Charest Controls Tory Convention

Ryan Craig loves to Rollerblade. He listens to the Smashing Pumpkins, surfs the Net and likes Seinfeld almost as much as beach Frisbee. Ask him about politics, though, and Craig, a 21-year-old personnel officer for the Manitoba Lotteries Corp. in Winnipeg, becomes deadly earnest.

Charest Controls Tory Convention

Ryan Craig loves to Rollerblade. He listens to the Smashing Pumpkins, surfs the Net and likes Seinfeld almost as much as beach Frisbee. Ask him about politics, though, and Craig, a 21-year-old personnel officer for the Manitoba Lotteries Corp. in Winnipeg, becomes deadly earnest. He favors a return to capital punishment. He wants to see the Canada Pension Plan dismantled and the health-care system at least partially privatized. He supports deep tax cuts and a speedy end to the deficit. If those views make him seem old beyond his years - a young fogy, in other words - Craig can live with that. "These things are common sense," stressed the president of the Manitoba wing of the Progressive Conservative Youth Federation over a breakfast Danish. "Labels like left or right wing don't mean anything any more."

Maybe not. But last week, at the PROGRESSIVE CONSERVATIVE's national policy convention in Winnipeg, the young and conservative had their undeniable moment in the sun. In the end, their bid to push the party further to the right did little to scuttle Tory Leader Jean Charest's preferred script for the next federal election, to wit: the Tories are the only middle-of-the-road national alternative to the governing Liberals. But it did inject some life and a hint of real drama into the affair. And when it was over, everyone appeared to part as friends. The Tory youth, which comprised about 200 of the 1,200 delegates at the convention, were elated that the party establishment had at least heard them out. Charest, meanwhile, had won broad approval for the sort of moderate policies that he said would appeal to mainstream Canada; at the same time, he made enough concessions to the more right-wing elements in his party to keep them, it is hoped, from defecting to the Reform party. "We have emerged from this conference with policies based on principles and centred on people," declared the 38-year-old Charest in his closing speech to the convention on Saturday. "We have done this in the knowledge that this new century calls for a new generation of leadership."

At the very least, the country got to see a party with warm blood flowing through its arteries, youthful-looking and vigorous. It also got to see a confident and relaxed-looking Charest, who acted at times as if the next election campaign had already begun. In fact, Charest, who had recently returned from a vacation with his wife and three small children in Quebec's Eastern Townships, betrayed few signs of the months he has spent travelling across the land trying to rebuild the party after the 1993 electoral debacle - from a two-term majority government to only two seats in the House of Commons: Charest's own in Sherbrooke, Que., and Elsie Wayne's in Saint John, N.B.

With the media spotlight squarely on Charest for the first time since he played a supporting, but widely praised, role in last fall's sovereignty referendum in Quebec, the Tory leader turned in a strong and cagey performance. He reined in the young radicals with soothing, if often vague, words about tax cuts and a modest plan to reduce the deficit and start paying down the national debt. That fire out, he turned to his political enemies, criticizing the Liberals for mimicking Tory policies that they used to denounce in opposition. He also took aim at an open letter to Tory delegates written by Reform Leader Preston Manning and published in The Globe and Mail on the eve of the convention. In it, Manning invited the Tories to join forces with his party in holding Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's Liberal government more accountable. And, in a none-too-subtle appeal to possibly disaffected party members, Manning wrote that, should the policy convention fail to take a strong stand against government overspending and special status for Quebec, "our door is always open for well-meaning Canadians, of whatever political stripe and background, to join us directly in the fight for a better Canada."

Charest professed to be flattered by the attention. "I thought it was quite a compliment that the person who was trying to organize my funeral has shown up at my birthday party," he told reporters. But Manning's very public overtures underscored one of the challenges facing Charest: staking out his party's place in Canada's increasingly crowded right-of-centre political field. With both the Reform party and the Liberals preaching fiscal restraint and a tougher stance against crime, Charest is hard-pressed to distinguish his message from that of his opponents. As Vancouver-based pollster Angus Reid, who flew to Winnipeg to discuss Canadian social policy with the Tory caucus, put it in an interview: "The Tories are caught in a traffic jam in the centre-right of this country and are finding it hard to break through."

That may be something of an understatement. According to a poll released last month by Reid's company, public support for the Conservatives hovers at 12 per cent, putting the party in a tie with Reform, but miles behind the Liberals at 57 per cent. Privately, party strategists say that the next election may turn out to be about simply surviving to fight another day. In that regard, they add, the party must, at the very least, win the 12 seats needed for the Tories to be recognized as an official party in the House of Commons. A few party stalwarts, meanwhile, were setting their sights much higher. Former prime minister Joe Clark, who attended the convention, told Maclean's that "we've turned a corner under Mr. Charest as leader. We have a chance of forming the next government."

Not many of his fellow Tories were willing to go that far. In fact, some openly worried that the party would continue to be haunted by the hugely unpopular public image of another former prime minister, Brian Mulroney. During one session, a delegate asked Charest if the Tory back rooms were still dominated by advisers from the Mulroney era. "I get that question a lot these days," replied Charest. "They say, 'What about Mulroney?' as though this is some sort of ghost that will inhibit us in the future." Then, as he has done in the past, Charest - who served for a total of six years as a cabinet minister under Mulroney - strove to put a positive spin on that perception. "When you hear our adversaries go out on the campaign trail and utter the word 'Mulroney,' " he said, "stop and savor the moment. It means we're doing quite well."

At the same time, Charest did not shy away from another unpopular legacy: his party's failed attempts in government to win public support for constitutional changes designed to appease nationalist sentiment in Quebec. Included in the party's policy blueprint prepared in advance of last week's convention was a national unity package that Charest helped to write. It would extend the recognition of Quebec's distinct society to institutions as well as the province's language and culture. Even though some delegates openly worried that the initiative could cost the party votes - especially in Western Canada, where the Reform party's clear rejection of any special status for Quebec has proved popular - amendments to water down Charest's proposals were defeated.

That was just one of many instances in which Charest and his fellow Tory moderates carried the day. Also voted down were proposals to repeal the health-care act, to replace the Canada Pension Plan and to ensure that Canada's taxes do not exceed those of the United States. However, Charest did leave Winnipeg pledging support for a substantial tax cut, later established by the party at a level of 10 to 20 per cent. And he also appeared to throw the right wing a bone or two by promising tougher penalties for young offenders and to eliminate state-sponsored multicultural programs.

The policy minefield thus negotiated, Tory organizers were already looking to the future. The party has paid off its debts. Riding associations are up and running. And a national election team Charest introduced last week is long in experience. "Organizationally, we're as far along or better than the Liberals," boasted key Tory adviser Hugh Segal.

From here until the next election, say party strategists, the plan is to hammer away at the Liberals, hoping all the while that the Reform party will continue its precipitous drop in the opinion polls. As well, the party will strive to shift the burden of focus from the leader to the Tory team of candidates, which, by year's end, is expected to be at least 100 strong.

Then comes the hard part - convincing the public that the Tories, so thoroughly rejected only three years ago, once again deserve its trust and support. In Winnipeg, Charest said the way to do that was through temperate action. The degree to which he is correct may well decide if last week's convention will be remembered as a turning point for a fallen party - or just another blip on its road to oblivion.

Maclean's September 2, 1996