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Toronto Star, March 24, 2003

Tory candidates poles apart on call to arms

by Chantal Hébert

MONTREAL—If the federal Tories had been in power last week, Canada might have joined the United States and Britain in the war on Iraq. But then again, it might not.

That would have depended on the identity of their leader.

As the seven men who vie to replace Joe Clark engaged in the second of the campaign's leadership debates in Montreal yesterday, it was quickly apparent that on the defining issue of the day the top contenders to lead the Progressive Conservative party are poles apart.

Frontrunner Peter MacKay would have answered the call to arms of the White House. As would Scott Brison, Jim Prentice and Craig Chandler, the latter cheering all the way.

But David Orchard — who is running a solid second in the race for delegates so far — would have kept Canada out of the fray.

He is not alone. André Bachand, the party's only Quebec MP, and Heward Grafftey, a former cabinet minister in the Clark government, both feel Canada should stay out of the war.

And while some diehard Tories would argue that Orchard — who they see as a left-winger — can be counted on to bring unorthodox views to the fore, it should be noted that Jean Charest — the past leader who won the most seats for the Tories since Brian Mulroney retired — is sporting the white ribbon of the peace movement on the Quebec election trail.

An aside here: ever since Orchard first surfaced as a Tory leadership contender in 1998, most of the party establishment has treated him like a creature from outer space.

Again yesterday, some of the other contenders magnanimously conceded the Saskatchewan farmer's right to be part of the campaign.

But such exchanges are increasingly taking on a surrealistic tinge considering that Orchard is running second only to MacKay; that he is winning delegates in every province and that he has probably brought more new members to the beleaguered party than anyone else over the past five years.

Indeed, yesterday in Montreal, his supporters outnumbered those of the Quebec candidates.

Moreover, in the particular case of Iraq, the irreconcilable differences between the leading candidates are a symptom of a Tory malaise that has roots elsewhere than in Orchard's presence on the leadership stage.

Over the past decade, the Tories have increasingly failed to have identifiable positions on issues that matter.

That's because they have usually found it impossible to come to anything but superficial consensus.

In this fashion, Clark came down against the Clarity act on Quebec secession but many of his MPs did not.

After the Quebec referendum, Charest did not show up to vote on Jean Chrétien's distinct-society resolution amidst rumours that he and his lone seatmate Elsie Wayne could not come to a common position.

Now, it seems the leadership campaign will exacerbate rather than resolve the debate about the ongoing purpose of the party.

It will likely take more than one ballot to select the next Tory leader at the end of May convention.

A stop-Orchard movement might still bring MacKay over the 50 per cent line in only one ballot.

But that has not happened so far.

Instead, the bulk of the Tory membership is split between candidates whose political visions are clearly irreconcilable with MacKay wining the support of 40 per cent of the delegates selected to date and Orchard 31 per cent.

A note in closing: The Montreal debate was meant to remind Canadians of the party's national roots.

But it also demonstrated that, whatever the outcome, the Tories will be led by the least bilingual leader of the federal pack in the next election.

One would have to go back to John Diefenbaker to find a Tory leader less proficient in French than those most likely to succeed Clark.

To put it mildly, the only two fully bilingual candidates in the race are not taking the party by storm.

Bachand, the party's lone Quebec MP, is running fifth in his own province while Grafftey has yet to win the support of a single delegate anywhere.

And so the race will be decided among four contenders whose French is about on par with the average Canadian high school graduate.

When it comes to language skills and against all conventional wisdom, the two candidates from Western Canada, Jim Prentice and David Orchard, are ultimately more promising that the Nova Scotia duo of MacKay and Brison.

That's interesting because as MPs, the latter both had continuous access to language training for all their years in Parliament.

Either they did not make much of the opportunity or else they share Preston Manning and Brian Tobin's inability to speak a second language intelligibly.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. She can be reached at chebert@thestar.ca.

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