambitions, he says, are driven “more as a sense of duty than ego.” If so, it is a duty he has sought to discharge since he was a preteen in Montreal. Segal lore holds that he became a Tory after John Diefenbaker delivered a speech defending the Canadian Bill of Rights at Segal’s school. In fact, the then 12-year-old was already hooked on the Chief. As a child, he wrote to both Diefenbaker and Liberal leader Lester Pearson. Only Dief responded, and the impression left by that reply has never faded.
Segal left Montreal for the University of Ottawa in 1968, where he was twice elected to the student government. Current health minister Allan Rock was president that first year, and Rock has dined out for years on the tale of bringing John Lennon and Yoko Ono to Ottawa to meet former prime minister Pierre Trudeau after their 1969 Montreal bed-in for peace. Segal wants recognition for his role in that pop culture moment, too. He was the one sent to find a vegetarian meal for Lennon and Ono, he says with a laugh. And while the couple and Trudeau chatted, Segal stood outside, looking after Lennon’s son Julian.
The post at the University of Ottawa is the only elected office he ever won. Segal ran for the Tories for the first time in 1972 at just 21, chided by his grandfather—a Russian-born tailor who had helped found a workers’ union in Montreal—for running for the “bosses’ party.” His grandfather sent $50 to Segal’s NDP opponent; neither won. Liberal Hugh Poulin beat him that year, and again in 1974. That is when his career in insider politics began, mixed with stints as an advertising executive in the private sector. In 1993, he briefly considered running for the post-Mulroney leadership, backing away when it became clear that Kim Campbell’s early lead was too big.
Now he is ready to run, fit enough, he says, for the exhausting travel of a leadership race (“I have low blood pressure”). Segal is so steeped in Toryism that he lives in Hillcroft House, the 19th-century Kingston home of Alexander Campbell, who was John A. Macdonald’s Ontario campaign manager. He bought it when it was in shambles and had it restored. “These are things that only survive because people tend to them,” he says. But would he have bought a piece of Liberal heritage to preserve, say one of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s old houses? “No,” Segal answers curtly. “That’s the enemy.” And then he laughs, his belly jiggling. He is going to have fun with this thing. □
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