CANADA

Life after Charest

Bruce Wallace April 13 1998
CANADA

Life after Charest

Bruce Wallace April 13 1998

Life after Charest

CANADA

Bruce Wallace

It is one thing to offer tributes to a politician who is retiring from public life. Kind words and ribald jokes about the old wars can be safely expended on an opponent headed for the comforts of corporate directorships and long lunches. But you can’t let your guard down when the enemy is just switching from one political stage to another. The House of Commons farewells to Jean Charest last week were polite but political, with other leaders well aware that the outwardly affable Charest will still be able to bite back from his new pulpit in Quebec. So Jean Chrétien treaded gently into a pitch for national unity. Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe blasted away wildly at every potential vulnerability the separatists’ research department could find from Charest’s 14-yearfederal career, praying the spray would hit just one.

Many Tories are looking coldly ahead—and growing annoyed with the mess he has left them

Even Preston Manning’s joke that, contrary to popular belief, Reformers do indeed like Tories—and plan to “inquire after their welfare and invite them home for dinner”—was delivered with the air of the drooling wolf in grandma drag.

Only a couple of Tory MPs shed tears at Charest’s departure. His old seatmates have pretty well spent their emotions by now. Many Tories are looking coldly ahead at life without Charest and are growing annoyed with the mess he has left. They feel they waited patiently through his “should I stay or should I go” angst after last year’s electoral disappointment—only to be abandoned when they are $10 million in debt and without obvious leadership successors. There are whispered hopes that Charest still cares enough to use his clout to raise money for them (he was twisting arms with business leaders for just that purpose in Toronto last week). But it is almost impossible for a party to solicit big donations without a leader. Those who write the cheques want to know whether new leadership will keep the Tories on a moderate course or steer towards a harder conservative line—and if the party will even survive as a national force. When they last spoke, Ontario Premier Mike Harris wished Charest well in Quebec, but was pointedly silent when Charest asked if the federal party could

count on his support while they rebuild.

The most glaring problem is the shortage of viable, fresh leadership contenders who could bring about renewal. Backroom Tory Hugh Segal was first out of the blocks, speed dialling through party numbers in search of early commitments. Segal is only 47 but his past ties to the Bill Davis and Brian Mulroney regimes paint him into a Red Tory corner. Another chronologically young but badly scarred veteran is Joe Clark, who has told friends he would shoulder the leadership if his party calls. It has not.

For those Tories who believe they must attract Reform voters back to the fold, Charest’s departure would be a blessing—if only they could find a champion for their cause. Ralph Klein seems serious about staying put in Alberta, where he wants to turn his political friendship with Charest into a new QuebecAlberta axis of provincial power. Klein plans to travel to Quebec this spring for a public show of solidarity with Charest. Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon is a proven winner who, despite strained relations with the federal Tories—who haven’t forgiven his torpedoing the Meech Lake accord—boasts a record of fiscal conservatism and solid fundraising credentials. At 55, Filmon is looking for challenges outside Manitoba politics and some Tories think rebuilding the federal party (at least outside Quebec) would be a wonderful new career project. But Filmon’s own interests lie with his family and, sometime down the road, a better-paying job in the private sector. With the Pan-Am Games coming to Winnipeg this year, he is busy learning Spanish, not French.

That has many Tories wondering whether a new political coalition is needed. Not under Reform’s umbrella, of course. To Tories, Manning’s invitation to an extraordinary convention next fall to build a united opposition to the Liberals smells like a takeover. What they want is a neutral convention, where Tories and Reformers could comfortably attend without donning disguises. It would have to. be convened by someone of stature but without personal ambition, someone all conservatives respect. Someone, perhaps, like Peter Lougheed.