Canada

WORSE AND WORSE

The Stockwell Day saga may mark the end of the populist ideal that resulted in the birth of the Reform party

JOHN GEDDES July 23 2001
Canada

WORSE AND WORSE

The Stockwell Day saga may mark the end of the populist ideal that resulted in the birth of the Reform party

JOHN GEDDES July 23 2001

WORSE AND WORSE

Canada

JOHN GEDDES

in Ottawa

The old—timers are taking it hard. Ray Speaker, who helped cook up the idea of the Reform party with Preston Manning back in

1987, says the populist movement that turned into the Canadian Alliance last year has died under Stockwell Day. Speaker, 65, is watching the infighting over Days leadership from his spread north of Lethbridge, Alta., deep in what was the Reform heartland, where the withered ranch country this dry summer about matches his dismal mood. The one-time Reform MP has

talked things over with his old friend Manning, who is otherwise keeping his own counsel these days. “We’ve had some days of long discussion together, and we feel that we changed the country somewhat,” Speaker told Macleans. “But, the thing is, we didn’t bring it to the final conclusion of forming a government. So it’s sad—it was right there.”

And now, he says, it’s all over. Speaker has come to what is for him a radical conclusion: the time has come to put aside the populist ideal that inspired Reform and was supposed to have been inherited by the Alliance. He suggests throwing whatever energy the party has left into joining forces with the Conservatives, and swallowing the hard truth that Tory Leader Joe Clark—that old nemesis of Alberta Reformers—has the political credibility to spearhead the merger. The new party will be a conventional Canadian electoral machine, Speaker predicts, not another attempt at grassroots democracy. “I’m giving up on basic principles,” he says. “Once we move to a Tory mix, we lose the elements of bottom-up populism, because the Tories want to run things from the top down. But we’ve got to have an alternative to the Liberals.”

Speaker isn’t alone in his sense of resignation—and no wonder. Last week, Alliance members saw their party riven by acrimony so bitter that political veterans with long memories strained to find

precedents. B.C. MP John Reynolds, Days tough top lieutenant, reached back to his recollections of the deep rift in the Tory party when John Diefenbaker was displaced as leader in 1967. But even that legendarily bitter episode didn’t generate plot twists to rival the saga unfolding in the Alliance. Strangest of all was Day’s revoking of an offer to step down when

his terms of exit were not readily accepted by dissidents who had left his caucus.

Day proposed that he go on a leave of absence before resigning formally next April. The aim, he said, was to give the party a healing period before plunging it into another leadership contest. The talks broke down over how Day’s loyalists and his opponents would share power until a new leader was chosen. Peter White, the party’s co-treasurer and top corporate fund-raiser, quit in frustration over “the depth of distrust and paranoia on both sides.” The Alliance caucus and its party executive were

The Stockwell Day saga may mark the end of the populist ideal that resulted in the birth of the Reform party

in turmoil. Days fate could be decided as early as July 17 at a meeting of Alliance MPs in Calgary, where some are expected to tell him blundy that he cant stay on after having admitted he was prepared to go.

But Day, defiantly determined to hang tough, embarked on a tour of the West to shore up support before the crucial caucus gathering. “I’m an inexperienced leader,” he admitted before a sympathetic crowd in Blackstrap, Sask. “I made some mistakes. They keep playing these four or five mistakes and I say, ‘Yeah, I wish I hadn’t done those things.’ ” Day’s attempt to

-to

write off his shortcomings as rookie slipups, though, is a view rejected by many Alliance insiders—not only those actively campaigning to oust him, but also many who have stuck with him so far. Behind missteps like the bungled libel lawsuit, the strange story of the spy hired—or maybe not—

dig out dirt on the Liberals, and the many mis guided photo ops, are weaknesses that few now dismiss as isolated gaffes.

His critics invariably stress Day’s emphasis on image over substance. Jokes and editorial cartoons about his stagey arrival

and departure from an early news conference on a Wave Runner have long since grown tiresome, but they defined his image on the national stage. Even more telling, perhaps, is a story making the rounds among Alliance politicians and aides about a purported conversation last fall between Day and Manning. The version whispered by Day’s adversaries is that he called Manning for advice on his first speech in the House of Commons. But instead of respectfully asking the elder statesman for guidance on content, Day supposedly had just one question: from Manning’s experience sitting in the official Opposition leader’s frontbench seat, where should Day look to find the House of Commons TV camera that would be shooting him?

Whether the anecdote is accurate or apocryphal hardly matters. It drives home the contrast between Day’s apparent superficiality and Manning’s unchallenged depth. Arndre Turcotte, the longtime Reform pollster and former Manning adviser who predicted blundy during the Alliance leadership race that Day would prove a disastrous leader, says the failure to convey any sense of policy purpose is the main reason Day has lost his grip on the party. “He was elected leader based on one thing—delivering Ontario,” Turcotté says. “After he won just two seats there, people began looking at him from another angle, saying, ‘What else should I follow this guy for?’ And there’s nothing else there.”

Day’s attempts to lay claim to bold policy ideas have tended to backfire badly. When he delivered a key speech on immigration in the House, the big news was that he had unilaterally reversed important positions taken by his own immigration critic. When he announced plans for a referen-

dum among Alliance members on merging with the Tories, many in the party

slammed him for improvising the initiative without seeking the approval of anyone outside his small coterie of close advisers. True believers in Reform-style grassroots consultation on

policy were shaking their heads over that one. Preston,

they declared, would never have behaved so high-handedly.

But the most ominous indicator of widespread discontent with Day’s style is that many Alliance members have stopped donating. Clayton Manness, who was left alone as head of the party’s national council last week when his co-president, Ken Kalopsis, quit in protest over Day’s leadership, told Macleans the party brass will be forced to decide very quickly “where we will reduce spending and where we concentrate our scarce resources.” Might those discouraged supporters, at the least the diehard old Reformers, respond with their former enthusiasm if Day left and an acceptable new leader emerged? Speaker doubts it will ever be the same. He has lived through previous waves of Prairie populism, and contends they rise and fall in long intervals. “People are going back to sleep again,” he says. “We’re going to have 25 years of regular government in this country. Political parties will revert back to traditional styles.”

When it comes to adhering to traditional party style, it’s hard to beat Joe Clark. Like Speaker, Manness now puts the emphasis on bringing Clark to the table. But the Tory leader is not rushing to spend his hard-earned political capital on a rapprochement with the Alliance. “It’s easy for Joe to say he’s not going to do anything until our house is in order,” Manness said. “But the fact is Canadians are expecting us to do something.” Or perhaps they are expecting nothing but a long, long stretch of Liberal government.