Handicapping the Tories

By Charles Moore
Published February 7th 2003 in Halifax Daily News

As the federal PC leadership race hits full stride, one thing's for sure -- it doesn't lack diversity

Barring an unexpected entry of a heavyweight like former Ontario premier Mike Harris, the field of serious contenders for the federal Progressive Conservative leadership is now pretty much formed, with two Nova Scotians in the vanguard.

Pictou-Antigonish-Guysborough MP Peter MacKay, 36, is touted as the early front-runner. The former PC Parliamentary House leader and justice critic, first elected in 1997, has the widest name recognition among the five declared candidates.

Son of former Mulroney cabinet minister Elmer MacKay, erstwhile Crown attorney Peter MacKay has a keen interest in law-and-order issues, and staunchly opposes gun control. On social policy, he inclines to the Red Tory side of the spectrum.

I’ve found it challenging over the years to draw a clear bead on what MacKay’s vision is. His rhetoric runs to broad generalities. In a recent speech he declared: “It is time to leave this decade of doubt behind us and with renewed energy ... find the path to return to government.” But what path would that be?

“We need to be clear with Canadians what we stand for as a party ” what our vision is for this country ... It is time to return to our basic values ” values which made this country great.” A few hints here: “rewarding hard work; celebrating innovation; treating nations with respect, especially our relationships with our closest ally, our largest trading partner, the United States;” making Parliament “accountable and democratic,” making Canada “compete in the global market;” showing taxpeayers respect by government.

Fine words, but essentially cliches. One wishes MacKay would step out from behind the screen of safe platitudes and explain clearly his vision for Canada.

No such complaint can be made about Scott Brison, MP for Kings-Hants, who pledges to run an “ideas-based campaign,” and didn’t waste time following through. In a thinly disguised jab at MacKay, Brison observed that “If we present milquetoast, mediocre, pablum policy, we won’t offend anybody, but nobody will notice us, either.”

Befitting a former vice-president of the Toronto financial firm Yorkton Securities, Brison says he would be an “entrepreneurially focused leader,” eschewing the safe middle ground, and adopting an agenda that “rewards hard work and investment, instead of punishing initiative and ambition.”

He wants to terminate regional development programs like the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, and use the freed-up $447 million ACOA funding to make Atlantic Canada a federal corporate tax-free zone modelled on Ireland’s tax-reform success.

Brison would also radically overhaul the employment insurance system, with individual accounts from which clients who rarely draw benefits could access funds for RRSPs or job training; cut off corporate welfare; establish closer economic ties with the U.S., including a “continental perimeter” joint Canada-U.S. agreement on customs and immigration to ensure “unfettered access to the U.S. market;” and hammer out a new health-care deal that would restore federal funding with no strings attached, but aelso incorporate private health-care options to enhance consumer choice and shorten waiting lists in the public system.

Brison’s fiscally conservative platform will appeal to “blue” Tories, but his toughest obstacle may be as the first openly gay leadership candidate in Tory history, something more socially conservative party supporters will likely find difficult to accept.

Saskatchewan grain farmer and free-trade opponent David Orchard, 51, has lots of ideas too ” all pretty much diametrically opposed to Brison’s economic and foreign policy positions. Nobody can say the Tories don’t welcome diversity.

Orchard is a strong environmentalist who opposes genetically modified crops and supports the Kyoto accord. He is stridently against economic globalization and NAFTA, and wants to move away from raw materials export toward a more value-added economy. He favours proportional-representation electoral reform, and says he wants to rebuild the Canadian military, but is “strongly opposed” to joining the Americans in a war on Iraq.

Diversity notwithstanding, one suspects Orchard is in the wrong leadership race for a man of his convictions. He would have fit better in the one that was decided a couple of weeks ago.

Calgary property lawyer Jim Prentice, 46, includes uniting the Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance parties as part of his platform emphasis. Largely unknown outside Alberta, Prentice also says Canada must reinvest in the military, foreign service, foreign-intelligence capacity and a foreign-aid program, and strive to be the best in the world by taking take the lead in research and development.

He also wants “a more effective and open Parliament,” but offers no specifics on what that means. Prentice has to be considered a long shot.

You have to wonder why former Quebec MP Heward Grafftey would want to enter this race at age 74. Perhaps the former science and technology minister in Joe Clark’s short-lived 1979 government is shooting to be Canada’s Ronald Reagan or even Strom Thurmond (minus the racism, of course). Seriously, it probably has more to do with the party needing a credible and fluently bilingual leadership candidate from Quebec.

Grafftey, who has always been colourful in a quirky sort of way, says he wants to put an end to the “elitism” in the PC party. He professes to be “progressive in social policy and conservative in economic policy.”

“I want to lead a peoples’ party,” declares Grafftey, “which, after the next election, will form a peoples’ government ” a government for and of the people, not a government for the special interests.” Good luck to you, Mr. Grafftey.

Personally, at this stage of the game, I like Scott Brison’s economic prescriptions a lot, but smart money probably wouldn’t bet against Peter MacKay.