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Maclean's, 16 June, 2003

Troublesome Tories

by Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin on how a controversial deal helped pick a leader, and gave new life to an old debate

I TRIED TO EXPERIENCE the recent Tory leadership convention with Dalton Camp, as it were, on my shoulder. Dalton, who died in 2002 at 81, embodied the history and conscience of the party, which created Canada and built many of its institutions. He ran endless campaigns, including the victories and defeats of John Diefenbaker, then engineered Dief's ouster, for the party's sake, knowing he'd never shake a rap for disloyalty. His was the party of Robert Stanfield and Joe Clark; it created what became the CBC in the 1930s and beat back free trade in 1911 -- though he also worked in Brian Mulroney's free-trade government of the 1980s. By then he was a superb journalist; he had given words so often to others that his own writing had the feel of a jailbreak. He had no use for the neo-cons who took over the Progressive Conservative party lately, nor they for him. After his death, I felt his absence whenever a conservative commentary was called for -- during a Tory leadership race, for example. Best of all, he was endlessly youthful and full of heart -- including the transplanted one he carried in his last nine years -- and he never failed to lay down his NFL bets on a Sunday afternoon.

I went to Ottawa the Sunday before the convention began, like a grave-robber, in search of traditional Tories. One-time PC insider Hugh Segal had warned I wouldn't find much. The 1988 election, the grand brawl over free trade, "transformed the party," he said, so that long-time Tories voted Liberal "for sovereignty reasons," and former Liberals "went PC for economic reasons." Still, he said, there's Joe Clark.

I had dinner with Clark in the Parliamentary dining room, during his final week as party leader, second time around. He astutely analyzed why the right-wing rhetoric of the Canadian Alliance and others has grown stale: problems like terror and SARS prove the continuing need for strong public institutions guarding the public good, since the mighty private sector won't ever suffice for that job. He said the challenge to Canada is the absence of a projet de pays -- a national project. "Macdonald had one, Laurier had one, but we haven't," he said. Canadian artists like Pierre Berton and Margaret Atwood, "to a man," denounced the free trade deal he backed as a member of the Mulroney government in 1988, but since it went through they've "stopped speaking. The colours they were carrying didn't fit the country any more." He wasn't dismissing them, just stating a fact, or question. "If the country is ever reanimated by a projet de pays," he said, "it will be through my party -- by process of elimination. It won't be through the Martin Liberals. People need some institutional identification, and we are the best available." It sounded unlikely to me, but if you're going to devote your life to a political party, it's nice to believe in it, and better to have a reason for that belief, which he does, and which is more than you could say for most of the callow crew that competed to succeed him. As we left I asked if he ever feels he might finally have reached a point where he'd make a great leader of a national party.

For more PC nostalgia, Segal had suggested Senator Lowell Murray, who says he's no red Tory, just a centrist. But Murray agreed with Dalton's view that no one would ever get elected here by promising to dismantle the federal government. He considers efforts to unite the right a bureaucratic gimmick to avoid the hard work of winning over voters. "They think if they can cook a deal, everything will follow." He remains a firm backer of the free trade agreement of 1988 but says, "we've gotta pick the wounded off the field" before advancing farther in that direction. I asked who Dalton would have supported in this race. He guffawed. "David Orchard, probably!"

On the plane back to Toronto, I ran into Nova Scotia MP Peter MacKay, front-runner in the race to succeed Clark. In debates, he came off as the ultimate white boy: bland and blond, son of a former cabinet minister, handled by the "party establishment" to say nothing risky or memorable, which may not have taken lethal force. He seemed edgy, perhaps because he wasn't briefed for our chat, and on specifics, like the Mideast, he was scarily uninformed, as if he thought he could play it off the top of his head. I asked why he's a Tory and he said he grew up among them, then added, as if it was a separate point, "I also feel comfortable in the party."

The other Nova Scotia MP in the race, Scott Brison, had strong social concerns (he is gay) and equally strong right-wing economic views. He laid a somewhat undergraduate stress on being the guy with "ideas," as if someone had given him a subscription to the National Review when he was 15 and he never got over it. In politics, ideas are mostly irrelevant: if you ever attain power, what you generally must deal with are unpredictable challenges, like Sept. 11 or SARS, to which your hefty ideas will have little application. He said he wanted to unite the bright. He's too smart for his own good, said one supporter.

Other candidates were Calgary lawyer Jim Prentice, right-wing Christian Craig Chandler, Quebec MP Andre Bachand, who dropped out to support MacKay, and former MP Heward Grafftey, who quit due to heart trouble. Then there was David Orchard, the fly in the ointment.

Even the name. Orchard is a Saskatchewan farmer, just as Milton Acorn really was a poet from P.E.I. Now 52, Orchard became known in the 1980s as a foe of free trade. He created a group to fight it which, in those days of coalition politics, worked mostly alone. The organization centred on him; he had the ideas and answers, no one else spoke for it. The group had the feel of a left-wing sect without quite being one. Orchard seemed to lack personal warmth but his followers were fervent, and there was the quality of a personality cult around him. His long-time associate, Marjaleena Repo, had been a fixture on the left, and also something of a one-person band. She is now Saskatchewan vice-president for the federal PCs.

In 1998, Orchard made a surprising move into the PC party, running against Joe Clark for leader and finishing second. Clark derided him as a "tourist," but Orchard stayed to run as a candidate and win Clark's respect. I used to think of him as a leftist who joined the PCs, but perhaps he was really a Tory who hung out in the left awhile. The other candidates didn't know what to make of him.

He has clearly managed to convince himself he belongs. He quotes conservative icons Edmund Burke from the 18th century and Benjamin Disraeli from the 19th, along with Canadian Tories John A. Macdonald, Robert Borden, R.B. Bennett and Diefenbaker. "The other candidates look at me," Orchard says, "and say those are a bunch of dead white men." He makes a solid case. Modern conservatism arose in response to the American and French revolutions, arguing that you could support change without total upheaval, and retain the institutions your society valued. Disraeli defined his own Toryism in opposition to the arrival of free trade in Britain. This kind of conservatism isn't inherently right wing, it's inherently . . . conservative. As Flora MacDonald, one of Dalton's colleagues, told me: "It all began with Benjamin Disraeli," explaining that Sir John A. had asked the English politician for advice on starting Canada's first modern political party. In 1855, Macdonald told Canadians, "Anyone desirous of being a progressive conservative [!] should follow me." Yet there's still something odd about Orchard among Tories. As Peter MacKay said, everything he argues may make sense, but it feels incongruous that he's there.

FROM ITS FIRST moments, the convention revealed not just the party's inherent schizophrenia (progressive/conservative) but its struggle with historical amnesia. A farewell video for Clark ran to the music of Good Riddance by Green Day. Party oldsters (Clark and Peter Lougheed) all stressed the "progressive" in its name. Brian Mulroney enthused that "leadership is often the antithesis of popularity," justifying the decimation of the party after he left without actually mentioning it. He praised free trade for increasing the volume of business with the U.S., but never touched the related deterioration in health care, education, the environment, etc. The leadership candidates sat in the front row as Mulroney spoke, four of them leaning forward like runners in their blocks, while Orchard slouched backward. At one point, perhaps noticing Maclean's photographer Peter Bregg trying for that shot, he lumbered to his feet, then slumped back down as the rest hurrahed.

At the candidates' speeches Friday night, Orchard led off, full of content, outlining his views on free trade, conservatism, and a national electoral strategy. You could see why his followers wonder: how can anybody dispute this? I mentioned it to Susan Riley of the Citizen, who said: "I wonder too, don't these people want Canada to be sovereign?" A good question. But I think it's the reaction anyone gets who plausibly suggests that all is not basically well and our leaders may not really have our best interests at heart. Whoops, rather not hear about that, thanks.

MacKay followed with the perfect opposite, a speech with zero content. What do you do in content's absence? Attack the other guys (Jean Chretien and Paul Martin) and mouth platitudes: "Let me pause to thank the frontline health-care workers" etc., to loud cheers. A suit with a cellphone leaned on a railing beside me and barked, "Keep the cheer going!" He introduced himself as a fundraiser for MacKay, name of James Muldoon.

Brison and Prentice spoke next (Prentice looked like the only one having fun); then came unite-the-right Craig Chandler, who attacked MacKay for being soft on gay marriage and fixing to ban the Bible. So, he said, he was withdrawing and throwing his few delegates to -- you could feel the other candidates pray, "Please God not me" -- Jim Prentice.

VOTING BEGAN Saturday morning. In a bow to the fad for making leadership conventions more democratic, most delegates were locked into local riding choices on the first ballot, which made the second ballot the first real one, in which the mood of those actually present would emerge. While awaiting second-ballot results, I decided to wander the few steps to the SkyDome for a ball game which, by foul luck, I happened to have tickets for. On the way I ran into Orchard and retinue. "If you're in the game," I tried to say sagely, "there's nothing wrong with playing it." I was lobbying him to consider a deal with one of the candidates, rather than just walk away with his principles, since everyone knew he couldn't possibly win. He smiled like the Sphinx and replied with the clarity of the Delphic oracle. I assumed he'd maintain his lofty stance till the end.

After the Blue Jays rallied for two runs and snuffed out a Red Sox threat, I applied for a return pass, in case voting dragged into the night. Noticing my convention badge, the young woman at the gate said, "I can understand you want something more exciting. I'm a lifelong Liberal myself." The results showed Brison last, behind Prentice by just three votes, but dropped from the next ballot anyway. The manoeuvring started. Orchard came across the floor, to "congratulate" Scott, who declined to come down and even say hi. Would Scott move to fellow Maritimer MacKay, bringing his votes? Instead he crossed the floor toward Prentice. They met in the middle of the hall. I was watching TV in the press room, with most of the print people. I started out to see it. "You'll catch it better here," they advised, which was true, but out on the floor you could feel the lack of excitement. Most of the tension on TV was generated by reporters and crews trying to get close without being trampled. I slipped out for a few more innings after voting on the third ballot began.

Those results showed Prentice, backed by Brison votes, vaulting over Orchard, so Orchard was now out and only two remained. People speculated whether enough Orchard votes might go to Prentice to give him a win, or would they all just exit haughtily. No one expected any Orchardites to back "establishment man" MacKay. Then the insanity began. MacKay went toward the Orchard stands and Orchard met him. He had thrown his support to MacKay! His disciples, pardon, delegates, were stunned. "I don't feel good," or even, "Sellout!" said some. "He must have a reason, we have to follow him," said others. In the press room, pundits were apoplectic that the party would let this guy be kingmaker, deal with the devil, etc. -- cliches that reached gorge-clogging level in coming days. Meanwhile, details of a signed bargain began to emerge on the floor. MacKay would allow an internal review of free trade, with serious input from Orchard. There would be no merger with the Alliance, and no joint candidates next election. On TV, party hacks fumed. On the floor, Orchard's delegates were saying, "He got what he wanted so we have to stick with him." They recalled how he told them before the convention that he might not have time to explain what he did, but he wanted them to trust him. "Hey, it's politics," said one. "Politics is about making deals." It sounded as if Orchard, now up in Mackay's area looking out of place, could deliver.

The Prentice and Brison people, who had not signed the deal accepted by MacKay, waded into the Orchard area, in an urgent effort to argue individuals onto their side. Something democratic was breaking out. It also shed light on Orchard's odd conservatism, especially if you looked down in an attempt not to be stepped on in the crush. Sandals and Guccis. Sneakers and heels. What has always marked conservatism, whatever its concern for the poor or for cherished national institutions, has been a desire to save the privileged from the threat of radical change -- whether it was the landed aristocracy of Disraeli's time or the Bay Street bastards whom R.B. Bennett knew. A lot of good and insight might have come from that world view, but privilege remained near its centre. There is little sense of privilege or its prerogatives among Orchard and his people, which may be why Peter MacKay sensed incongruity.

On the final tally, MacKay beat Prentice almost two to one. From the stage, Prentice, looking like he was having less fun now, moved for unanimity. About half the hall sat bitterly still. Joe Clark stood beside Orchard onstage and Orchard actually smiled and clapped to the music. He looked human. He was a clear winner. Even if the free trade "review" amounts to nothing -- a panel discussion in a fourth-place party that could end up calling for more of the same -- he had thrown the unite-the-righters into disarray. What kind of "unity" can the Alliance find with a Tory leader who struck this deal? As for Orchard's followers, they looked pleased, and also as if feeling that way surprised them. It's fun to be kingmakers, it turns out, more than it is to walk away in lonely rectitude. The rest of the party had to recognize them and their concerns. That might be the fundamental human need: to have your significance acknowledged.

Brison was a clear loser. Had he moved to MacKay instead of Prentice, he'd have pre-empted the deal with Orchard, and kept the unite-the-right stuff in motion. Even more painfully, he hadn't seemed all that smart, which was his point of pride as the "ideas" man in the race. Ouch.

As for MacKay, he looked relaxed. He didn't seem bothered by the bad vibes in the room or the rough ride from the press in the aftermath. Remember, he was always a jock whose main sport was rugby, which may involve strategy but also requires a liking for hard hits and contact. Maybe he felt good mixing it up, getting knocked around, pissing people off and not just doing what he was told. He'd had his first taste of how tough politics can be, and notched a win. He looked as if he liked it.

Next day he held a press "scrum," not conference. When baited about getting in bed with Orchard, he reacted calmly and generously. When francophone reporters whined about his bad French, he was undefensive and said he'd take lessons to improve it. As I walked away, I ran into James Muldoon, MacKay backer and fundraiser.

"Dalton would be a happy camper this morning," he said. I couldn't recall mentioning Dalton to him in our brief chats. "This guy Orchard saved the party," he went on. "I'm not a red Tory. I'm a blue Tory. But there's gotta be a place for the little man and we've gotta stop this corporate ass-kissing. As for uniting the right, that Craig Chandler is the true black face of neoconservatism. He could live to be 100 and he'll never know the meaning of, I am my brother's keeper." They hated Camp and called him "red Dalton," Muldoon said. "But this David Orchard has saved the party and brought us back to the heart of it."

I tend to agree. I just don't see what's horrifying about a political party daring to grapple with different visions of its future, or trying to integrate its past into its present -- at a leadership convention!

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