Canada

Taking the Heat

Stockwell Day comes under increasing fire from members of his Alliance party

John Geddes January 29 2001
Canada

Taking the Heat

Stockwell Day comes under increasing fire from members of his Alliance party

John Geddes January 29 2001

Taking the Heat

Canada

John Geddes

Stockwell Day comes under increasing fire from members of his Alliance party

Stockwell Day has not made a habit in his short career in federal politics of drawing parallels between himself and Jean Chrétien, or pointing out lessons his Canadian Alliance might learn from the Prime Minister's Liberals. But last week, Day did both those things in the space of a few telling sentences. Asked at a news conference about Alliance infighting over his leadership since the party’s disappointing showing in the fall election, he observed that even Chrétien—the guy who won big— faced such questions just two days after the vote. That sort of nay-saying,

Day said, is just “part and parcel” of running a party. But he made a point of adding that at least the Liberals generally keep such squabbles behind closed doors, aside from the odd public flare-up between the Chrétien and Paul Martin camps. “They’ve learned over time to discuss those things inhouse,” Day said approvingly.

It’s no wonder if Day casts an envious glance now and then over at the Liberals. When the House of Commons resumes sitting next week, a speech from the throne will lay out the agenda for a government over which Chrétien is the undisputed boss—even though Liberals are sharply divided over what broad direction he should set. Day, by contrast, must struggle to solidify his grip on the official Opposition. His failure to make an election breakthrough in Ontario last fall opened the floodgates to a steady flow of criticism inside the Alliance about the way he campaigned. To make matters much worse, the Alberta government disclosed last week that it had to spend $792,064 to settle a defamation lawsuit filed against Day when he was still in provincial politics. That left the self-proclaimed champion of the taxpayer in an embarrassing position, and revived old questions about his judgment. “It took taxpayer money to settle what was an incredible lapse on Day’s part,” said University of Lethbridge political science professor Harold Jansen.

“He’s got to try to move past it, but the damage is done.” The best way to contain that damage—and maybe the only way to close rifts—would be to prove he can make life hard for Chrétien. But whether Day has his party in shape to perform impressively in opposition is open to question. He has recendy dumped several communications and key policy officials, and severed ties with the advertising agency the Alliance used during the election. While these are sure signs he views his situation as serious enough to require at least a partial overhaul of his core team, some insiders say Day has not gone far enough. They argue that he has never really arrived at a rapprochement with party heavyweights who opposed him in last spring’s leadership race—and now he badly needs their skills. Prominent on that list: strategist Rick Anderson, who supported former Reform leader Preston Manning over Day, and Ontario Tory backroom operator Tom Long, who ran for the top job himself.

Still, those watching for indications that Day can ease the party’s internal strains take hope from his recent choice of Ian Todd, a longtime Manning aide and confidant, as his chief of staff. “I’m a very big fan of Ian’s,” said Thompson MacDonald, a Manning loyalist from Calgary who sits on the Alliance’s national council. “His appointment is clearly a reaching-out, bridge-building kind of move.”

While Day may be willing to make changes, he is hardly in a contrite mood. Far from accepting the election result as an undiluted disaster, he rhymed off signs of progress at last week’s news conference—from boosting the party’s vote in the Adantic provinces and Quebec, to scoring more second-place finishes in Ontario ridings than Reform did in 1997. He seemed to blame any significant shortcomings in his campaign mainly on Chrétiens decision to call a snap fall vote instead of waiting, as was widely expected, until next spring. “I had been leader for 35 days when the election was called,” Day

said. “Jean Chrétien was politically smart to call it early.”

As for the lawsuit, Day expressed deep regrets about the cost to Alberta taxpayers, but not over what he did to incur them. He was sued by Lome Goddard, an Alberta lawyer and school trustee, over a letter to the editor that Day, who was then an Alberta cabinet minister, wrote to the Red Deer Advocate in April, 1999. Day criticized Goddard for the way the lawyer defended a pedophile accused of possessing child pornography. The out-of-court settlement reached on Dec. 22 was paid out of a provincial insurance fund that protects MLAs from lawsuits that arise in the course of their work. Goddard got just $60,000 in damages, while $255,000 went for his legal fees and other costs, $474,000 to pay Day’s lawyers, and $2,900 to cover Alberta justice ministry legal costs. “I’m sorry the way it’s turned out,” Day allowed, al-

though he doggedly added that “the principles I addressed in the letter are very important principles.” But Day appeared taken aback by Alberta Premier Ralph Klein’s suggestion late in the week that he should have paid some of the tab.

One politician who might admire Day’s combative, unrepentant style under pressure is Chrétien. Whether the issue of the day was his failure to make good on the 1993 promise to get rid of the GST, or any controversy from the human resources development spending debacle to the way federal money has flowed into his own riding, Chrétien has been at best grudging in expressing regret. But then, Chrétien has rolled over the rough patches largely by giving his party what it most wants: majority election victories. The difference between Day’s struggles to bind together the Alliance and Chrétiens easier task in keeping Liberal intramural squabbling to a minimum is as stark as the contrast between losing and winning.

Yet there is this similarity: both leaders will return to the House more preoccupied with managing their parties than manhandling each other. For Chrétien, the challenge is again to balance off the competing camps that have come to largely define his party. On one hand, the so-called economic wing wants more tax cuts and emphasis on fostering the high-tech economy. On the other, the so-called social Liberals want the focus on priorities like early-childhood development. MP John Godfrey, who chairs the social caucus, points to “a tremendous disproportionality” between the big tax reductions in Martin’s fall economic update and the comparatively scant spending so far on children’s programs. But MP Tony Valeri, who chairs the caucus economic development committee, insists most Liberals “view the tax package to date as the least we can do, not the most.”

How does Chrétien see it? His post-election musings have sounded sympathetic to the social-policy camp. He has said Liberals are “preoccupied” with issues like child poverty and the problems of aboriginal communities. Liberal insiders predict a throne speech that hits those themes, but also touts the government’s intention to spur the growth of the wired New Economy. What Liberal insiders are not predicting are any grand schemes from Chrétien, the past master of low-key, incremental government. Leave it to Day, who badly needs to give his troops new reason to fall into line behind him, to make the bold, risky gestures. ESI