This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on April 1, 2002
Harper New CA New Leader
What a long strange trip it's been - The Grateful Dead
While there may not be many Deadheads among the straitlaced rank-and-file of the CANADIAN ALLIANCE, the psychedelic-era musicians provide what might be the perfect soundtrack for a party that has endured more than its share of bizarre twists and turns. Picture this: a geeky-looking policy wonk from Alberta becomes the unlikely founder and leader of a protest movement that takes the West by storm. In short order, he lays waste to Canada's oldest political party, becomes leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition and founds a new political entity aimed at vaulting him into 24 Sussex Drive. But just when glory is so close he can taste it, the prairie messiah is ousted in favour of a flashy, fast-talking interloper given to holding press conferences in a wetsuit, all the better to show off his buns of steel. The glib one, though, talks himself into a heap of trouble, sparking a caucus revolt. In desperation, party faithful scan the horizon for a new saviour, eventually embracing ... a geeky-looking policy wonk from Alberta.
There, in a nutshell, is the 15-year history of the Canadian Alliance/Reform party, culminating last week in Stephen HARPER's first-ballot victory over discredited former Alliance leader Stockwell DAY and two other rivals. I've covered the saga since 1986 when Preston MANNING, an erstwhile management consultant and son of a former Alberta premier, first trod into the church and community halls of the Prairies with a blueprint for transforming Canada's political landscape. "The West Wants In," was his rallying cry, and a stirring one to boot. To grow up in Alberta, as I did, is to be alienated, to one degree or another, from the traditional centres of power in this country, namely Ottawa and Toronto. Manning, then bespectacled, ill-groomed and with a vocal timbre akin to nails across a blackboard, tapped into this sentiment brilliantly.
But heading a regional protest party was never Manning's idea of a good time and, as early as 1990, he began to push the Reform party eastward. By that point, I had moved to enemy territory (i.e. Toronto) and often found myself trailing Manning about as he preached the gospel of fiscal conservatism at town halls in places like Brampton, Orangeville and Cambridge. Ordinary Ontarians almost always gave Manning a friendly reception. But in the political and media sphere, he more often faced scorn. Reform was depicted as racist, sexist and homophobic. Sheila Copps, then an opposition Liberal MP, even stooped to likening Manning to a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
It's true that Reform, especially in its early days, attracted a fool's gallery of kooks and cranks. But Manning did his best to weed them out, and labelling him a bigot and extremist always struck me as a bum rap. In any event, Manning persevered, even prospered. In 1993, Reform wiped the Conservative party off the electoral map in Western Canada; four years later, it cemented its hold over the region and Manning became Opposition leader.
Still, he was not satisfied: Manning wanted, badly, to be prime minister. His personal make-over included chucking his eyeglasses following laser surgery and getting a better cut of hair and clothes (he never could do anything about that voice, though). His political make-over was to be the Canadian Alliance, which he envisioned as a "big tent" party encompassing conservatives of every region and stripe, and anyone else who wanted to join in. It almost worked, too. But then the tent collapsed on him.
The agent of Manning's undoing was another unlikely political titan, Stockwell Day. In April, 1999, almost a year before he jumped into the original Alliance leadership race, I wrote a profile of Day for this magazine. By then, I had moved back to my home province (having lived with the enemy and survived to tell of it) and was in a good position to eyeball Day, who was basking in reflected glory as treasurer of oil-rich Alberta - and as a rumoured contender for the Alliance crown. At the time, I detailed some of the baggage that later haunted Day in Ottawa, including his outspoken, and losing, battles against gay rights as a member of Ralph Klein's caucus. But I also played up his easy wit, nose for the photo-op and telegenic looks. Like many others, I thought these traits might help him succeed where the nebbish Manning had failed. Like many others, I was dead wrong.
Day did, of course, best Manning in the July, 2000, leadership vote, and his subsequent reign of error as opposition leader needs no reciting here. Some of the knocks against Day seem belaboured - how often can he be ridiculed for not knowing in which direction the Niagara River flowed? - but there is little doubt he was his own worst enemy. His caucus ruptured, with 12 Alliance MPs bolting, most to join forces with their long-time nemesis, Tory leader Joe Clark (four of the MPs later returned to the Alliance fold). It was that revolt which set in motion last week's leadership vote.
While Day ran to succeed himself, the party knew better than to take him up on the offer. Harper was a logical, and comfortable, alternative. A former policy adviser to Manning, Harper wrote much of Reform's early platform. He served as MP for Calgary West from 1993 until 1997, when he left Ottawa to become head of the National Citizens Coalition, a right-wing lobby group. Harper ran a cautious leadership campaign, promising to focus on mending his fractured party - and having no truck with the Tories as long as Clark (whom Harper considers a liberal) remains leader.
The book on Harper, who holds a master's degree in economics, is that he is exceedingly bright, if a bit of a cold fish. Critics say he is also an ideologue who will turn the Alliance into an NDP of the right, a claim Harper flatly rejects. "I think you can have a principled conservative party without being doctrinaire," Harper told me after the media throng had left Calgary's Telus Convention Centre, where the vote results were announced. "This party expects a leader who will try to widen its electoral base with the ultimate goal of forming a government." In that regard, Harper has time on his side. At age 42 (and looking even younger), he can afford to wait an election or two before seizing the main prize. In the interim, he is sure to look like a fresh face next to warhorses like Clark and Jean Chrétien.
Still, there are politics' little ironies. As he loped from one television interview to another following his victory, there was no swagger, or even spring, to Harper's step. He had the hangdog look of an essentially reclusive man who, given his druthers, would be in some backroom crunching policies. He looked, in other words, like a mini-Manning in his prime.
A long, strange trip indeed.
Maclean's April 1, 2002