The Back Page

WAITING FOR TORY TIME

Peter MacKay knows how to eloquently attack Liberals. Just don't look for policy.

PAUL WELLS June 2 2003
The Back Page

WAITING FOR TORY TIME

Peter MacKay knows how to eloquently attack Liberals. Just don't look for policy.

PAUL WELLS June 2 2003

WAITING FOR TORY TIME

The Back Page

Peter MacKay knows how to eloquently attack Liberals. Just don't look for policy.

PAUL WELLS

IF THERE IS any corner of the nation where the Progressive Conservative Party’s return to power seems both proper and realistic, it must be the Albany Club of Toronto. Founded in 1882, the posh King Street institution has been a bastion of high Toryism ever since. Pictures of every Conservative prime minister line the walls. There’s a portrait of Robert Borden’s cabinet in 1913:18 Tories around a table. More than the party’s entire caucus today.

It was at the Albany Club that I caught up last week with Peter MacKay, who, barring surprise, will become the Tories’ new leader this weekend. The party’s old guard expects the handsome young Nova Scotia MP to...

Well. I was going to say “to revive its fading hopes,” but that wouldn’t be accurate. You and I might think a party’s hopes were fading if it had spent a decade out of power; if it had been rejected, three elections running, by more than four voters in five; if its departing leader had driven it, in 2000, to its lowest share of the popular vote in history. But such data is meaningless to the average Tory. These days, the entire party lives in a permanent Albany Club of the mind, where all the seats are plush and every wall is lined with visions of Tory greatness.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why MacKay will be its next leader.

I have known him, vaguely, since he came to Ottawa in 1997. He is a charming guy. He would rather listen than talk. He has the confident bearing—and, I noticed as we chatted, the immense, crushing hands—of a rugby player. He has learned enough about public speaking to dominate, with his voice and carriage if not with his ideas, his opponents in debates.

He is also unmoved by any suggestion the Progressive Conservatives have done anything wrong over the past decade, or must do anything different in the next.

There are candidates in this race who want the Tory party to become something it isn’t. David Orchard wants it to become a prairie protectionist commune. Craig Chandler

wants it to become the Canadian Alliance. Scott Brison is perhaps the craziest of them all, because he wants his party to grow up. He wants it to explain, simply and without apology, how it would govern the nation.

If they were less polite, all three would say: Jean Charest and Joe Clark wasted a decade waiting for Tory Time to rise like the sun. They had no peer when it came time to get angry at Liberals. But coherent ideas of their own? A plan for the future? Never anything close.

But while Orchard has managed to import a big cheerleading section into the party, the candidates of change are headed nowhere. In the Albany Club, it’s easy to believe the Tory sun must rise again. Everything MacKay told me was a perfect expression of that conviction.

I asked: why is any Tory happy with a new poll showing the party at 18 per cent in voter support? Why won’t luck break your way?

“Well, it’s starting to break our way,” he said. There’s “a feeling in the country of a generational shift.”

Ah. So people will vote Conservative just

because the leader is in his 30s? Well, no. “It’s not going to just fall into our lap... that poll you’re referring to has 51.1 per cent of the people declaring their allegiance to the Liberal party.”

Ah. So the Conservatives have to do something new to win votes? Well, no. Never mind that Liberal support, for instance. “It’s soft. It’s like all of these people sitting there in the Wal-Mart parking lot waiting for a better buy.”

Ah. So it’s going to fall in your laps after all? Well, no. “I think much of this could turn on our ability to attract some excellent candidates.”

What, you never had any before? “We had some, Paul, in the last campaign. I thought we had some terrific candidates.” He paused, as if to consider what fat lot of good all those terrific candidates did in 2000. “There’s also just that intangible ‘winnability’ factor, when people suddenly make up their mind: ‘You know, these guys could actually win.’ ”

What gets people to that point? “Hard work.” Pause. “You know, presenting policies that people believe in.”

Or, on the other hand, not. “Y’know, you can articulate great policy and identify the issues but it’s the implementation that makes people believe.” Unfortunately, “you’ve got to get to government to do that.”

Great. If the Tories can only get elected, they might get elected.

It was almost embarrassing to ask MacKay about his ideas for the country. But what the heck, while you’re waiting for Tory Time you might as well have a platform. What will be in MacKay’s? He spoke for perhaps 12 seconds about tax cuts, then segued into “an area that I simply call ‘attitude,’ ” which turned out to mean Ottawa should be nicer to the provinces.

And that, by God, was enough of that. As quickly as it had begun, the policy talk was over. MacKay launched into a detailed attack on Paul Martin, “the arsonist fireman . . . complicit or complacent about every decision that was made” during a decade of Liberal rule.

This is what a MacKay Tory party will be like: eloquent in its analysis of Liberal failure, empty of plans for Tory success. It worked so well for Jean Charest and Joe Clark, after all. 171

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