BY JOHN GEDDES • Here’s one for the crackpot conspiracy theorists out there. Stephen Harper huddles with a few advisers to pick his cabinet. The prospect of David Emerson crossing from the Liberals to the Conservatives comes up. But won’t appointing a blatantly opportunistic turncoat, the Prime Minister asks, spark wide public outrage? Sure, says a savvy backroom boy, but that’s the beauty part—naming Emerson will generate so much resentment around floor-crossing that it’ll foul up any chance Belinda Stronach has of winning the Liberal leadership.
That scenario might strain the imagination, but the Emerson effect on Stronach’s widely expected bid to replace Paul Martin is very real. As her possible rivals test the waters, the former Tory from Aurora, Ont., is the most closely watched undeclared candidate. She would be a controversial entry in any case. But Emerson’s decision to jump parties just after the election, giving Harper a high-profile Vancouver minister and stripping the Liberals of a B.C. star, made her position all the more sensitive. Before Emerson, Stronach was the most famous—or notorious-switcher in the House.
Her defenders insist there’s no comparison. She dumped Harper when she couldn’t live with the direction he was taking the Conservatives, they say, where Emerson moved to stay in cabinet. But their case for Stronach’s loftier motives is hardly airtight. Close Stronach allies have said Harper’s big mistake was cutting her out of his decision-making circle— which suggests their rift came over power, not principle. And Stronach herself has said her big concern was the rise of the Bloc Québécois and Conservative inability to battle the separatists—which turned out to be a mistake given the Tories’ election surge in Quebec.
No matter how her motivation is interpreted, some Liberals say the time isn’t right for a recent convert to take over the party. “The Emerson story works against Belinda,” said one MP last week. Not so, countered a Stronach confidant, who suggested she has reaped an Emerson “vindication dividend,” since Harper would now be hard-pressed to attack her party-hopping as self-serving.
She’s not the only newcomer. Long-time Liberals might have to come to grips with a passel of leadership aspirants who aren’t exactly party stalwarts. Halifax’s Scott Brison is viewed as a credible contender, even though he’s another ex-Tory. Then there’s Bob Rae, the former Ontario NDP premier, widely considered to be weighing his prospects. And Michael Ignatieff, though he doesn’t have a past with another party, only returned to Canada to run in the election after spending his adult life mainly in England and the U.S.
All are unconventional hopefuls. But Liberals have historically shown a knack for gambling successfully on leaders who hadn’t worked their way up in the party—including diplomat Lester B. Pearson and law professor Pierre Trudeau. Stronach, though, is hardly in the league of the Nobel Peace Prize winner or the charismatic intellectual. Her political springboard was inherited wealth and a business background in her father’s auto parts empire.
Stronach’s command of French—hesitant at best—is getting more and more attention, especially after Harper, who speaks French confidently, orchestrated his surprise breakthrough in Quebec.
“I think Mr. Harper has set the minimum bar,” said Toronto MP John Godfrey, who speaks French well and is considering his own leadership bid. The French factor also works against Brison, who is struggling to improve his linguistic performance. Along with Godfrey, Rae and Ignatieff speak French well enough for it to be an asset.
Another key factor is the stringent new leadership financing law Elections Canada will be enforcing. The rules outlaw corporate contributions and limit individuals to donating $5,200. The candidates may spend only double that, $10,400, out of their own pockets— a severe limitation on Stronach’s ability to
tap her personal wealth. Still, her network of well-off
friends will make it easier for her to find supporters willing to sign cheques. For others, inability to fund a campaign based on, say, a cluster of regional business backers, or simply by taking on a personal debt, could be a major impediment to running.
As potential candidates figure out how to raise money, other Liberals are more worried about raising their party’s fortunes. “There is a deep-seated desire to use this hiatus from power as a time to attract new people to the party,” says Steve MacKinnon, the party’s national director. He said there will be less tolerance this time around of the party’s provincial wings using their control over arcane membership regulations to cramp the ability of candidates to sign up new members.
Some Liberals are calling for a sweeping review of the way the party keeps rank-andfile members feeling connected—enough to make regular donations. The Conservatives do it better. Ottawa MP David McGuinty, brother of the Ontario premier, is calling for “far greater engagement at the grassroots level,” starting with a serious look at switching from a convention at which delegates elect the leader, to a one-member, one-ballot system with telephone voting. The view that something must be done to jump-start the faithful who grew disillusioned with the way Martin organizers dominated their party is now conventional wisdom. “We are a deeply factionalized and divided party,” Ignatieff told student Liberals at the University of Western Ontario last week. “The test of things will be to find a leader who can bring us together.”
But around what ideas? Stronach hasn’t shown any sign of being an inspirational speaker, but she is perhaps at her most credible when talking about threats to Canada’s economic competitiveness. She might represent a nudge to the right—a bid to deny the Tories any further expansion among mainstream voters, particularly in suburban Ontario. As an ex-Tory, Brison is also seen as slightly right of the Liberal centre of gravity. Others argue the party must tend to its centre-left base, pulling back votes from the Bloc, the NDP and even the Greens. “We need to stake out positions on the progressive side,” Godfrey says. “There’s no point in going right lite.”
Among possible contenders generating buzz, Ignatieff, Rae and Ken Dryden are also viewed as liberal Liberals. They all enjoy high name-recognition, too. But as one Liberal organizer, who says he will support Ignatieff if he takes the plunge, observed ruefully, none of them can catch every eye in an airport baggage-claims room the way he saw Stronach do recently. That doesn’t make her more credible, but it does make her impossible to ignore—even after Emerson. M
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