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The Globe and Mail, January 3, 2003

Desperately seeking a Tory leader


It's a sign of the Conservative Party's plight that Hugh Segal's phone is alight with calls.

The ebullient Tory got thumped by Joe Clark the last time the leadership was vacant. He wound up with a large debt and a resolve not to be tempted again.

A couple of months ago, Mr. Segal said to anyone prepared to listen that, no, never again would he try for the Tory leadership, although few Tories in Canada can boast his gifts of intelligence, savvy, bilingualism and policy experience. That was then, however, and now is now. The chances are still that he won't run, but he's listening.

New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord ruled himself out. Former Ontario premier Mike Harris harbours longer-range plans. Toronto businessman John Tory said no thanks. Hence the phone calls to Mr. Segal, a variation of the old adage that the one-eyed man looks good in the kingdom of the blind.

The Tories have, or will have, three serious candidates from the party: Nova Scotia MPs Peter MacKay and Scott Brison, and Calgary lawyer Jim Prentice. They are all decent, intelligent people who deserve admiration, and perhaps a psychiatric examination, for wanting to lead a debt-ridden party going nowhere fast. None, however, is going to set the heather aflame. (Conservative Leader Joe Clark is floating the name of Ontario cabinet minister Jim Flaherty, a further sign of the party's desperation.)

There is another serious leadership candidate, except that he isn't a Conservative, no matter what he might call himself. David Orchard, a Saskatchewan farmer, ran last time against almost everything the Tories had done under Brian Mulroney, including free trade with the United States.

An anti-free trader atop the Conservative Party would be like a bank president running the NDP. That didn't, and won't, stop Mr. Orchard from trying. He has a network of anti-free traders and assorted other non-Tories who like his policies, if not his putative party affiliation, and are willing to join his cause. Given the puny memberships of Conservative riding associations, a determined candidate such as Mr. Orchard can capture associations and sign up thousands of new members.

That Mr. Orchard and the three genuine Conservatives are all the party has explains the interest shown in and, in a limited fashion, by Mr. Segal. It also explains why calls have been made to retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie, who unsuccessfully ran for the Conservatives in the 2002 election but keeps his name in the media with comments on foreign and military affairs.

The Tory leadership, to be decided in June, is part of a much larger process that will take at least two or three more years to play out.

A Paul Martin-led Liberal Party probably will crush the Tories and blunt the Canadian Alliance. If that happens, the Tories and the Alliance will have run four times as separate parties without either coming close to challenging the Liberals.

Putting these two parties together is fraught with difficulty, but a fourth defeat might concentrate minds on the futility of battling simultaneously each other and the Liberals. At least that's what Mike Harris and his Toronto crowd believe.

The Harris game plan assumes a fourth electoral setback for the Tories and the Alliance, followed by another bout of soul-searching about putting the two parties together. Who better, believes Mr. Harris's crowd, than the former Ontario premier?

Mr. Harris, approached to consider entering federal politics, sniffed that, unless the right united, he was not interested. The right, as it turned out, was not interested. At least for now.

Mr. Harris will keep his name alive by giving periodic speeches such as the one he delivered recently in Montreal and by popping up at politically appropriate functions such as the recent party in Calgary to celebrate Alberta Premier Ralph Klein's 10 years in office. Mr. Harris's friends will set him up on corporate boards and otherwise deal with financial concerns.

The bigger prize of a non-Liberal group on the right remains to be fought over after the next election. Alliance Leader Stephen Harper will obviously want to be a candidate. So might the winner of the Tory leadership. So will Mr. Harris. So might your grandmother. Perhaps, too, the timing might then work better for Mr. Lord, assuming he wins re-election in New Brunswick.

A vacuum yawns in Canadian politics created by the lack of a coast-to-coast alternative to the Liberals. That vacuum helps keep the Liberals in power.

Neither the Alliance nor the Tories can fill that vacuum alone. The Alliance chose a new leader, Mr. Harper, and the Conservatives will do so in June. These elections are the preambles to the leadership over the horizon that will really count.


The following letter was published in The Globe and Mail on January 6, 2003 as a response to the above article by Jeffrey Simpson.

What's a Conservative?

By Ray Kingma

Toronto -- Jeffrey Simpson writes "An anti-free trader atop the Conservative Party would be like a bank president running the NDP" (Desperately Seeking A Tory Leader - Jan. 3).

Mr. Simpson, having determined who is and who is not Conservative on the basis of support for free trade, and excluding David Orchard as a Conservative for campaigning on economic nationalism and the dangers of free trade with the United States, must be asked this question: does he reject MacDonald, Borden, and Diefenbaker as Conservatives? To be consistent he must, for all won elections based on concern over being tied too closely to our neighbour to the south.

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