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.

The party mutinied. Mulroney resigned. His successor Kim Campbell, Canada's first woman prime minister, had neither the time nor the inclination to woo the right. On Election Night 1993, the Tories suffered what may rank as the worst debacle in the history of parliamentary democracy. They emerged from the election with only 2 of 301 seats in the federal Parliament.

But the Tories weren't quite dead. Their share of the popular vote had very nearly equalled Reform's. The Tories had important institutional strengths too: access to Canada's corporate donors, still-healthy provincial parties, and a vague but widespread sense that there was something abnormal about the 1993 result, that sooner or later the Conservatives must return to power.

It could have happened. But the Conservatives succumbed to their old vice of nominating inept leaders, two of them in a row: a Quebecker named Jean Charest and then their present leader, Joe Clark, a party leader of the 1970s who briefly served as prime minister but lost power when he failed to do a head count of his supporters before a crucial budget vote. Clark is a legendary figure in Canada, a politician combining the charm of Michael Dukakis, the judgment of George McGovern, and the sure electoral instincts of Barry Goldwater. Under Charest, the Conservatives raised their seat count in the 1997 election to 20, leaving them still only the fifth largest party in Parliament. Since 1998, Clark has driven four of those 20 M.P.s to quit the party, offended the powerful Conservative premiers of Ontario and Alberta, and virtually single-handedly alienated all the party's top donors.

But Reform had troubles of its own. It had raised its seat total from 52 to 60 in 1997 -- not enough. More ominously, it actually won fewer votes than before in the all-powerful province of Ontario. Part of its problem was that it smelled too strongly of hay to appeal to urban voters. But at least as important was the unwillingness of many Ontario Conservatives to forgive Preston Manning his role in destroying the Mulroney government.

So Manning took a tremendous risk. He talked his party into sinking itself into a new "united alternative" in which old Tories would be welcome. He acceded to the retirement of the Reform name in favor of Canadian Alliance, as Reform's old emphasis on constitutional change gave way to economic issues like a 17 percent flat tax. He even put the new party's leadership up for grabs on equal terms, stepping down himself from all the advantages of incumbency. His plan succeeded -- much better than he'd ever intended.

Two candidates challenged Manning: Day and also an Ontarian named Tom Long, an important figure in the provincial Conservative party. Long's candidacy pulled almost all that remained of the Tory party structure in Canada's biggest province into the Alliance. Long finished third in the first round of balloting on June 24, and endorsed Manning. But Long couldn't deliver his followers, most of whom appear to have switched to Day.

That seemed surprising: After all, Day was routinely accused of "homophobia" and worse in the national media. But Canadians are less liberal than their leaders like to think (a National Post poll taken just before the second round vote on July 8 found that 54 percent of Canadians reacted positively to a leader who called himself a "social conservative"). Probably more important to the Ontario Tories: Day was unimplicated in the 1993 defeat. He always took care to speak respectfully of Brian Mulroney -- recently he went so far as to reveal that he had quietly met with Mulroney at the beginning of his campaign. The division of the Canadian right may have begun as an ideological struggle, but it ended as a blood feud. Now that each side has claimed its man, the feud can end.

Which is not to say that the end of the feud doesn't have ideological implications. If Mulroney was Nixon, then Day is Reagan -- same electoral coalition, but with the leadership coming from the right-hand edge of the party rather than the left. Like Reagan too, Day is the first leader of his party not to suffer from a sneaking feeling that the other side has the better of the argument.

Day's new party still trails the Liberals in the polls: 44 percent to 25 percent with 12 percent still grimly attached to the Clark Conservatives. But Day has momentum and excitement on his side. The 66-year-old prime minister Jean Chretien has already had to quell one mutiny by caucus members frightened by his ever more blatant disengagement and testiness (asked recently about Canada's high taxes, he urged those who didn't like paying them to emigrate to the United States). The Canadian economy meanwhile is faring poorly. The recession ended in 1995, but the average Canadian still earns less after taxes than he did in 1989 -- and back in 1989 his dollars were worth almost 90 U.S. cents. Today they buy only 67 cents.

Those are not, in short, good re-election conditions. Without much of an economic story to tell, and with their traditional base in Quebec still voting for the nationalist Bloc Quebecois, expect the Liberals to try to beat Day with unjustified charges of extremism, anti-Semitism, you-name-it-ism. Joe Clark will surely chime in with an "And that goes double from me!" Will it hurt? Well, for the 12 or 18 months until the next election, it sure won't be fun to be Stockwell Day. But he's going to keep smiling. And those old enough to remember the politics of the 1980s do notice that when the camera lights turn on, the way his skin glints looks a lot like Teflon.

Contributing editor David Frum is a columnist for Canada's National Post.