The Magazine

Oh Happy Day

Canada's newest party leader charms long-suffering conservatives

Jul 24, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 42 • By DAVID FRUM
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BY THE TIME Mexican voters ejected the PRI from power on July 2, it had racked up a record of 71 continuous years in power. Only two other 20th-century political entities have endured so long: One was the Communist party of the Soviet Union, which also died at age 71; the other is the Liberal party of Canada, which has ruled for 70 of the past 100 years and is still going strong.

Not as strong, however, as it was going two weeks ago. On July 8, more than 100,000 members of the new Canadian Alliance party nominated a new leader: Stockwell Day, the former minister of finance of the oil-rich western province of Alberta.

Compared with the dreary careerists who dominate Canadian politics, Day shines like a sunny moment in a month of rain. Handsome, amusing, and athletic -- he once chased on foot and arrested a crook who made the mistake of robbing a convenience store in Day's home constituency -- he is also a devout Pentecostalist who refuses to work on Sundays and a father of five and (at 49) grandfather of three. He is a champion of the interests of western Canada who -- almost unheard-of on the prairies -- speaks passable French; a staunch social conservative who once worked as an interior decorator; and, most notably, a politician who in 14 years of public life has never lost an election.

What's most important about Day, though, is not his personal appeal. It is his potential to put an end to the vote-splitting that has crippled the Canadian right since 1993 and extended the Liberals' tenure long past their sell-by date.

Since the 1890s, Canada's Conservatives have been the political equivalent of the Washington Generals, whose role it is to lose every game against the Harlem Globetrotters. Once every few decades -- 1911, 1930, 1958 -- Conservatives would enjoy what looked like a decisive victory. But the victory would tarnish almost instantly, and at the next election the Liberals would regain power for another 10, 20, or 30 years.

This sorry history seemed to be coming to an end in the 1980s. The Conservatives had at last found themselves a competent leader, a flawlessly bilingual Montreal lawyer named Brian Mulroney, and in 1984 he won a landslide victory by promising to balance the budget, cut taxes, and allay Quebec separatism. Although Canada's dour voters soon wearied of Mulroney's sweet-talking style, his government made an impressive dent in Canada's problems. It privatized state-owned corporations, held the line on government spending, and negotiated a free-trade agreement with the United States. In 1988, Mulroney won a second consecutive majority -- something the Conservatives had not managed since the First World War.

But even as Mulroney triumphed, the foundations of his government were rotting. He didn't deliver on his tax cut promise -- in fact he introduced a national sales tax -- and he didn't cut government spending enough to come close to balancing the budget. Meanwhile, the concessions he offered Quebec were irritating the Conservative party's western base, which couldn't understand why its region's equally heartfelt grievances never seemed worthy of the prime minister's attention. Westerners were unhappy too about the Mulroney government's social liberalism. Canada's once-cautious judiciary had been granted enormous new powers by Pierre Trudeau, and in the 1980s the judges started to use them: striking down all abortion laws, rewriting divorce law along feminist lines, hampering law enforcement, prodding the country toward gay marriage. Mulroney quietly submitted to it all, and his judicial appointments soon proved as wild as Trudeau's worst.

Ideologically, in fact, the Mulroney government resembled the Nixon administration: a right-of-center electoral coalition controlled by its least conservative members. Sometimes it seemed that the people who worked for Mulroney despised the people who voted for him. Those voters soon noticed and reciprocated the dislike. Some of the angriest of them joined together in 1986 to form a "Reform" party led by Preston Manning, the son of a long-serving premier of Alberta, Canada's most conservative province.

Manning was an unlikely rebel: mild mannered, well read, unfailingly courteous, and surprisingly non-ideological. As Manning saw it, politicians could not control events. Their job was to "wait for the wave" -- the unexpected event that would propel them into power. In the 1990s, Manning's wave crested. Canada was hit in 1992 by the worst and most prolonged economic downturn since the Great Depression. At almost exactly the same moment, Mulroney reacted to the failure of an earlier round of constitutional deal-making by proposing to bundle the Quebec terms that westerners merely disliked with a battery of radical-left constitutional amendments that they positively hated.