CANADA

The Hardest Sell

Robert Sheppard November 6 2000
CANADA

The Hardest Sell

Robert Sheppard November 6 2000
It’s an older crowd for the most part, a legion crowd—cardigans and pressed blue jeans, some of the women wearing pearls. But there are also young families with small children in tow, and as they jam the pine-panelled legion hall in Creemore, Ont., the air is shot with the nervous tension of a high-school dance. Creemore is a pretty-as-a-postcard Ontario town squeezed between its farming tradition and the influx of well-heeled Torontonians turning it into a weekend getaway. But tonight, there is a different tug of war. For Creemore is smack in the middle of the federal riding of Simcoe/Grey, a constituency that fell just 485 votes shy of sending a Reform MP to the House of Commons in 1997—the closest race in Ontario. And the Canadian Alliance crowd that swells the legion hall to overflowing is determined not to be a wallflower again, even if it means facing up to the oldest political choice in the book: do you pick the pretty newcomer as your champion or, as they say in politics, do you dance with those that brung you?

As a slogan, “Unite the right”—the idea being to swing disaffected Conservative voters into Stockwell Day's camp to defeat the governing Liberals—is all the rage in Alliance circles and on political talk shows. With the once mighty Conservative party down to about 10-per-cent support in Ontario—the Alliance is in the high 20s, the Grits soaring at around 50, according to recent polls—its carcass should be ripe for the plucking. But it is here in the Protestant Tory heartland of Ontario, in the dozen or so still mostly rural ridings that scrape across the middle of the province and can trace their Conservative roots back beyond Confederation, that this war within a war meets its most human test.

The nomination meeting in Simcoe/Grey is unfailingly polite and businesslike. Close your eyes and this could be a Reform gathering in Red Deer, Alta., or an NDP meeting in Prince Albert, Sask. The audience—about 700 strong, with 557 voting—doesn’t say much or ask questions. Those present are assured that the three candidates up for consideration have each volunteered a police check and have had their respective references verified. Two were long-standing Reform party members. Both sing the praises of former leader Preston Manning and Day, his successor as the new Alliance leader; one is introduced by Ed Harper, the only Reformer ever elected in Ontario (in 1993 for one term), a popular local figure.

The third is George Demery, a 56-year-old country lawyer and a provincial Tory. Demery is the president of the local provincial Conservative riding association; the man who nominated him helped run the last election campaign for the provincial member, Tory Energy Minister Jim Wilson. Demery’s very candidacy is based on the message that only by raiding the Tory cupboard can Alliance thrive. At the end of the night, he walks off with the prize.

Is this the face of the “united right” in rural Ontario? Demery, a modest man with a slight stoop (he’s a small-claims court judge on the side), is happy to take up the cause. But he is also a realist. There are a number of loyal Conservatives “who know me and trust me,” he says. “But I have to be honest, I don’t think they’ve really made up their minds yet whether they want to change parties. This is a very conservative community. I’ve lived here for 24 years and sometimes I still feel like an outsider.”

In the much ballyhooed battle for Ontario, there are 29 (of 103) seats where the combined Tory and Reform vote from the last election would be enough to unseat Liberal incumbents. More realistically, there are three—all in a pinwheel surrounding Simcoe/Grey—that could send Alliance MPs to Ottawa with a modest 20-per-cent shift from the Tories; five that could do the trick with half the Tory vote switching hands. But it is not as if the Conservative party is just rolling over like a tired old hound, at least in its heartland. In Simcoe/Grey (held by Liberal Paul Bonwick, a 36 year-old former municipal councilor from Collingwood), the Tories have nominated Bill Dunkley, an affable farmer and long-standing party worker who helped organize a huge and well-publicized relief fund for Kosovo war victims a year ago. For every provincial Tory campaign worker that Demery can bring to his cause, Dunkley can boast the same, lending the fight a tangled skein of partisan loyalties that helps explain why the vast majority of provincial cabinet ministers, including Premier Mike Harris himself, are sitting on the sidelines. Even in Leeds-Grenville, one of two eastern Ontario ridings Alliance is targeting—and represented provincially by Consumer Minister Bob Runciman, an Alliance campaign co-chairman for the province—both the Alliance and Tory candidates are prominent members of Runciman’s own provincial election team. “It’s awkward,” Runciman says, “but people know where I stand.”

Compounding the awkwardness was Day’s opening week two-day tour of the province—where, as he has stated many times, he has to do well if he is to form a government. If Day had played his cards right, he might have had Harris’s political machine at his disposal. One of the two men Day defeated for the Alliance leadership in July was Tom Long, the architect of, and driving force behind, that machine. But there was bad blood between the two during the campaign: a right-to-life group backing Day made a public fuss about certain Long supporters being gay, and so Long turned to Manning on the final ballot.

For this election, Long is back onside in a part-time advisory role—“I’m not involved in the day-to-day,” he stresses—and he has so far turned aside pleas to become more active. More to the point, his key people, the ones who helped create Harris’s unique coalition—marrying the rural heartland to the aspiring bedroom communities that ring Toronto—are sitting this one out or participating far from the center of the action. Never wooed by the Day team that took over, the proof of their withdrawal may be in the pudding that is the Alliance leader’s tour.

Two days in Ontario to kick off the election—two bumbles. First, Day tried to emphasize the worrisome brain drain of high-tech personnel south of the border by touring the plant of an Ottawa businessman— who had just returned from the United States because he found he could hire better-qualified people in Canada. On Day 2, he tried to make the same point with scenic Niagara Falls as his backdrop, but he mistakenly claimed Lake Erie flowed south into the United States. Maybe these gaffes don’t amount to a hill of beans: a late-week poll showed the Alliance gaining momentum in Ontario. But by Friday, two key members of Manning’s former team—Rick Anderson and Jim Armour—were asked back to instill more discipline in the tour. And senior Alliance organizers can be heard grumbling that Day’s style is too soft, too unfocused.

Uniting the right, at least in Ontario with its established partisan traditions, is about more than merely finding common ground on issues like tax reduction or the national debt. It is about merging two different styles and political cultures. The Reform-Alliance style is very process driven: the emphasis is on fairness, having an open tent and democratic grassroots decision-making. Ontario Tories, federal and provincial, have stressed a reliance on party loyalty, earning your spurs, and being prepared in an organizational way. It may not be possible for the two to co-exist; one upshot of this division is that some of those seeking Alliance nominations—and it is only a small group—are from organizations or parties such as the Family Coalition Party, which have fought tooth and claw against the Harris Tories on the provincial hustings.

With four weeks to go—and with Liberal strength appearing to hold in the contented (and provincially Harris-held) suburbs that surround Toronto—the battle for seats will be most fierce in the half-dozen or so ridings in the old Tory heartland. And while the so-called Harris Tories—voters and small-town organizers—hold the key, they are also caught in a kind of political pincer movement. On the one side are Jean Chrétien's Liberals, stealing the Alliances tax relief thunder and making side deals with the Ontario government to help fund Toronto’s Olympic bid. On the other are heartfelt appeals from old warriors like former Ontario premier Bill Davis, who spoke at a Joe Clark fund-raiser last week, extolling the virtues of loyalty and reminiscing mightily about how he has helped out on every federal Conservative campaign, from John Bracken and George Drew to Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell. (Alliance organizers have tried to get big-name Tories, including former provincial cabinet ministers, to run for the new party. But no one has agreed—indeed, it was the Tories who snagged former provincial health minister Dennis Timbrell—so the baton has been passed largely to those who have fought in the trenches.)

In a way, George Demery, the Alliance candidate in Simcoe/Grey, can be seen as a Bill Davis Tory. He worked his way up through the organizational ranks from vice-president to president of the local Tory association. He broadened his small-town experiences by accepting provincial appointments to the small-claims court and the College of Physicians and Surgeons that regulates Ontario doctors. And when his family was grown and he had reached a certain stature in his community, he was talked into standing for office. Isn’t that the way conservative candidates have always been chosen in Ontario? To have your say on the federal election www.macleans.ca