NATIONAL

THE NINE LIVES OF STOCKWELL DAY

Critics have kept on writing him off. Instead, he’s become the ultimate political survivor.

JOHN GEDDES August 27 2007
NATIONAL

THE NINE LIVES OF STOCKWELL DAY

Critics have kept on writing him off. Instead, he’s become the ultimate political survivor.

JOHN GEDDES August 27 2007

THE NINE LIVES OF STOCKWELL DAY

NATIONAL

Critics have kept on writing him off. Instead, he’s become the ultimate political survivor.

JOHN GEDDES

Stockwell Day has kept his job now through two cabinet shuffles. But if his official title, minister of public safety, remains the same, his unofficial designation has changed: from easy target to almost bulletproof. He is the most unexpected avatar of front-bench survival skills in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government. When he was sworn in back on Feb. 6, 2006, Day was known to a wide swath of Canadian vot-

ers, indelibly, as the lightweight in the wetsuit, the guy whose splashy arrival on the federal scene was followed by an excruciating fall, when he lost the 2000 election and then had the leadership of the old Canadian Alliance party pried painfully from his grip. Liberals were eager to have at him again, and even non-partisan observers were skeptical. No longer. “He has eluded the expectations,” says University of Toronto security and intel-

ligence expert Wesley Wark, “that he would be a gaffe-prone minister.”

It’s not because Harper made it easy for him. Following the 2006 election, many had speculated Day might land the coveted foreign affairs portfolio. After all, he had served effectively as Harper’s foreign critic when the Conservatives were in opposition. Instead, Harper put Day in charge of the sprawling Department of Public Safety, created by the Liberal government after 9/ll to give a single minister control over everything from the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, to managing the border, to running federal prisons. With all those security files piled on his desk, Day’s critics predicted he would find plenty of opportunity to stumble, or worse. So far, it hasn’t happened.

It was no surprise, then, that he stayed put in this week’s shuffle. Not only is Harper satisfied, no heavyweight was thought to be plumping for Day’s intimidating job. Scrapping the gun registry, overhauling oversight of the RCMP, trying to restore controversial antiterrorism powers, crafting new rules for reviewing cases of suspected terrorists held on socalled security certificates, possible sweeping reforms to the federal prison system—all this and more crowds Day’s near horizon. Harper’s new cabinet assignments might highlight winning the war for public opinion on Afghanistan, with glib Peter MacKay replacing gruff Gordon O’Connor as defence minister, but it’s Day’s diverse department that demands the most agile, focused management.

Day has proven hard to trip up even when the terrain is uncommonly rough. Perhaps his toughest tests came late last year after Giuliano Zaccardelli was forced to resign as RCMP commissioner over inconsistencies in his statements on the Maher Arar affair. When Day appeared before a parliamentary committee, Liberal MP Mark Holland pressed him relentlessly for a yes or no answer on whether he had urged Harper privately to fire Zaccardelli earlier. Rather than battle the scrappy Holland head-on, much less answer his question, Day adopted an almost theatrically world-weary air. “Mr. Holland, you have an amazing propensity for hyperbole, which is certainly your right to do,” he said. “All of us, when the cameras go on and the lights go up in politics, behave a little differently.”

Day would know. His own instinct to play to the cameras was once his defining trait. There was, of course, his endlessly mocked wetsuited, jet-skiing appearance at a news conference on the shores of Lake Okanagan as a novice MP and rookie Alliance leader in 2000. During a televised debate in the election campaign later that year, he inadvisably

held up a sign, scrawled in marker, saying “No 2-tier health care.” Overall, the stunts undermined his chances of being taken seriously as a national leader.

But observers who had watched him earlier, as a Tory cabinet minister in Ralph Klein’s Alberta government from 1992-2000, knew there was more to Day. University of Calgary political science professor Barry Cooper says

DAY’S DIVERSE DEPARTMENT DEMANDS AGILE, FOCUSED MANAGEMENT

it’s the “solid character” Day once displayed in provincial politics that is showing through again now. And Faron Ellis, a pollster and chronicler of Alberta politics at Lethbridge College, remembers Day using his “very accessible style” to build support for tough budget cuts when he was Klein’s social services minister.

Today, Day’s fans among Ottawa Tories claim that same disarmingly informal manner underpins his success to date in Harper’s cabinet. They point to his practice of regularly emailing folksy messages to thousands of public servants who fall under his authority. His first mass emailing was to plead for time to learn the job when he assumed the post last year. More strategically, he used the technique last month to appeal directly to rankand-file Mounties to give their new boss a chance, when the government angered many on the force by appointing a senior bureaucrat, rather than a veteran officer, as Zaccardelli’s replacement as RCMP commissioner.

If Day cultivates an unfiltered persona among bureaucrats, however, outsiders say he is only selectively open to them. Take his cool relationship with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, which couldn’t arrange a meeting with Day for more than a year after the Conservatives won power. They finally got their sit-down last April. “We couldn’t seem to get very close to him,” association executive director Peter Cuthbert says. “We

had to get adamant.” Why the aloofness? Cuthbert notes that a federal official told him the police chiefs’ opposition to the Tory plan to dismantle the registry for rifles and shotguns was seen as “a little disappointing.” Gun control is one of the most politically charged issues Day must manage, or sidestep, in the coming months. Last fall’s shooting at Montreal’s Dawson College galvanized anti-gun activists, putting the high-profile Tory campaign vow to scrap the registry in political limbo. Recent gun murders in Toronto led Ontario’s Liberal government

to call for an outright ban on handguns. Day shot down the idea, claiming it would be “directed at innocent firearm owners rather than those who commit crimes.” But Ontario contends 30 to 50 per cent of guns used in street crime were stolen from legal owners, a potent argument among the urban voters the Harper Conservatives can’t seem to reach. And Day, despite his new aura of unflappable competence, is unlikely to ever connect easily in downtown Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

He remains closely identified with the rural West. Born in Barrie, Ont., 57 years ago this week, he was raised partly in Montreal and Ottawa, but emerged as a classic Prairie political type after a stint as administrator of a Christian school in Bentley, Alta. He upset Preston Manning for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance in 2000, then lost the job to Harper in 2002. In both races, it was his

opponents inside the conservative movement—at least as much as outside critics—who made an issue of Day’s strong base among anti-abortion groups and other social conservatives. With those so-con voices carrying little clout these days in Harper’s cautiously centre-right government, Day is a symbol of their frustrated aspirations. “He’s certainly a big star among social conservatives to this day,” says Ellis. “He’s almost got martyrdom status with a lot of those people—‘Remember what they did to Stock.’ ”

Yet Day is no rival to Harper. Despite their

past clashes, Cooper says their political styles complement one another, Harper as “cerebral” and Day as “instinctive.” Those instincts often show up in the way he sends his messages more than in policy substance. On the controversial issue of some terror suspects being detained for long periods without trial when they can’t be quickly deported, Day had this to say about the Toronto detention facility where they are held: “The refrigerator, as I observed when I was there recently, is stocked with a variety of juices, soy milk, soups, honey, and chocolate sauce.” In a column published last year in a local paper in his B.C. riding, Okanagan-Coquihalla, he quipped: “Maybe all my constituents living high up on the West Bench or Lakeview Heights, or the hills of Logan Lake will soon be sitting on lakeside property as one of the many benefits of global warming.”

In quotes like these, opposition MPs hear the voice of the old Stock they still hope will pop up yet in Harper’s cabinet. But the Prime Minister, by leaving him in place to keep carrying such a heavy load, is clearly betting the stolid new Day is here to stay. M