COLUMNS

Here comes the charm

Look out, MTV cities—Stephen Harper and the Tories want you

PAUL WELLS March 6 2006
COLUMNS

Here comes the charm

Look out, MTV cities—Stephen Harper and the Tories want you

PAUL WELLS March 6 2006

Here comes the charm

COLUMNS

Look out, MTV cities—Stephen Harper and the Tories want you

PAUL WELLS

“I’ve worked in other governments,” one of Stephen Harper’s new ministers said the other evening, “and this guy’s engaged.” The minister in question received two recommendations for chief of staff for his Ottawa office. He didn’t know either so he wrote to the Prime Minister’s Office suggesting his own preferred candidate. Three hours later Harper had approved the candidate personally. Another minister had his own choice for chief of staff nixed, by Harper. Just because the big guy isn’t always visible doesn’t mean he isn’t always working.

The new Prime Minister is like the parents of a bright student who hurries home after scoring a 92 per cent on an exam: the first question is, “How did you lose the other eight per cent?” Within days of the Jan. 23 election, senior Conservatives—strategist Patrick Muttart, pollster Dimitri Pantazopolous, logistics ace Doug Finley—had begun poring over the election returns, trying to determine who didn’t vote Conservative and how more of them might be persuaded to change their minds. Recall that Harper began directing a charm offensive at Quebec as soon as the 2004 election was over. Look at where he met disappointment in 2006 and you can see where he will concentrate his efforts going forward.

In Atlantic Canada, the Conservatives made only modest gains; where they had hoped for pleasant surprises they found none. Peter MacKay is the new foreign minister and minister for the Atlantic Canada Operations Agency. He will be almost a region-specific deputy prime minister for the eastern provinces. And he will bring the two halves of his portfolio together whenever he can. When Newfoundland’s Danny Williams wants to develop the Lower Churchill or Nova Scotia’s new premier Rodney MacDonald wants new natural gas markets, MacKay will have a mandate from an engaged PM to deliver results.

Together the so-called “MTV Cities”—Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver—contain 48 federal seats, more than any entire province except Ontario and Quebec. The Conservatives were shut out of those three big cities on election night. Harper’s clumsy cabinet appointments for the ex-Liberal David Emerson and the unelected Michael Fortier were the beginnings of a new charm offensive against Canada’s urban populations. Even if the Emerson and Fortier appointments had been welcomed, more of a new Tory urban strategy would be on the way. Since they weren’t, more will be

needed. Watch Lawrence Cannon, minister for transport, infrastructure and communities. He needs to demonstrate that the Tories can make life better, not worse, in the MTV cities.

Eight days after the election, Mark Marissen, the Liberals’ British Columbia election strategist, had a column in the Vancouver Sun gloating about the power Liberals had delivered to B.C., and predicting Alberta would usurp it under the Tories. “Who will become B.C.’s champions under Stephen Harper?” he

Harper is like the parents of a child who scored 92:‘Where did you lose the eight per cent?’

asked. Marissen got his answer on Feb. 6: not just Emerson, but Stockwell Day, Gary Lunn and Chuck Strahl. The four are responsible for Trade, Public Safety, Natural Resources and Agriculture. Harper knows that power and results were part of the Liberal pitch last time and that they will be next time. He will have to deliver power and results in B.C. if he is going to fight back Liberal advances.

Emerson, maddeningly, remains the most intriguing card in Harper’s West Coast deck. He is minister for trade and for the “Pacific Gateway,” a plan to substantially build up port, pipeline and highway infrastructure to make B.C. Canada’s link to the Pacific Rim. As with MacKay, you should think of Emerson’s two jobs as complementary, not contra-

dictory: imagine a trade minister who can look past the softwood dispute with the U.S. to the whole world. There is no better place than British Columbia for a new entrepreneurial Canadian internationalism to take root. This is not a guarantee, but it’d be nice to see.

Harper will win when he can combine traditional conservative virtues—a belief in open borders, open markets, bold initiative—with a cosmopolitanism that catches his detractors off guard. Here’s a modest suggestion. Last spring I wrote that the Liberals should remove visa requirements for visitors from central and eastern Europe. Joe Volpe, the Liberal immigration minister, didn’t lift a finger. By accepting Polish, Estonian, Czech and other visitors as freely as their countries

now welcome Canadians, Monte Solberg, the new immigration minister, could reaffirm Canada as a country that’s open to the world; begin to win back some of the esteem we have frittered away in the European Union; reward democracy and market reform where they have lately blossomed; and get noticed by a million Canadians with eastern European roots.

Just as cosmopolitanism can win for the Conservatives, it can win for the Liberals if they resist the insular, nationalist instincts that are rising in that wounded party. This summer some of the brightest young Liberals in Ottawa-Duncan Fulton, Heidi Bonnell, Bruce Hartley, Velma McColl and others—will stage a policy conference for their still-leaderless party. They should remind themselves that the last time the Liberals looked for new ideas, at Aylmer, Que., in 1990, they needed to come back to the centre after a wasted decade of scoring cheap nationalist points. If they remain clear-eyed, they can help ensure their party doesn’t waste another decade. M