In defence of the individual

Peter C. Newman November 13 2000

In defence of the individual

Peter C. Newman November 13 2000

In defence of the individual

Peter C. Newman

Of Stockwell Day’s virtues, none is more compelling than the fact he is not Preston Manning.

Righdy or wrongly, the clear impression of Prestos Reform party leadership was that he wanted to redeem the country, not govern it. Day harbours no such illusions. Let others seek atonement and absolution, Stock is after cold, hard votes— and he’s getting them.

His great enemy is time. Can he, within the tight confines of a five-week campaign, lay down convincing terms of endearment that will prompt enough cynics—in other words, ordinary Canadian voters—to cast their ballots for his breech-birthed Alliance party.

That was a tough enough assignment before Jean Chrétien stole most of Day’s election platform, before the Tories and the NDP proved stunningly ineffective in mobilizing antiLiberal votes, and before Paul Martin decided to place loyalty before pride, and bet $100 billion in public money on his political nemesis’s third term.

Now, Day’s assignment is more daunting than it ought to be. Defeating as corrupt and arrogant a gang of political manipulators as the Chrétien Liberals is what democratic elections should be all about. But the Grits haven’t earned the title of Canada’s “Government Party” for nothing. They launched this campaign boasting the advantages of experience and incumbency. That includes a federal treasury bursting with electoral gumdrops, patronage galore and a leader willing to risk harming his country and his party for the sake of succeeding himself in power.

During a recent exclusive interview with Day, he sounded like a man who, knowing all that, has had to radically alter his tactics, while remaining true to his cause. He has found himself at an oblique angle to ascertainable reality, and understands that, in the circumstances, conventional promises won’t harvest votes. Instead, he is proposing the end of entidement and the rise of individualism. “No question that Canada is governable,” he told me, “but only if people are given institutions and frameworks closer to where they live. Of course, Ottawa must carry out its overarching constitutional role, but it must also start putting faith in individuals, families and communities, who, without being stifled by an overbearing federal government, have been able to see Canada progress in quite a respectable way. That intrusion has to be pulled back. I’m talking about people, who are held back by a federal power that insists they can’t do it with their own efforts, liberating themselves.”

This is the vital fact about the Alliance that few voters have yet cottoned on to. “It is not,” as associate editor Paul Bunner wrote in The Report, an Edmonton-based biweekly

magazine that supports Day, “just an alternative to Liberalism; it is its antithesis.”

Day is well aware that he cannot compete, toe-to-toe, with a Liberal electoral machine geared to turning western populists into road kill, but he also knows that most Canadians are tired of being ruled by an insolent oligarchy dedicated to eternally perpetuating itself. He hopes that voters will grope their way to supporting his crusade as an outsider who will demand accountability from the system—by changing it.

His appeal, which may not have the chance to gel before Nov. 27, is less program-specific than based on a fresh approach to governing. “We’ve developed a template in Alberta that worked for us, and that we would apply in Ottawa,” he explains. “Within each department, we would identify those things that legitimately should be the core business of government, and those that should not. From that, we’d develop an overall business plan, with its effectiveness measured quarterly. The key is to have each and every minister and deputy minister sign a contract, subscribing to their departmental efforts. That’s the defining moment for public servants. If they don’t agree with the restructuring that’s involved and can’t sign the contract, they must choose the severance provisions available for them. But the ones who remain are committed not only to making each program effective, but to being a lot more responsive to the public.”

Stockwell Day’s real test will come after the election, when he tries to weld together a potential governing coalition in the face of a Fiberal minority, which I continue to predict will be the campaign’s most likely outcome. With Joe Clark determined to hang in until his followers are reduced to his immediate family, and the NDP’s chances for growth looking increasingly grim, the Alliance’s only viable partner will be the Bloc Québécois. It would be a Faustian combination held together mainly by their mutual distrust of Chrétien, but it could work. “That would be possible on an issue-byissue basis, should we be in a minority government situation,” Day concedes. “For instance, Gilles Duceppe and I met to discuss the anti-gang legislation, and that worked.”

Meanwhile, Day continues his mellow campaign, hoping that enough Canadians will latch on to his down-home, nonconfrontational style, but realize that he represents a fundamental shift in the way Canada is governed.

He’s not just another suit, wet or otherwise. “You can’t treat the Fiberals’ arrogance with respect,” he told me at the end of our interview, “but by going after their record, you can bring people to a conclusion, that it’s one of disrespect for democracy. And that’s my message.”

And that shouldn’t be a tough sell.