COVER

Reading the cigar smoke

Bruce Wallace

March 16 1998
COVER

Reading the cigar smoke

Bruce Wallace

March 16 1998

Reading the cigar smoke

Bruce Wallace

Four straight provincial victories left Robert Stanfield operating on cruise control as premier of Nova Scotia in 1967, when cigar smoke began seeping from the federal Tory party’s back rooms signalling he was just the man to replace John Diefenbaker as leader of the national party. “I would rather take up ski jumping,” was Stanfield’s answer to those first, eager petitioners—but he came around. Within weeks, he was in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, campaigning with the rest of the field in a leadership race he would indeed win. Never mind that he fought and lost three elections to Pierre Trudeau. He went to Ottawa. And that decision should give pause to those who argue in these suddenly interesting political times

that Ralph Klein is far too content in his Alberta fiefdom to give it up for the uncertainties of the national game. The arguments against Klein making the jump are easy and predictable. Why leave now, just when the days of deep budget cutting in Alberta are over and the political rewards are about to roll in? Who wants to lead the fifth-largest party in Ot-

tawa? He doesn’t speak French and is not about to learn. He remains popular without breaking a sweat. He can wear jeans to work. Yet the drumbeat to get Klein to give up the comforts of home, should Jean Charest jump to Quebec politics, is unlikely to relent. It comes in part because the list of Tories who could lead their party back to life is depressingly thin, thereby bestowing the same aura of a messiah on Klein that Quebec Liberals have thrust on Charest.

But a Klein-led Tory party makes sense, whether the field is long or not. His presence would make the Tories a party with a pan-Canadian base again. He would bring the Conservatives his own western constituency, which includes many Reform voters, offering the party its best shot at wooing back some elements of Reform. Many Ontario Tories love the prospect of watching Klein work his earthy, accessible brand of politics in their province, where they believe his style is palatable to conservative voters still unmoved by Preston Manning’s awkward squawk. Klein’s friendship with

Does Alberta Premier Ralph Klein have his eye on the federal Tory leadership? Charest could translate into a political alliance in Quebec, with Charest making elements of the provincial Liberal machine available to Klein the way Robert Bourassa did for Brian Mulroney. And the Tories already have a beefy Atlantic caucus.

That’s what had Manning’s Reformers so unsettled as they watched Charest’s dance with destiny from the sidelines last week. Reformers argued that a Klein candidacy would simply split the right-ofcentre vote more evenly than it is now, allowing the Liberals to continue to sneak up the middle to win seats. “We’ve never picked a fight with Ralph,” was the cautious Reform line. “He is a smart guy in a good job,” says Reform strategist Rick Anderson. ‘The Tory job is a bad one.”

From Klein’s perspective, however, the fight was picked long ago. Klein’s entourage resents the way Reform has intervened in provincial politics, most notably during the last campaign when Manning tried to pin an uncomfortable premier down on just how far he was willing to go to satisfy Quebec’s constitutional demands. “They seem to feel Ralph is a threat and

they have to discredit him,” says a Klein backer. “They don’t like the fact that he won’t toady to the Reform line.” Much is made over the hostility between Charest and Lucien Bouchard, but a Manning-Klein battle would bring its own personal edge. Albertans can’t quite explain the relationship between the two men, only to say there isn’t one. No warmth. No common ground. Klein is as laid-back as Manning is intense, as much of an intuitive politician as Manning is a studied one. Although huge numbers of Albertans vote for both parties, the same antagonism flares between the two organizations. They sniff and circle each other suspiciously. Even when Reformers and provincial Tories appeared to be working hand-in-hand to get Stan Waters elected to the Senate in 1990, the episode is remembered on both sides for its animosity. The Manning-Klein rivalry, some suggest, derives from the simple fact that Alberta has room for only one king. How tantalizing the prospect of discovering which of the two that really is.