THE ONTARIO FACTOR

THE ONTARIO FACTOR

The Conservatives need a leader who can make gains in central Canada

JOHN GEDDES March 22 2004
THE ONTARIO FACTOR

THE ONTARIO FACTOR

The Conservatives need a leader who can make gains in central Canada

JOHN GEDDES March 22 2004

THE ONTARIO FACTOR

Politics

The Conservatives need a leader who can make gains in central Canada

JOHN GEDDES

BELINDA STRONACH’S hometown, Aurora, Ont., just north of Toronto, is as good a place as any to ponder the fate of the new Conservative Party of Canada. The ghosts of old Tory small-town and rural Ontario linger here, maybe haunting the ornate belfry of the 1886 public school, now a museum, or rattling their chains in the gabled attics of the gracious homes. Those spirits can’t have rested easy as Jean Chrétien’s Liberals swept the province in the past three federal elections. Grey-haired Conservatives who attended a packed meeting last week where they voted Stronach their Stronach has been underwhelming candidate for MP in the next election recalled better days—a few even fondly invoking the name of Sinclair Stevens, the minister in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet who represented this constituency until his political career ended in scandal. Talk about spectres.

But the mood at Stronach’s nomination wasn’t only nostalgic. The meeting was held well away from the maple-shaded streets of Aurora’s historic core, in the auditorium of a much newer high school amid subdivisions typical of Toronto’s sprawling penumbra—out past the urban Liberal strongholds, into the suburbs and beyond, where federal Conservative hopes of an all-important Ontario revival lie. Excitement has attended Stronach’s candidacy because—along with being a wealthy, telegenic novelty act—she promised to orchestrate that breakthrough. As the campaign entered its final week, though, the upbeat mood seemed to be fading. In what her opponents cast as a desperation move, Stronach’s team made a startling request for a one-week extension of the race beyond the March 20 date set for the vote, complaining that the computerized system for registering new party members wasn’t working properly.

BOTH Harper and Clement are staunch, ideological conservatives who favour lower taxes and less government

It was hardly the tactic of a calm and confident campaign, and the party refused grant the extension. In an interview, Stronach claimed to still have momentum, but it didn’t look good. Her lushly funded organization, boasting some of Canada’s most in-demand strategists, can’t be entirely counted out—but attention shifted to Stephen Harper, the undisputed front-runner. Tony Clement, the scrappy long shot, jumped on signs that Stronach was faltering, trying for a last-ditch push to persuade Conservatives to look at him as their Ontario saviour. And that left Harper, the Calgary-based former Canadian Alliance leader, having to once again make the case that he is not poison in Canada’s most populous province.

It’s a position he is clearly weary of having to argue. While Calgary is his home, Harper will remind anyone who’ll listen that he was born in Toronto in 1959 and grew up in the city’s suburbs. After high school he moved to Alberta, where he worked in the oil industry and earned an economics degree at the University of Calgary. He went on to become a Reform party policy guru and MP, before serving a stint as president of the right-wing National Citizens’ Coalition, and then beating Stockwell Day to take over as Alliance leader. “I won the Alliance leadership in part because I won big in Ontario,” Harper said. “And I think I’m well ahead in Ontario in this race. Neither of my opponents are elected people from the province.”

That shot about not holding office would sting less for Stronach—who has, after all, never tried to get elected to anything before—than Clement. A former Ontario cabinet minister, he lost his seat near Toronto in last year’s provincial election, in what had to be a crushing personal defeat for a proud, lifelong political animal. Clement first emerged as a Tory activist at the University of Toronto in the early 1980s, then went on to become an Ontario Conservative party president, and later a cabinet minister under premiers Mike Harris and Ernie Eves. For him, a shot at the federal party leadership is a chance at redemption. On the morning after a campaign reception in Calgary last week, Clement contended that his Ontario base makes him saleable even in the old Reform heartland that is overwhelmingly Harper country. “I’m saying to western Conservatives, you have in me the best of both worlds—someone who believes in your values and principles, but who can also make the Ontario breakthrough,” he said.

Both Harper and Clement are staunch, ideological conservatives. They have the usual policy preferences for lower taxes and less government. But, perhaps unlike Stronach, both extend their reach into the ranks of social conservatives, standing against samesex marriage, perhaps the key litmus-test issue these days for that part of the political right. Stronach sets herself apart on the issue, supporting what she terms “equal” treatment of gays who want to wed. It is perhaps the clearest example of how she means to reach out to voters—especially in Ontario—who saw Preston Manning and Stockwell Day as products of Prairie evangelical populism. “We cannot be a regional party,” she has said—repeatedly. “We must be much more inclusive. I’m the candidate that can broaden the base of this new party.”

Not a bad pitch, but has Stronach had the political chops to make it effectively? Given her inexperience, she had a lot to prove. Born in 1966, she has always lived in the Toronto area, mostly in Aurora. She dropped out of York University’s business school after a year, but as daughter of auto-parts mogul Frank Stronach, she rose rapidly to become a very young CEO of his Magna International Inc. in 2001. In politics, she was a complete unknown until she worked behind the scenes to help bring about last year’s Alliance and Progressive Conservative merger. She jumped into the leadership contest in January, scoring huge media attention. But her performance in two official debates was underwhelming, and she declined to participate in extra debates set up by broadcasters. Even in Aurora, addressing a hometown crowd, she fell into a choppy rhythm that left little doubt she was speaking from notes, rather than, as a certain federal politician liked to put it, from the heart.

HOW THE TORY VOTING PROCESS WORKS The Conservatives are using a novel voting system that makes the race hard to handicap. Party members will rank their choices in order of preference. If no candidate is the first choice of more than 50 per cent, then the same ballots will be counted again. The candidate who got the lowest number of first-place choices will be dropped. The remaining two then pick up their second-place finishes on the eliminated candidate’s ballots. That opens the possibility of a compromise candidate winning-the one who garnered the most of those No. 2 picks.

The next night, in a similar school hall halfway across the continent, Harper showed how it’s done at his own nomination meeting in Calgary. Though often described as cool and aloof, he delivered a classic political stump speech that mixed corny jokes, hard-hitting partisan rhetoric and crowdpleasing asides about his family—all with the pacing of a pro. But if Harper’s skill at keeping the crowd with him is indisputable, the crowd itself may be a symptom of the challenge he faces. As even his own organizers acknowledged privately, he drew predominantly former Reform and Alliance stalwarts—not the brand of Alberta Tories who identify more closely with Ralph Klein. In Alberta, where the Liberals are no threat, such divisions don’t matter much in federal elections. But in Ontario, the Conservatives need a leader who can pull in every sort of potential right-leaning voter—including the many who haven’t balked at electing Liberals.

Ontario is a prize Conservative strategists are hardly alone in contemplating. Since the sponsorship scandal knocked the Liberals down in the polls, the prospect of big Paul Martin-led gains in Quebec and the West have evaporated. That makes holding on in Ontario the key to maintaining a Liberal majority in the next election (June remains a strong possibility). This week, the Conservative leadership teams will focus on the province for their stretch run. In the weeks and months to follow, just about everyone who plays or watches the federal political game may come to share the same obsession. lui

For details and analysis of the Conservative leadership vote, visit www.macleans.ca