Canada

CRUMBLING ALLIANCES

HOW A PARTY USED TO THE MORAL HIGH GROUND IS REWRITING THE BOOK ON INTERNECINE STRIFE

John Geddes May 28 2001
Canada

CRUMBLING ALLIANCES

HOW A PARTY USED TO THE MORAL HIGH GROUND IS REWRITING THE BOOK ON INTERNECINE STRIFE

John Geddes May 28 2001

CRUMBLING ALLIANCES

Canada

HOW A PARTY USED TO THE MORAL HIGH GROUND IS REWRITING THE BOOK ON INTERNECINE STRIFE

By John Geddes in Ottawa

Forget the euphoria of election victory, or even the despondency of defeat. Those moments of fleeting bliss or wretchedness do not shape a political party. It is more often the drawn-out internecine conflicts that define one. Today’s Liberals tend to identify themselves not by the roles they played in securing Jean Chretien his three consecutive majorities, but by the scars they got backing Chrétien or Paul Martin in their rivalry for supremacy inside the party. Conservatives trading old war stories may touch nostalgically on Brian Mulroney’s two election triumphs, but they revel in recollecting who did what to whom back in 1983 when Mulroney’s gang was shoving Joe Clark out as leader. And now, the Canadian Alliance, whose members thought themselves a different breed, are creating their own lore of internal strife.

Judging from the rhetoric this first Alliance civil war is generating, being in the thick of it must be a bracing experience. For all their protestations that they wished it could be some other way, the dissidents who walked out on Stockwell Day last week looked energized and spoke proudly. “When loyalty to the leader comes up against loyalty to the principles and policies upon which we were elected, then the decision we make is neither difficult nor optional,” said Chuck Strahl, the chief mutineer, his baritone dipping near the James Earl Jones range. In response, Day jutted his chin towards the cameras and tried to sound magnanimous. “I regret the decision they have made,” he said of the eight MPs who were suspended from caucus for calling for him to step down as leader, “and would hope over time that they can be reconciled and find a way to return to the very democratic grassroots principles of this party.”

Fine words from both camps, which came nowhere near capturing the raw, angry tone of this struggle. The Alliance is crossing rough, unfamiliar terrain. The party’s core activists come out of the Reform movement, where the bonding experience of creating an underdog political force, the shared inclinations of western populism, and fealty to founding leader Preston Manning made deep schisms all but unthinkable. “The Reform party tended to be a cohesive coalition,” says Ken Kalopsis, co-president of the Alliance national council. “But there are divisions forming within the Alliance—you support the leader or you don’t support the leader, you look at policy one way or another way, you’re a social conservative or a social moderate—things of that sort.”

Holding parties together despite such strains is part of the daily grind of big-time politics. Kalopsis says the national council, which is scheduled to meet late this week in Calgary, will try to find a way to do just that. But those 43 elders and insiders have their work cut out for them. The new fissures in the party cut deeply into their own ranks. Among the items up for discussion is whether the council should throw out one of its bestknown members, Rick Anderson, the former Manning adviser blamed by Day’s inner circle for fomenting the caucus revolt.

Kalopsis himself is in a ticklish position. As a top party official, he professes to support Day, but he also praises Anderson. And Kalopsis is married to Nancy Branscombe, in her own right an influential Alliance organizer and council member, who is more bluntly outspoken.

“The intensity of feeling against Stockwell Day is quite astonishing,”

Branscombe told Macleans. “What are we supposed to do, close ranks around him and let this drag on for three years and then lose an election? People don’t want to do that.”

So what do the anti-Day people want to do? Clearly, any hope of

Day exiting quickly evaporated as he dug in for a long siege last week. The Alliance constitution gives his opponents a chance to oust him in a leadership review next April at the party’s annual convention. But he sounds almost eager to face that day of judgment—which is no surprise to his adversaries. They admit privately that Day stands a strong chance of winning majority support from convention delegates elected by riding associations. After all, Day proved in last year’s Alliance leadership race—when he upset Manning by winning 63 per cent of 114,000 ballots cast—that he can mobilize support, particularly among staunchly anti-abortion social-conservative groups.

That leaves the dump-Day forces waging a guerrilla campaign to push him out well before the convention. If they succeed, it will not have been an uplifting exercise—as the victims of mutinies in the old parties who have found themselves cast in the Captain

Bligh role, from Joe Clark to John Turner, can attest. The dissidents must hack away at Day’s authority by keeping up the feeling that more crew members are turning against him all the time.

This week, the mood may be set by Deborah Grey, the longestserving Alliance MP It was largely her decision to resign as deputy leader last month, out of frustration with Day’s error-prone performance, that upgraded the party’s malaise from serious to critical. Grey’s Edmonton riding association is slated to vote on May 24 on whether to call for an early review of Day’s leadership. If the vote goes against the leader, Grey might openly call for Day to step down—and many Alliance MPs and rank and filers would take that signal very seriously.

Day needs to quickly conjure up a new aura of professionalism in the face of intense pressure. One positive development: his

House leader, B.C. MP John Reynolds, has emerged as the unshakable public face of his new guard. But even Day’s supporters admit he still needs much better behind-the-scenes help. Day has been searching for a chief of staff since Ian Todd, previously a longtime Manning aid, quit the position last month. There is also a vacancy for someone to put the spin on Days daily message: Ezra Levant, his mercurial director of communications since Feb. 14, resigned last week after a rocky run. Levant said he was leaving because his instinct is “to go for the jugular” and what Day needs now is “diplomacy.”

Day loyalists take hope from the history of troubled opposition leaders—including Chrétien— whose fortunes turned for the better when they surrounded themselves with new talent. Bob Dechert, national co-secretary of the Alliance and one of Day’s fiercest defenders, draws a parallel to the career of Ontario Premier Mike Harris. After losing a provincial election in 1990, Harris was widely written off as lacking the right stuff. Then he acquired a cadre of inspired aids—the architects of his Common Sense Revolution—and went on to form two successive Tory majority governments. “I see similarities between Mike Harris and Stockwell Day,” Dechert said. “The one difference is that Stock doesn’t have a crack team of dedicated, smart advisers.”

He needs to assemble one—and fast. His opponents will try to maintain an atmosphere of upheaval so no bright lights will be tempted to sign on. Through it all, bonds of loyalty will be forged and walls of distrust thrown up. “You learn a lot more about your teammates in difficult times than you ever will when things are rosy,” Alliance MP Brian Pallister, who is sticking with Day, ruefully observed. Lessons of that sort are not soon forgotten. In years to come, veterans of this conflict will be remembering which side they were on in 2001 when things got ugly. ESI