Cover

THE SCARE FACTOR

Is Stockwell Day too extreme for mainstream Canadian voters?

John Geddes July 10 2000
Cover

THE SCARE FACTOR

Is Stockwell Day too extreme for mainstream Canadian voters?

John Geddes July 10 2000

Stockwell Day squatted in a crowded hotel conference room in London, Ont., one evening last week, chatting eye-to-eye with Martha McNeely. He asked how old she was, and the shyly smiling girl held up five fingers. Actually, she’s just 3, but in the hyped atmosphere of a leadership campaign, the tendency to exaggerate ones credentials can be infectious. Days handlers hovered anxiously nearby, trying to coax the candidate to the car waiting to whisk him to the airport. But Day, whose approachable style has helped give him a big edge in the race to lead the Canadian Alliance, is a master of the political art of lingering. When he finally straightened up, charmed Alliance members pressed in to shake his hand and pat his shoulder.

It was just another moment of pure campaign-trail instinct buoying up Day’s remarkable road show. Yet for anyone who paused to chat with Martha’s beaming father, occupational therapist Greg McNeely, the brief encounter carried another message—one that Day has been trying hard lately to play down. Asked why he brought his family out to meet the candidate, McNeely expressed his hope that if Day becomes prime minister, he will preside over a national referendum on abortion. Day, who is on leave from his job as Alberta Premier Ralph Klein’s treasurer, has been pleading with the media to focus on how he wants to slash taxes and pay down government debt. But his anti-abortion followers insist on putting the emphasis squarely on their champion’s social conservatism. “The problems of our society,” McNeely declared, “aren’t going to be solved just by balancing the books.”

Day heads into the stretch run of this race fighting the scare factor. Charges that his anti-abortion, anti-gay-rights opinions will repel mainstream voters broke into the open last week And even if his surging leadership bid plows past claims that his social conservatism makes him unelectable, Liberals are waiting to pounce on his advocacy of a flat tax and more powerful provinces as equally likely to turn off many voters. Then there are the less tangible factors. Even though he was born in Barrie, Ont., grew up in Montreal (where he learned to speak passable French), and rose to political prominence in Alberta, there’s something, well, vaguely American about him. He owns a .38 handgun, which he bought to protest Liberal gun-control legislation.

The charge that the onetime Bentley, Alta., youth minister packs too much baggage to win a federal election was mostly insinuated early in this leadership campaign. That changed when Day shocked Preston Manning by beating him on the June 24 first ballot. Day took 44 per cent of the vote, Manning 36 per cent and Ontario contender Tom Long just 18 per cent. As Manning loyalists struggled to keep hope alive for the July 8 run-off ballot against Day, the gloves came off. André Turcotte, a Manning supporter and the Canadian Alliance’s pollster, warned that Day alienates so many Canadians that his leadership would hand the Liberals a landslide in the next election. Attacking Day on the grounds that a pro-life former Alberta preacher cannot win is an awkward position for Manning’s team to hold. Manning fits the same description. There is, however, an undeniable difference in style. Manning’s measured speech-making—and that voice—are as familiar as the kitchen sink. He has achieved a status where he can hold controversial positions without generating much controversy.

Day is something else. The 49-year-old fitness buff weighs in at a flat-stomached 180 lb., with the spiky tuft at the middle of his hairline just grazing six feet. He’s showing none of that doughy look most politicians get on long campaigns of hotel breakfasts and airline dinners. Unlike Manning, he rarely consults speaking notes, and his better rhetorical flights carry the cadence of the pulpit and even the auction block (he once worked as an auctioneer). He calls his campaign, in a revival-tent, bound-for-glory turn of phrase, the “freedom train.” And when he let loose on how that train is gathering speed, his crowd in London reacted as enthusiastically as a gathering in southwestern Alberta might have.

But what about the substance behind the scintillation? With barely contained frustration, Day asks to be judged on what he has emphasized during this campaign. “My message has been consistent,” he told Maclean’s. “Parliamentary reform, MPs voting freely. Senate reform. Tax reform for families, individuals and business. Legislated pay-down on the debt. Increased health funding, and resources to the armed forces. Fix the criminal justice system.”

No mention in that list of abortion or homosexuality. When pressed on gay rights, Day says he supports the Liberal government’s recent decision not to define same-sex relationships in law as marriage. Over 14 years in provincial politics, though, he was at times more aggressive. He once pressed Klein to invoke the notwithstanding clause of the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms to prevent a landmark court decision from extending protection to gays under the province’s human-rights law. (Klein let the ruling stand.) As well, Day once worked, again unsuccessfully, to end provincial funding for abortion in Alberta. In the leadership race, he advocates allowing “citizen initiatives” to put the abortion issue, or any other, on the federal agenda—even to the extent of forcing a national referendum. Day asserts that he has been “transparent” on this subject, but exactly how the grassroots process would work remains opaque.

No one denies that Days leadership bid has benefited from the well-organized clout of conservative Christian groups. But Alberta MP Jason Kenney, Day’s campaign chairman and a !| staunchly anti-abortion Catholic, says pro-life groups, along with those lobbying for government funding or tax breaks for independent religious schools, accounted for merely 5,000 of roughly 45,000 new Alliance memberships sold by the Day campaign.

While anti-abortion support has attracted most of the attention, the independent-schools lobby may be the more intriguing force in Day’s coalition. Earlier in the campaign, he delivered a key speech advocating tax breaks for parents who send their kids to religious schools. The position was viewed by some Alliance insiders as risky. After all, it was bound to draw attention to Day’s own background as a former administrator of a Christian school, amplifying suspicions that he was running on a platform rooted in his own faith. But the move appears to have paid off. Along with solidifying right-leaning Christian backing, it brought aboard Jewish and Muslim groups, with whom Day now seems to enjoy a warm reciprocal relationship. “People talk about him being divisive,” says Aaron Blumenfeld, 33, a Jewish lawyer in Toronto who is active in a multi-faith lobby group seeking government support for religious schools. “But I really think he’s been very conscious about trying to extend the party to a lot of minorities that have been aligned with the Liberals traditionally.”

A big test of Day’s ability to expand his base came last week when Long endorsed Manning for the second ballot. Long, an influential strategist for Ontario Premier Mike Harris, was widely viewed as the first choice of economic conservatives who prefer to de-emphasize hot-button social themes. But Long failed to pull along many supporters. The influential Blue Committee, former federal Conservatives who had pinned their hopes on Long, switched almost en masse to Day. As for Day’s opinions on gays and abortion, Robert Dechert, the committee’s chairman, told Maclean’s: “Stockwell has views, but he is very clear that his views are not his agenda.”

Yet even if Day succeeds in calming jitters about his social conservatism, his image problems might not be over. Day is quick to point out that he introduced Canada’s first single-rate tax—a 10.5-per-cent rate slated to be applied to all taxpayers in Alberta starting next year. He is eager to be identified as the prime advocate of the Alliance’s dramatic proposal for a single 17-per-cent federal income tax rate. But senior Liberals regard that as a policy gamble that leaves him open to attack. “He says, don’t judge me on my social conservative credentials, judge me on my economic credentials,” observed one strategist close to finance Minister Paul Martin. “Well, he may discover that analysis finds him wanting.”

Martin’s officials estimate that the proposed 17-per-cent flat tax would cost $20 billion in lost revenues—and they claim the benefits would go disproportionately to the rich. According to figures the finance department provided to Maclean’s, the plan would cut $1,822 from the tax bill of a typical two-income family of four earning $65,000. The same family earning $200,000 would save $16,270. But if, instead of implementing a single rate, an equal $20-billion reduction in the tax haul was spread evenly across the existing three tax brackets, the middle-income household would do somewhat better and the high-income one considerably worse. The tax bill of the family earning $65,000 would drop by $2,884, while the $200,000 household would save $ 11,982. The conclusion of Martin’s officials: the Liberals can easily design a tax cut that will be more popular with middle-income voters than the Alliance’s single-rate novelty.


Critics say Day will guarantee the Liberals a landslide victory


And Liberals are searching for other vulnerabilities in Day’s right-wing beliefs. Some view his support for Klein’s controversial law expanding the ability of private companies to carve out bigger niches in the universal health-care system as a weakness. Others point to his avowed belief that Ottawa should back off and let the provinces take the lead in most areas of social policy. But as the July 8 vote approaches, it is Day’s persona that may matter most. One key test remains: a last debate with Manning on July 5 in Ottawa. Only a knock-out victory for Manning—combined with an overwhelmingly successful appeal by his team to the respect Alliance voters feel for him — might deny Day now. If he wins, it will prove that Alliance members decided he wasn’t so scary after all. How many other Canadians can be similarly reassured would then be a question for the federal election Prime Minister Jean Chretien is expected to call this fall or next spring.


The Day team

When the race started, organization was supposed to be one of Stockwell Day’s weaknesses. Preston Manning commanded the old Reform machine. Tom Long inherited Ontario Premier Mike Harris’s vaunted Common Sense Revolutionaries. But Day had to scramble. As it turns out, the organizers he recruited have outperformed their rivals. Here’s who matters in Day’s camp:

Jason Kenney, 32, campaign chairman. The MP for Calgary Southeast was an early defector from Manning to Day. Kenney came to prominence in the mid-1990s as the executive director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. Once a teenage Liberal in Victoria, he swung to the right when he attended the University of San Francisco. Kenney recalls peeking into the U.S. neoconservative journal the National Review with the guilty pleasure another kid might have had perusing Playboy.

Rod Love, 45, campaign strategist. A former top adviser to Premier Ralph Klein and now a private consultant in Calgary, Love may help curb some of Day’s—and Kenney’s—instincts. In fact, Love and Day found themselves on opposite sides of a few past battles in Alberta politics. In 1995, Love helped block a move supported by Day that would have ended provincial funding for abortions. Still, Love clearly sees Day—and the Alliance itself—as a chance to play on the national stage.

Logan Day, 28, advance man. The candidate’s eldest son often precedes him on the road to make sure preparations for every stop are in order. It’s a low-profile but key role for a political aide who usually relishes attracting attention. An assistant to Alliance MP Cliff Breitkreuz, Logan Day has indulged in stunts that have included bringing a mariachi band into Parliament to highlight an absentee senator’s Mexican sojourn.

Line Maheux, 38, adviser and communications director. During previous stints working for Manning and Harris, Maheux and Logan Day crossed paths often and became friends. She signed on early to the team, bringing not only her Canadian political network but also experience working on U.S. campaigns.

Terence Kowalchuk, 29, tour director. Day’s former executive assistant from Alberta politics shares an apartment in Edmonton with another of Day’s sons, Luke, a stockbroker preparing to go to law school. Kowalchuk has a close, personal relationship with the senior Day, too.