Long Enters Alliance Race

The moment must have been intoxicating. Tom Long, the consummate backroom tactician, who has so often watched a politician he worked behind wade through a cheering crowd, was finally doing it himself. It happened last week in a banquet hall in Woodbridge, Ont.

Long Enters Alliance Race

The moment must have been intoxicating. Tom Long, the consummate backroom tactician, who has so often watched a politician he worked behind wade through a cheering crowd, was finally doing it himself. It happened last week in a banquet hall in Woodbridge, Ont., a suburban community perched on Toronto's northern fringe. Like everything Long does in politics, he chose the launch location for his bid to lead the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance strategically. This was the heart of the so-called 905 belt, a band of Toronto satellites named for their area code, and noted for their embrace of the Tory "Common Sense Revolution" that Long was instrumental in bringing to Ontario politics. Now, he declared, Canada needs a dose of the same tax-cutting, government-shrinking medicine - or the nation's prospects are grim. "The world is passing us by," Long warned. "In every way that matters to us we are becoming a poorer country."

Rarely has such a dire message been greeted by such enthusiastic applause. But, of course, Long's throng saw a partisan bright side to his dark prognosis. The right-leaning true believers who packed the hall hope he can persuade voters that federal Liberal economic bungling threatens their families' prosperity - just as he helped Ontario Premier Mike Harris cultivate provincial voters' discontent with the economic records of successive Liberal and New Democratic Party governments. But can that trick be repeated? After all, Harris won the first of his two majorities in 1995, following NDP Premier Bob Rae's struggle to govern during the slow recovery from a punishing recession. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, however, is presiding over a prolonged boom. Long sees the problem. "The Canadians we need to reach have heard, and largely accept, that times have never been so good," he admitted. "But they know in their hearts that Canada is not on the right road."

Before he gets a chance to convince Canadian voters to change routes, though, Long must capture the hearts of members of the Alliance. And for a man largely unknown - at least until very recently - beyond Harris's inner circle, that will be an uphill battle. His entry into the race has certainly shaken up Joe Clark's troubled federal Tories, raising the spectre of a widespread Conservative defection to the Alliance. But while Long was dialling into the 905 party line last week, his main adversaries were trying to sew up the new party's core of western support. Preston Manning, the former Reform leader and front-runner in this race, was attending low-profile coffee parties in British Columbia, while Stockwell Day, on leave from his job as Alberta treasurer, delivered a law-and-order speech in Abbotsford, B.C. Both camps suggested Long's slick, stagey debut missed the point. "The 905 will matter in a conventional election campaign, but what we're in now is basically a membership drive," said Day's national co-chair, Alberta MP Jason Kenney.

Nobody questions that signing up new members, at $10 each, is the real job at hand. There are now about 78,000 Canadian Alliance members, most previously Reformers. Some Alliance insiders estimate the ranks could double by the June 24 voting day. (If no leadership candidate wins a majority on that first one-member, one-vote ballot, a run-off vote will be held on July 8.) Manning is widely thought to have the edge in support among current members. The question is whether Long can reel in enough Ontario provincial Tories, or Day attract enough new western recruits, to seriously challenge Manning - and then coax away enough erstwhile western Reformers to deny their old chieftain another lease on political life. Day's credentials as a social-conservative pillar of Premier Ralph Klein's cabinet give him instant credibility in the West. But Long, a Toronto businessman when he wasn't running Harris's campaigns, is a rank outsider in what was the Reform heartland.

Backers of Manning and Day were tactful last week in drawing attention to Long's vulnerabilities. Rather than going on the attack, they pointedly highlighted their candidates' attributes that contrast with the late entry's backrooms-and-Bay-Street credentials. "Stockwell projects a real, believable commitment to grassroots populism," stressed Kenney. In the same vein, Manning's campaign chairwoman, Alberta MP Diane Ablonczy, said: "Commitment to grassroots decision-making has to come from the heart." And she added that the Alliance won't stand for the style of politics in which "bright lights in the back-room tell the peasants what to do." Ablonczy laughed when asked if she meant to imply that Long was that sort of operator.

There is no denying that Long's formidable reputation among political pros has been earned mostly behind closed doors. Born in 1958 in Sarnia, Ont., to a Canadian father and an American mother, he became active in right-wing politics in his early teens. In 1976, he even ventured into the United States to campaign for Ronald Reagan in his failed bid to wrest the Republican presidential nomination away from Gerald Ford. By the early 1980s, his success in tugging the campus Conservative organization at the University of Western Ontario hard to the right had won him some notoriety.

He ran campaigns for Tory MP Pauline Browes, worked for 18 months in Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's office, and finally served as president of the Ontario party. But he made by far his biggest impression as chairman of Harris's winning 1995 and 1999 campaigns. Long was instrumental in concocting the "Common Sense Revolution" platform - highlighting deep tax cuts and deficit reduction, among other things - that lifted Harris to power.

While undeniably a campaign war-room denizen, Long has a legitimate claim to populist convictions. As president of the Ontario Tories, he put an end to the top-down tradition of deal-making at leadership conventions by dumping the old delegate-selection process and making Ontario's Tories English Canada's first one-member, one-vote party. And at last week's launch, Long affirmed his faith in the sort of grassroots democracy long advocated by Manning. Asked about his stand on abortion (Long declares his own views to be strongly "pro-life"), he suggested rank-and-file MPs should be allowed to lead the way - even as far as a national referendum. "If Parliament would like to have a referendum on this," he said, "then I think that's what we should do."

But such contentious statements were overshadowed last week by Long's precision-tooled economic message. Time and again he returned to his main theme. The Chrétien government has had "seven years to waste our money, tax our prosperity," he said. "There can be little doubt that we are losing what is most priceless - our standard of living, our quality of life." Because of the resulting brain drain of talented young people, Canada's brightest "now only come home at Christmas." And when he ventured into social policy, Long offered a variation on his central theme. "It is a fact of economic life that we cannot have a first-rate health-care system," he said, "if we only have a third-rate economy."

But persuading voters in the 905 belt that economic times are as bad as all that could be tough. Around the Royalton Banquet & Convention Centre, where Long pitched the need for "a U-turn towards prosperity," every road seems to lead to another huge housing development, a humming light-industry park or a gleaming new movie multiplex. In a driving tour of the area on the morning of Long's launch, Lorna Jackson, the veteran mayor of Vaughan, gleefully pointed out all the new big-box retailers and chain eateries - boasting that last year her municipality, a city of 180,000 that takes in Woodbridge and neighbouring communities, sprouted a record $1 billion in new buildings. "We've never boomed like this before," Jackson crowed. And that sense of prosperity is hardly limited to Toronto's ever-sprawling suburbs: national unemployment is at its lowest level in nearly a quarter century and Canada is projected to have the second-fastest economic growth rate among the world's richest industrial countries this year.

No wonder Liberals were quick to dismiss Long's litany of economic woes as a non-starter with voters. MP Maurizio Bevilacqua, whose riding takes in Vaughan, noted that even the provincial Tories - whose stance owes so much to Long - expend little energy these days attacking Ottawa's economic policies. "It's obvious that the Ontario Conservatives are not coming at us on taxes," he said. "They're coming at us over health care." Bevilacqua said he feels secure with the prospect of running on the tax-cut package in Finance Minister Paul Martin's latest budget. That five-year plan aims to shrink the average federal tax burden on families with children by 21 per cent - 30 per cent if cuts in the previous two budgets are taken into account. As fodder for campaign rhetoric, at least, that doesn't sound so far off Long's pledge to cut federal taxes paid by a dual-income family of four earning $50,000 by 35 per cent, or nearly $2,000.

If the Liberals are pumped up to fend off a challenge from the right, the federal Tories appear much more frail. Last week, embattled Conservative Leader Joe Clark lost one of his most valuable caucus members when veteran Quebec MP André Harvey quit to sit as an independent - without ruling out someday joining the Canadian Alliance. It was only the latest defection: Ontario Treasurer Ernie Eves, regarded as a staunch supporter of the federal Tories, had already announced he would be backing Long, and a raft of lesser provincial Conservative politicians and operatives are signing up with the various Alliance leadership camps. The best Clark could do was to appeal to tradition and plead for time. "We have been a party for more than a century," he said. "We've been through some terrible times, and we've risen from those terrible times to form a government."

Siphoning off what's left in the gas tank of Clark's sputtering machine means at least as much to the Canadian Alliance as racing to catch the Liberals. In the last two elections, splitting the small-c conservative vote with the Tories denied Reform the Ontario breakthrough Manning craved to grow beyond his western protest roots. There were 26 Ontario seats that would have been lost to the Liberals in the 1997 election if the Reform and Tory votes were combined - 17 of them clustered in the 905 region. How many of those ridings are really ripe for the regrouped right is open to doubt: many Ontario Tory voters see the Liberals as their natural second choice. Still, Long embodies the Alliance dream of changing all that. As he moves from the shadows to the spotlight, the man who helped overhaul Ontario politics under the Harris banner now wants to transform the national political landscape under his own.

Maclean's May 8, 2000