Politics

A CASE OF SINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX?

Even Peter Kent jokes about his ‘suicidal’ challenge

JONATHON GATEHOUSE October 24 2005
Politics

A CASE OF SINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX?

Even Peter Kent jokes about his ‘suicidal’ challenge

JONATHON GATEHOUSE October 24 2005

A CASE OF SINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX?

Even Peter Kent jokes about his ‘suicidal’ challenge

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

SOME PEOPLE wear their politics on their sleeve. Peter Kent’s are wrapped around his 4x4. The former news anchor’s 1997 Jeep, 70,000 km and counting, has been turned into a rolling billboard in his early campaign to capture a federal seat in St. Paul’s, a midtown Toronto riding. A large blue Conservative logo now adorns the hood. The quarter-panels tells voters to “Stand Up for Canada.” And the spare tire promises change from the Liberals: “Honest government, Integrity, and a Fair Share.” Kent has

been parking the Jeep outside his home in the enclave of Cabbagetown, and his wife, Cilia, worries about someone vandalizing it. So far, the locals have resisted those less democratic impulses—although Bob Rae’s sister, who lives across the street, has pointedly asked if Kent couldn’t at least park it down the block.

One thing is missing from the vehicle— Kent’s picture. After four decades in TV, covering Vietnam, anchoring CBC’s National and Journal, working as an NBC correspondent, and for the past 13 years fronting Global, people are familiar with his squinty good looks. “Face recognition is not the problem,” he says. The real challenge is convincing Torontonians that Stephen Harper’s Tories are a viable option, rather than a wild-eyed bunch of fundamentalists. “Our years in the wilderness have allowed a certain conditioning by both the Liberal machine in the city and the Liberal media apologists,” says Kent. Too often, Harper has been “demonized,” and fringe voices in his caucus portrayed as the party mainstream. “Things have been said. But there are wackos in the Liberal party who have made equally strong statements. There are narrow minds in every political party. The Conservative narrow minds have had disproportionate coverage.”

It doesn’t help that Kent isn’t living in the riding he’s contesting

jonathon.gatehouse@macleans.rogers.com

Kent’s snap transition from reporter to critic has helped put his campaign in the spotlight. When the 62year-old declared in May, it was a madefor-TV moment. “I’m as mad as hell!” he told the cameras, quoting the fed-up anchorman-turned-crusader Howard Beale in the Hollywood classic Network. (Perhaps not the wisest cinematic reference, since the film tracks Beale’s descent into lunacy.) A few weeks later, he challenged journalism schools to monitor the coverage of the coming election for anti-Tory bias. Skewed reporting is a day-to-day reality, says Kent, pointing the finger at the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail and CBC. “It’s the focus on trivial or confected issues that can be made to resonate by effective communicators,” he says earnestly. (Kent still works for Global, but no longer has a hand in the news.)

If his colleagues and fans are surprised by the transformation, they shouldn’t be. Kent’s a bomb-thrower from way back. Named CBC anchor at only 33 (“the epitome of the swinging new breed of TV newsman,” Weekend magazine wrote in 1977, also mentioning his habit of playing his banjo along with The Tonight Show orchestra), he was “reassigned” to Africa two years later, after complaining to the CRTC that the Trudeau government was interfering with the news. Over the years, he’s been a regular contributor to op-ed and letters pages—with the public broadcaster a favourite target.

Kent, pro-choice and a supporter of samesex marriage, is vowing to be equally outspoken if elected, taking on both the Liberals and the “regional viewpoints” that have pushed his party to the right. “We’ve got all the oars pulling to one side,” he says. “We have to balance it out and go in a true direction.” A bevy of big Mulroney-era names are lending their support—Michael Wilson, Stanley Hartt, former St. Paul’s MP Barbara McDougall—along with Ontario Tory leader John Tory, and strategist John Laschinger.

But despite his profile, few observers are giving Kent much of a chance. St. Paul’s has gone Liberal for four straight elections. Carolyn Bennett, the public health minister and a popular local physician, won by 21,000 votes in 2004. Kent, who is helping to raise money for lesser-known Tories, doesn’t even live in the riding, and he jokes about his “suicidal” challenge. Pressed for an explanation, there’s a bromide about how his eventual victory will be “all the sweeter,” talk about his love of the path less travelled. “If I can help other boats rise, the city, the party, and the country will be better for it . . .” Then a brief pause and a smile, as the mental edit button clicks on: “... he said, in a very self-effacing way.” Maybe he’s better prepared for Ottawa than most. Nobody is going to have to teach this guy the difference between a good and a bad sound bite.