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Reformatories lose no matter whom they choose

Sunday, March 21, 2004

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Written by Scott Piatkowski

In most cases, political parties can expect a sizeable “bump” in public opinion poll results following the election of a new leader. Sometimes, that bump can translate into a landslide election victory (think Pierre Trudeau), while in other cases, the gains are much more temporary, even illusory (think Kim Campbell, or John Turner).

Canadians are about to witness something almost unprecedented: a political party being more popular without a leader than under any of the leadership choices available to it. The three candidates for the leadership of the Regressive Conservative Party – Belinda Stronach, Tony Clement and Stephen Harper – each have such significant downsides that the party’s popularity is likely to plummet after the leadership vote.

In the first week after announcing her candidacy, Belinda Stronach said of her father (Magna founder Frank Stronach): “He always said, ‘Belinda, I can never tell you what to do. I can only trick you into doing it’.” One wonders if she is regretting having been “tricked” into running for the Conservative Party leadership. Although much of the media attention on her has been both sexist and unfair, it is clear that she knows she is out her element. That’s why she has carefully avoided debating her opponents whenever possible, and usually speaks in pre-packaged sound bites. Last week, she very nearly lost the party nomination in her own riding.

Tony Clement is banking on his experience as a minister in the governments of Mike Harris and Ernie Eves. Counting against him is his experience as a minister in the governments of Mike Harris and Ernie Eves. The former Ontario government was not only the most mean-spirited regime in recent Canadian history, it has also been shown to have been fiscally incompetent and filled with the same kind of cronyism that we’re now trying to get rid of in Ottawa. No amount of earnest determination is going to overcome that kind of millstone.

The candidate most likely to win is former Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper, who played the groom in last fall’s political same-sex merger. Only the ridiculously skewed voting system adopted by the new party (whereby each riding gets an equal number of votes regardless of the number of party members in the riding) prevented him from walking away with the leadership without working up a sweat.

A win by Harper will signify that the so-called merger of equals was really an Alliance takeover, and make the new party poison at the ballot box in most regions of the country. Stephen Harper is the author of much of this animosity. For example, Harper once complained that “There is a dependence in the (Atlantic) region that breeds a culture of defeatism.” The next day, in trying to clarify his remarks, he urged Atlantic Canadians to not “sit around waiting for favours” from government.

At the time, Harper’s statement was condemned in a unanimous resolution of the Nova Scotia legislature. Even New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord criticized Harper. Harper responded by saying, “Frankly, they're out of touch with their own people if they don't think that there isn't a lot more that could be done to get people more optimistic in that part of the country.” But, assured Harper, the problem extended far beyond the Atlantic region: “Generally, this kind of can't-do attitude is a problem in this country.”

Harper hasn’t won too many friends in Quebec either. When the Mulroney Tories won Quebec in 1984 and 1988, they did it by appealing to nationalist voters (as federalist voters have traditionally voted Liberal). By contrast, Harper has said that “Quebec nationalism can only be victorious or defeated. It cannot be accommodated.” He even opposed giving distinct society status to Quebec, commenting that “for reasons that are both practical and patriotic we believe Canadians are not prepared to destroy their country in order to accommodate Quebec.”

Harper has no such problem with Alberta nationalism. After the 2000 election, Harper was among those who argued that the results represented a failure on the part of the rest of Canada to recognize the needs of Alberta. He co-authored a statement calling on the Alberta government to “build a firewall” around the province, by disengaging from national programs (including medicare).

In another article, entitled “It's Time for Alberta to Seek a New Relationship with Canada”, Harper argued that “Any country with Canada's insecure smugness and resentment can be dangerous...Westerners, but especially Albertans, founded the Reform/Alliance to get ‘in’ to Canada. The rest of the country has responded by telling us in no uncertain terms that we do not share their ‘Canadian values.’ Fine. Let us build a society on Alberta values… Alberta and much of the rest of Canada have embarked on divergent and potentially hostile paths to defining their country.” Do these sound like the words of a national leader to you?


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