The private plane takes off from Victoria en route to Courtenay, B.C., and Jean Charest, veteran flyer and national leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, is nervous. First, there was the smell of aviation fuel in the cabin of the Cessna 182 as it taxied along the runway. Now this. Climbing up through 2,500 feet at 140 knots, the mountains of Vancouver Island and the surrounding Pacific waters a good distance below, the door that stands between him and eternity is not fully closed. Only partly in jest, Charest draws his forefinger across his throat, signalling his impending doom. The pilot assures Charest that the door will not fly open against the slipstream and topple him to earth. Charest is not convinced. The pilot takes his hands from the controls—a safe but shocking manoeuvre—turns around, and wrenches the offending door firmly shut.
It is a far cry from the Challenger jets and limousines, the luxury hotels and the phalanx of aides that once eased Charest’s passage as a minister in the defeated Tory government. It is a far cry even from the travel budgets and staff accorded Reform Leader Preston Manning and Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard because their parties won enough seats last October to hold official status in the House of Commons. Instead, it is one more day in the lonely life that Charest has chosen: bringing the Conservative party back from the near-dead state that Canadian voters left it in 5 Vi months ago when they gave the Tories only two seats in the Commons, one of them Charest’s own. It is a day that started before 6 a.m. in Vancouver, taking him to Victoria for breakfast, Courtenay for lunch, Campbell River for dinner and finally Calgary for bed. That day last week was like many others in his quest to rebuild his shattered party—a day of small meetings and pleasant surprises, like the 200 people who paid $20 each for
breakfast in Victoria, a sign that the death of the Tories has been at least somewhat exaggerated. “It’s not glamorous,” Charest says of his new life, remembering a January flight to the northern Ontario community of Kapuskasing, when the plane was not heated, his feet nearly froze and he did media interviews in a hotel room, cradling his feet in his hands while a local Tory volunteer warmed his shoes with a hair dryer.
Charest understands what he calls the “basic ingredients” of politics as well as he understands that garlic and herbs are basic ingredients of a good roast of lamb, his favorite dish when friends are coming over on a Saturday night. Politics, he says, is about getting people to work together as much as it is about weighty affairs of state. And with only two seats in the Commons, Charest says it is more useful to be on the road bucking up the spirits of dispirited Tories than it is trying to fight with Reform and Bloc for media attention in the Commons’ daily Question Period. So he has taken on a punishing round of travel that in the past month has taken him from Atlantic to Pacific—and most large places in between. Last week, he was in Toronto and then British Columbia.
At week’s end, his wife, Michèle, and their three children—Amélie,
11, Antoine, 6, and Alexandra, 4— flew to Banff to be with him while he attended the annual convention of Alberta’s Conservative party.
“Am I the only one crazy enough to do this?” Charest wondered aloud in one of several conversations with Maclean’s last week.
While it was a joke, the remark was also a sign that the decision to take on the task of leading the Conservative party in its darkest hour did not come easily. When it seemed evident after the election that Kim Campbell would quickly step down as leader, Jean and Michèle Charest went to a resort near Tampa Springs in Florida for 10 days of soul-searching and decision-making—and what Charest says was some bad tennis with his wife’s parents: “Every set they beat us, as though I needed more humility.” He had plenty of advice from colleagues who told him that he should leave politics for a new, perhaps more lucrative, career. Some of the offers were so interesting, he now sheepishly confesses, that he did not tell his wife about them. But with three young children, Michèle had power of veto. “It would not have happened if she had said no,” he said.
When Charest decided in March, 1993, to challenge what then seemed a Campbell juggernaut in the Conservative leadership race, he says he went home that night thinking, “Oh my God, what have I done?” But if he has any doubts now about the decision he made when he became the party’s interim leader on Dec. 14, he is keeping them to himself. “If you make a decision and you’re committed to it, well then, be committed to it,” he says. “Don’t complain about it. Just go ahead and do it.” It’s an attitude that has brought him to national prominence at just 35, an age when most politicians are just beginning their public careers, as the only potential savior of the party of Macdonald, Borden, Diefenbaker and Mulroney. It is a message that he leaves at every stop with the party faithful—whether it
be a group of business executives over lunch in a corporate dining-room in a Vancouver office tower or party activists at an evening social. “Success depends first and foremost on us, not the Liberals, not Reform,” he says, his jacket open, hand on his hip, winning over the crowd even though most of them supported Campbell as leader. “I know what hard work is all about and I am not intimidated by that.”
Charest’s belief in the value of dogged hard work nearly made him prime minister when his bid for the leadership brought him within 187 votes of Campbell’s better-financed campaign, which also had the backing of the party establishment. He must now work with that establishment—even though their near-unanimous backing for Campbell angered and at times hurt him because some of her support came from people he counted as loyal friends. That defeat did not add any wrinkles to his boyish face, but it left some on his heart for he talks often about the pain of the loss and says it made him a better politician. ‘Winning and losing are two sides of the coin,” he told a party meeting in Campbell River last week. “A politician isn’t complete until he has suffered a loss.” The key to rebuilding the party after its staggering defeat, Charest believes, is first to make Tories proud once again to be Tories. He turns aside the occasional complaint from party members that he should be spending more time attacking the Liberals. Canadians these days don’t really want to hear from the Tories, he says. “They still want to kick our ass and that will last some time,” he acknowledges. “We won’t be able to eat enough crow in the next year.” Picking up a napkin or a handy piece of paper, he draws a series of concentric circles with an inky blob at the centre and shows it to his audience. The blob is the core of party activists. “It’s important to understand that the first thing we have to do is rally our troops,” he says. The circle around the centre represents the 2.1-million Canadians who voted Conservative on Oct. 25, “God bless their souls.” Then there are voters who deserted the Tories for Reform or the Bloc, and finally there is the general public. “You can’t hopscotch,” he says, meaning there are no shortcuts. What he proposes is a change in the party structure to give more power to the activists and less to the insiders. The most important change would see leaders—starting with himself—elected by all party members, not by convention delegates.
The election left the party with a staggering debt. Its operating deficit last year was $9.5 million but the party had a carryover surplus from the previous year of $2.3 million. With a campaign rebate from Elections Canada and other expected income, party officials say the final 1993 debt will be $5.5 million. To deal with the debt, the party laid off all but about a dozen of its 90 staff members and closed its nine regional offices. Some Tory bagmen argue that the party should ignore its debt—as the Liberals did after their 1984 defeat— and instead spend its resources on organizing. Charest rejects that advice; he says the Liberals were in a different situation because it was clear that they would eventually return to power. Persuading Canadi-
Am I the only one crazy enough to do thi
ans that the Tory party is not dead, he says, means reducing its debt. Charest this week appointed one of. his own allies, businessman Donald MacDougall, as chairman of the PC Canada Fund, the party’s fund-raising arm. Fund director Gerry Strongman, a Vancouver businessman, said the party’s corporate fundraising has been temporarily suspended. “It isn’t appropriate to even ask right now,” he says. “Right now, everyone is wondering if this is a worthwhile investment.”
Charest tells downcast Tories that they hold their destiny in their own hands. He points to Peter Lougheed in Alberta and Robert Stanfield in Nova Scotia, who became party leaders when the Tories held no provincial seats but went on to found political dynasties. But Stanfield and Lougheed did not have to contend with the Reform party, which clearly complicates the task of rebuilding. Preston Manning’s attack from the right undermined the Conservative strategy during the election campaign, and some voices in the party insist that it must shift further right to win back voters who deserted it for Reform. One of those voices belongs to Stan Wilbee, a physician of kindly mien who represented the suburban Vancouver riding of Delta but went down in the Reform surge. Having Reform camped on Tory territory is a “real problem,” Wilbee said, particularly in the West. ‘What Brian Mulroney did wrong was move too much to the centre and the left.”
Charest and other Tories are resisting the temptation to fight Reform by moving sharply right. Most important, they argue, the Conservatives’ chief weapon against Reform will be their national roots, masked for the moment by the brutal election verdict of only one seat for Charest and one other for Elsie Wayne, a feisty maverick from New Brunswick. “We are a national party,” Charest insists at every turn. “The whole cornerstone of our work is that we are a national party.” Reform, he tells the business executives in Vancouver, has failed to articulate a national vision since it came to Ottawa—and is not likely to change. A possible referendum on sovereignty in Quebec, in which Charest could play a leading role as an advocate for federalism, would let the party demonstrate its national breadth.
There is no simple reason why anyone would accept the task of trying to put the party back together. At nearly every stop, Tories recognize the sacrifice Charest is making as they thank him with evident gratitude for taking on a job that few would even consider. The biggest issue for him, he says, is the separation from his family; even on the road, he tries to phone Michèle, his teenage sweetheart, two or three times a day. Charest likes to think that he can walk away from the life he has chosen if the demands on his family ever become too taxing. But there is, he acknowledges, another explanation. “Maybe,” he says, “I’m hooked.”
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