Brian Bethune September 28 1998


Brian Bethune September 28 1998

Looking for a spark


The Tory leadership race continues to stumble


Time was when a leadership race for the federal Progressive Conservative party promised to be a good spectacle: dramatic tension, some moments of low farce, perhaps, but a whiff of tragedy, too. This is the party that televised its regicides of John Diefenbaker and Joe Clark, and the dwindling band of Canadians who still call themselves federal Tories must have felt at least a shiver of old-time excitement about this fall’s leadership race to replace the departed Jean Charest.

But so far, instead of rekindling memories of the party’s colorful past, the contest has offered only harbingers of a dismal future. The first leadership debate in Burnaby, B.C., was sleepy and sparsely attended. One candidate—anti-American, anti-free-trade renegade David Orchard—is selling so many memberships that some Tories worry they may lose control of their party to someone they don’t even consider a Progressive Conservative. And the party was just not a factor in last week’s Sherbrooke, Que., federal byelection, the riding Charest held for 14 years (the Bloc Québécois narrowly won the seat over the Liberals, with the Conservatives a distant third). Suddenly, in addition to competing against one another, the five leadership candidates find themselves explaining why no one seems to care about them as a group. “I don’t think Canadians are sitting on the edge of their seats trying to figure out who should be the leader of the fifth-place party in this House of Commons,” candidate Hugh Segal said bluntly in Ottawa last week. “They have real lives and things to worry about, and I think that’s fair.”

In further fairness to those Canadians who may just look in on politics occasionally, only one candidate can be described as a known national figure. Former prime minister Joe Clark, on what is surely a steep uphill trail to win his old job back, still has strangers stop to shake his hand and wish him luck, as they did last week when he walked across the campus of the Université de Montréal. Clark tried working in the private sector after quitting politics in

1993, but now he is back in his comfort zone: bashing Liberals, mocking Reformers and trying to sell another national unity pitch to Quebec. It is accepted in party circles that while Segal, a longtime backroom tactician, may have organized earlier and better, Clark’s name recognition alone makes him the front-runner for the job.

But Clark says he is worried about Orchard’s unorthodox challenge. The Saskatchewan farmer has recruited anti-free-trade activists in unions, the Green party and the nationalist Council of Canadians movement to sell $10 Tory membership cards on his behalf. And with party membership so low to begin with, Orchard has accumulated enough members—7,000 is the conservative figure even his opponents concede him—to be a serious contender. “I’m alarmed,” Clark told Maclean’s in Montreal last week after finishing his speech in French to a polite, attentive student crowd. “There are ridings where David Orchard will be my main competition.” At the Burnaby debate, Clark called Orchard “a tourist” among the Tories.

But if the party considers Orchard an interloper, it has only itself to blame. Stung by memories of how Kim Campbell was virtually crowned by the Tory establishment in 1993, the Conservatives changed their rules of engagement for this race. No convention in a stuffy hockey rink. No block of votes reserved for party officials

or the overnight youth clubs formed for the purpose. This time, every member will vote in their federal riding with each of the 301 constituencies carrying equal weight.

With the number of active members in the party so low, the Tories were open to takeover. Anyone wanting to vote for leader on the Oct. 24 first ballot must have taken out a membership card within the year, meaning the other campaigns— Clark, Segal, former Manitoba cabinet minister Brian Pallister and Montreal lawyer Michael Fortier—are frantically tracking down names on old Tory lists to implore them to renew their membership. “Most people don’t focus on an event until close to the day,” said Clark. “And we’re going to have a lot of people who will think about voting but won’t have cards.”

Clark’s rivals regard the Orchard threat with a little more equanimity. They say the former prime minister is worried because he needs a first-ballot victory to avoid a showdown with a likely “Anybody but Clark” movement on a second ballot. And every Orchard membership sold raises the bar on the number of votes needed to get that first-ballot win. Segal was circumspect when asked about Orchard last week, saying only “it’s hard to get a handle on what’s really going on” until the membership drive is cut off on the Sept. 29 deadline. But Segal advisers are less cautious, one of them insisting that Orchard “is a pain in the ass because he’s got these loony views, but he is not serious at all.”

In fact, the Segal camp argues Clark is exaggerating Orchard’s threat simply to avoid a head-to-head confrontation with its candidate. The two men share many of the same views and had been widely expected to make this a two-way race. That hasn’t happened yet, partly because Clark has skilfully left little daylight between them on policy, making it harder for Segal to find grounds for a showdown. But the normally sharp and witty Segal has also been strangely reluctant

to really go after the former prime minister with any flourish.

Segal had planned to attack Clark in Burnaby, but inexplicably opted for politeness to the point of ineffectiveness. He spent the next three days kicking himself for his failure, suggesting to associates that the mood in the room had been “too polite, too Anglo-Saxon, and I would have been booed if I had been rude to a former prime minister.” Given the poor turnout and low-wattage dynamics, the real question is: who would have noticed? The candidates blamed party brass for the public relations debacle (choosing to hold the first debate in British Columbia, where the party received just six per cent of the popular vote in the last election, indicated “no lack of courage,” said Segal, choosing his words carefully). Party officials fired back that the candidates had vowed all seats would be filled, and then failed to get their people out. But all Tories agreed the “dialogues,” as they prefer to call them, need some adrenaline.

Segal served notice last week that he would meet that challenge, stepping out in Ottawa at a poorly attended news conference to hammer Clark as “an empty vessel offering no fresh ideas,” and saying party members “do not want to turn the clock back 20 years.” Segal has released several policy papers during the campaign in an attempt to reinforce his image as a political thinker, and he sneered at Clark’s less specific proposals on issues like constitutional reform. “He needs more ideas, he can’t just steal mine,” said Segal. “Joe’s been trying to hire me as a policy adviser for 25 years and he’s not about to get me now.” Segal’s tougher challenge is to find a way to raise Clark’s reputation as a loser the last time he led the party— without actually using such impolite terms. Segal says all he has to do is present Clark’s record as evidence, but there is a risk of appearing nasty in doing so.

Attacking Clark personally may be more difficult than when the Brian Mulroney crowd undermined him with a whisper campaign in the early 1980s. Clark is arguably a far more sympathetic figure now: his image as a blundering politician has been buried by a strong performance as Mulroney’s foreign minister, the young fogy having given way to a self-deprecating veteran. “I’m beyond the help of image consultants,” he joked at his campaign launch in Calgary last June. The students in Montreal showed empathy as well. During one answer, he suddenly became lost for a word, unable to come up with it in either French or English for what seemed like an interminable pause. But the students tried to help him out, laughing with him in his discomfort but without any unkindness.

Clark is playing that change in public attitude for political advantage. “The principal asset I bring into this process is that I’m trusted in the country,” he says, “trusted at a time when few people are trusted.” To his Tory leadership opponents, anxious to open a wound or two on the front-runner, that is not enough. In Burnaby, Fortier tried to use the almost clichéd attack on “professional politicians” against Clark and seemed meanspirited for doing it. More successfully, Pallister also attacked the former prime minister for having no new ideas, suggesting that if Clark and Orchard want to debate the merits of free trade, they do so on the History Channel—an at least clever reminder that Clark’s political career may be nearing its “sell-by” date.

But the campaign will almost surely change once the membership sale closes on Sept. 29 and the size and composition of the voting pool is known. That is when Tories will be able to accurately measure what is so far only alleged: the strength of Segal’s machine, the depth of Clark’s appeal and, perhaps most interestingly, the amount of havoc Orchard might wreak. “You know,” said Clark, returning to his Orchard theme, “his people are from another generation, their values are from the ’60s. They’re ‘cause’ people, and $10 to buy a membership in the PC party to do a little mischief is not much to them. They’d be saving whales one day, and now they’ve turned their sights on us.” For now, it’s the only drama in a race that needs more—but Tories may squirm at the comparison to a threatened species. □