Why the West is calling the shots in Canada

Allan Fotheringham November 30 1998

Why the West is calling the shots in Canada

Allan Fotheringham November 30 1998

Why the West is calling the shots in Canada

Allan Fotheringham

It is from the hinterland that the ideas come. It is from the boonies that the energy and innovation come. You want change? Look afar. As the shattered Republicans try to regroup, the leaders rise well distant from the party’s traditional base. As Canada’s right wing tries to coalesce, the shovers and makers are from Western Canada, well away from Bay Street. This is how the world shifts.

While no one seems to have noticed, the confused Republicans, who can’t seem to pin down Slippery Willie, are no longer the party of the Eastern Seaboard. No more the image of portly bankers playing croquet, stockbrokers sipping their martinis while clipping their coupons.

The Grand Old Party has moved to the Deep South, once the preserve of the Democrats before blacks started to move north for industrial jobs. The disgraced Newt Gingrich, of course, is from Georgia. But to replace him as Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Republicans have reached even farther south, to Louisiana for the relatively unknown Bob Livingston, who started out as a teenager cleaning up after the elephants at the New Orleans zoo. Good grounding for politics, you might say? We’ll ignore that. No one outside Washington (or the elephants) had ever heard of him.

House majority leader? Dick Armey of Texas. Majority whip? Tom DeLay, Texas. Who’s the new chairman of the Republican Conference? Oklahoma’s Julius Caesar Watts Jr., the only black Republican in the House. As J. C. Watts, he led the University of Oklahoma to consecutive Orange Bowl victories in 1980 and ’81 and then played as quick-footed quarterback for the Ottawa Rough Riders.

An ordained minister, he wasn’t quite so fast in other areas, once wiretapped (but not charged) by the FBI in a bribery investigation, and his state having liens against him for income taxes in 1983, 1984 and 1986, and being late in paying his 1992, 1993 and 1994 real estate taxes.

But that’s another matter, politicians below the Mason-Dixon Line are given—hello there, Slick Willie—a lot of leeway. The Democrats know the value of Dixie: they’ve ruled the White House for two terms with the unusual geographical pairing of the Double Bubba—

Clinton from Arkansas and Al Gore from Tennessee. Where is House minority leader Dick Gephardt from? Missouri.

But the Republicans are sticking to the South, where the population is flowing in search of sun. Already leading the race for the party’s presidential candidate in 2000 is a very thin reed, George W. Bush, son of you-know-who and just re-elected as governor of the second most populous state, Texas. Brother Jeb Bush is now governor of Florida, fourth most populous.

As the Americans look south—the next president probably Gore or Bush—Canada takes its mind off the never-ending Quebec problem to look west. It’s where the political ideas have come from this century.

The Alberta farmers sent their own party to the House of Commons in the 1920s. The idealistic socialists of the CCF, now morphed into the NDP, were born in the West. Tommy Douglas in Saskatchewan introduced medicare to North America (Germany, pushed by Bismarck, beat him to it in 1896). Manitoba’s John Bracken accepted the Conservative leadership only on the condition that the oxymoronic “Progressive” be tacked onto the label.

So now we approach 1999 and the united alternative conference in Ottawa in February. Jurassic Clark (aka Joe) maintains he will not attend, but history has passed him by and the poor guy hasn’t noticed.

He should have a chat with Tom Kierans, the wisest young man on Bay Street. Kierans, who made his millions there, says that everyone knows that the financial centre has shifted from Montreal to Toronto but neither Ottawa nor Montreal knows the extent to which power has shifted from Toronto to Western Canada. “It’s the old Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto axis,” he sighs, knowing it because he’s part of it.

The poor Tories, as their pitiful leadership contest proved, are dead but won’t lie down. (It reminds one of the old joke about the Miss Nanaimo contest where no one won.) Presto! Manning at least has the grace to acknowledge that he will step down from leadership of the stalled Reform gang if the united alternative can come up with a Tory-Reform merger.

One should mention, in the middle of this mess, that mighty, rich Toronto is rather toothless in Ottawa despite its claim to be the centre of the universe. Ontario, despite its stranglehold on Liberal MPs in Ottawa, doesn’t have a single strong body in cabinet. Art Eggleton? Sheila Copps? Get serious. Allan Rock keeps getting caught in impossible portfolios.

The anglophone dauphin, Paul Martin, lives in Montreal when he should be running in his native turf of Windsor. The Unite-the-Right leader, emerging from that February conference, will probably be Stockwell Day, the handsome and terribly ambitious treasurer of Alberta. Or Stephen Harper, the bilingual thirtysomething protégé of Manning, who is waiting outside politics for the main chance.

The West will rise again.