Lord Encouraged to Lead Tories

It takes a political animal to know one.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 7, 2002

It takes a political animal to know one.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 7, 2002

Lord Encouraged to Lead Tories

It takes a political animal to know one. Earlier this summer, in an exclusive salmon fishing camp on the Restigouche River in New Brunswick, Brian MULRONEY told a gathering of big shots from Canada and the United States, "The future leader of the Conservative party is among us in this room, and it is not me. Mila won't let me run again."

In attendance with the former prime minister were former U.S. president George Bush, Quebec business tycoons Pierre Karl Péladeau and Paul Desmarais Jr., American merchant banker Tom Hicks, Randall Oliphant of Barricks Gold. And one Bernard Lord, 37, the then little-known Conservative premier of New Brunswick. "Some of the men there were almost double Lord's age, but all said they were totally impressed by his sophistication and composure," says one witness to the three-day fishing trip that members of New Brunswick's own business elite - the McCains, the Irvings - also attended.

In early August, Joe CLARK made his unexpected, but long-awaited announcement that he would step down as Tory leader in early 2003. The Bernard Lord iceberg broke the surface at the Tory convention in Edmonton two weeks later. There he delivered a speech brimming with catchy one-liners such as, "The most important question is not who will lead this party but where do we want to lead Canada." He argued that a national coalition of Conservatives can be rebuilt "by reaching out across parties to conservatives with common principles that we can share." For good measure, Lord added, "this is what we did in New Brunswick. We succeeded because we believe in ourselves." The 1,300 delegates were wowed. So many of them stampeded the hotel suite that Lord's people had booked, Lord himself never made it to his party.

In the weeks since, Lord has emerged in the national media as the picture-perfect candidate, one who can ride in on his white horse and turn around the sagging fortunes of the hapless PROGRESSIVE CONSERVATIVE PARTY of Canada. Saying he still has much he wants to accomplish in New Brunswick, Lord has so far declined to declare outright whether he'll even be a candidate. His stated position: the door is closed to the idea of running, but it is not locked. He says he will announce in the days to come "whether I have locked it or left it unlocked." Even so, Lord is the undisputed front-runner in the still-undeclared race. The other possible candidates - among them Nova Scotia MP Peter MacKay and Toronto business executive John Tory, president and CEO of Rogers Cable Inc., whose parent company also owns Maclean's - have been very quiet lately. All are waiting for Lord to declare whether he is running.

The party apparatchiks want him to run. Badly. And they want him now. An informal, but efficient, organization has taken shape in all provinces, promising Lord money, support and manpower if he takes the plunge into federal politics. On Sept. 4 in Montreal, for instance, a group of some 60 Tory stalwarts - many whose membership cards had long since expired - gathered to sign a petition urging Lord to run. "I haven't sensed such excitement since Brian Mulroney burst upon the scene," one in attendance told Maclean's.

The effervescence surrounding a possible Lord ticket triggers a few knowing smirks as well. "The last time the Establishment got all frothy over a new candidate, it was for Jean Charest, and look at him now," one Quebec-based senator remarked, referring to the fact the one-time Tory leader seems to have dropped from sight since becoming leader of the Quebec Liberals in April, 1998. So, Tory operatives are careful this time with labels. "I don't believe in saviours, and I don't think that is the issue at the moment," says Peter White, a former high-powered Tory fundraiser. Still, he clearly has high hopes for Lord. The once mighty Conservative coalition has splintered into regional factions - the Canadian Alliance in the West, the Bloc in Quebec, and PC pockets in Ontario and the Maritimes - leaving the Liberals all alone in the big leagues of coast-to-coast political parties. White claims Lord could change all that. "There are two men on the political scene in Canada who can heal this terrible schism, Mike Harris and Bernard Lord," White says. "Harris seems to have decided not to put himself forward in this round, so that leaves Bernard Lord. I don't see anybody else."

For a PC party mired in a deep funk - tied for last place with the NDP in the House of Commons - Lord's track record is irresistible. He has a history of moving fast, of winning against long odds, and of keeping together an improbable coalition of French-speaking Acadians and right-wing Anglos. Lord captured the leadership of the New Brunswick Tories in 1997, an improbable feat for a 32-year-old, no matter how bilingual and bicultural (mother an Acadian, father anglophone). Just over a year later, he ran in a by-election in the safest Liberal fortress in the province, Moncton-East, and won. Then, in the June, 1999, election, his party overcame a 24-point deficit in the polls to sweep 47 of the province's 55 seats. "I have taken bold risks," Lord acknowledged in an interview, "but I don't roll the dice. I calculate them very carefully."

Lord was born in Roberval, Que., where his father, a bush pilot, was based at the time, but he grew up near Moncton. He married Diane Haché, a bilingual Acadian, while still studying law in Moncton. Asked if she knew she was marrying a politician, she says, "Yes, I think I did, but I don't know if Bernard knew at the time." Her clue: Lord was elected president of the students' federation during his first year on campus.

Today, Lord's government is in the third year of its first mandate, with favourable polls and a disorganized opposition. That's one of the reasons he says he's still calculating whether to run for the national leadership at this time. "My intentions have been - still are - to stay and run in New Brunswick, but I have been surprised by the extent of support that exists out there," he says.

So, is Bernard Lord, the young premier of a one-area-code province, really the national saviour? For New Brunswickers, he's a brilliant, unorthodox politician, who runs a conservative government with small-town values, pushing austere reforms - trim bureaucracy, reduce deficits to spruce up education and health care - and promising to make New Brunswick "the best place in Canada to raise a family." Interesting, sincere, earnest, yes. But inspiring, dramatic, spectacular, no.

His political style is comparable to Robert Bourassa's - he's a leader who knows his flock will follow him as long as he takes it where it wants to go. And when he talks about his government's record he verges on boring - "We have tabled three balanced budgets, we have had to make tough choices to get these. We have reduced taxes to make the province more competitive, we are changing the way we deliver services to people." But Lord also has a dash of Brian Mulroney about him: he knows how to keep his friends close, and his adversaries even closer. When Lord's government updated the province's language law in June, he invited Louis Robichaud, the former Liberal premier and father of the original law, to speak from the premier's chair during a special ceremony in the legislature.

Lord in many ways is raring to step onto the federal stage. "I am very competitive, I love politics and everything that comes with it," he says. But still he hesitates. "To me, politics is not a game. I entered public life because I felt I had something to contribute, I wanted to contribute. The question for me now is where can I contribute the most at this time." Haché adds that they're pondering the difficult choice together. Moving on to another career, another city, would not be traumatizing, she says, "if we make sure we can protect our family." But life is good and easy in Fredericton, she says. The premier can drive his own minivan, and leave his two kids, Sébatien and Jasmine, at school on his way to the office, listening to Supertramp as he parks by the Centennial Building on King Street.

Reflecting on his fast-track political career, Lord says, "People have told me to wait all my life, and I have never waited." Now, the tables have turned. There is a huge crowd out there, urging Bernard Lord to move fast, now.

Maclean's October 7, 2002