A race for the bottom; Tory leadership race lacks punch
Seven men vie for Joe Clark's job
Iraq, other issues obscure contest. In the shadow of war, seven white men in suits are in a battle to take over the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservative party. The contest to succeed Joe Clark was lacklustre to begin with and it clearly has been eclipsed by the media focus on the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
The candidates- dubbed the Seven Dwarfs by one columnist- obviously lack the celebrity status of Clark, a former prime minister and a cabinet minister in the Mulroney era who still garners a disproportionate amount of media attention on Parliament Hill as the head of a party with just 14 seats.
But party organizers who are knee-deep in the campaign say they aren't concerned about the lack of attention to the race. They point out that Clark was completely off the public radar screen when he won the Tory leadership in 1976, yet went on to take the party to power, however briefly, in 1979.
"This is a family affair anyway," says one top Tory insider.
There was a definite buzz at the party's annual convention in Edmonton last spring when it looked as if New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord and Toronto executive John Tory might enter the race. That excitement is gone. It has been replaced by a low-profile contest among a handful of bright, young Tory MPs and a few little-known outsiders.
Apart from the split between the two front-runners on the question of war in Iraq, this is a race with little ideological kick to it. Even the issue of a merger with the Canadian Alliance has been put on the backburner.
Nova Scotia MP Peter MacKay, who has positioned himself as heir to the Tory party's tradition, is the clear leader. But despite that, his campaign performance has failed to excite and he is facing a surprisingly strong challenge from anti-free trade activist and environmentalist David Orchard, who is close behind MacKay in delegate selection for the convention, to be held in Toronto on the last weekend in May.
"It is appearing more and more like Peter MacKay can't be stopped. David Orchard is doing well at delegate selection meetings, but has no room for growth on subsequent ballots," explains Steve Patten, a political scientist at the University of Alberta.
The wild card is the prospect of a repeat of the 1976 convention, where Clark emerged from third place to overtake Brian Mulroney and Claude Wagner, the early leaders.
Scott Brison, also an MP from Nova Scotia, and Calgary lawyer Jim Prentice are running hard for third place in delegate selection, hoping that MacKay falters and can be knocked off in later ballots. At the midway point of delegate-selection meetings in the 301 federal ridings across the country, MacKay has locked up about 40 per cent of the voting delegates. Orchard has the support of just under 30 per cent, while Prentice and Brison have about 13 per cent each. The other candidates- Andre Bachand, Craig Chandler and Heward Graffety- have 1 per cent or less.
Dozens of meetings are scheduled for this weekend and through next week before the delegate selection ends on April 10. But with machinations on the convention floor still weeks away, the Tories are left with a race that is grinding on virtually unnoticed. "This is not the kind of race that they envisioned," Patten says. "At the convention in Edmonton ... Clark said this was going to be a wide-open race with a lot of prominent candidates from across the country.
"As it turns out, this race is really a competition between a handful of people from their very small caucus and a handful of outsiders without much stature in the public's mind."
The complicated selection process is a hybrid of the one-member, one-vote system and the old-fashioned convention where horse-trading on the floor often produced a winner.
The candidates are competing in local meetings in every riding to elect delegates who will attend the convention.
Under the hybrid system, the first ballot will be largely preordained. The 3,600 delegates elected at the riding meetings are already dedicated to one candidate or another, and on the first ballot, their votes will automatically go to that candidate. The only delegates free to vote at will on the first ballot will be the approximately 1,200 "ex-officio" delegates- former MPs, senators and party officials- and several hundred delegates from campus clubs.
With so many candidates, few expect anyone to win on the first ballot. On the second ballot, the race reverts to old-style convention tactics, and all the delegates will be free to vote however they wish.
The current thinking in party circles is that while Orchard may fare quite well on the first ballot, with all of his committed delegates, he has little if any room to grow. The Orchard campaign is so estranged from those of the other contenders, he is unlikely to win over anyone else's delegates.
For that reason, most observers believe that from the second ballot on, the race will be Mac- Kay's to lose.
The war is not only overshadowing the Tory race, it could have a bearing on the outcome. MacKay came out early in favour of Canadian participation in the Iraq war, while Orchard is just as vociferously opposed to it.
There have been some rumblings in party ranks that the well-organized and left-wing Orchard may be able to capitalize on anti-war sentiment to bolster his campaign and even threaten MacKay's lead.
MacKay is trying to capitalize on Orchard's momentum, appealing to senior Tories to rally to his side in a stop-Ochard movement.
At a party event on Monday night, all seven were given a few minutes each to make their pitch: MacKay, 37, MP for Pictou-Antigonish-Guysborough, has been in the House of Commons since 1997 and presents himself as a fresh face who wants to stick to tried-and-true conservative principles. Much of the party establishment is in his camp. A lawyer and former crown attorney, MacKay also claims to be the law-and-order candidate.
"From the 1850s on, we have been builders of this country," MacKay says. "I'm very, very pleased to represent this party in this race." He also criticizes the Liberal government for refusing to join the Iraq war. "The abandonment of our traditional allies in a time of need has left Canada on the sidelines ... we must now turn our attention to restoring Canada's place in the world."
Orchard, 53, an organic farmer from Saskatchewan, is a crusader against Canada-U.S. free trade deals and an environmental advocate. A strong grassroots campaign organization propelled him to a second-place finish in the 1998 leadership campaign, which was won by Clark, and is bolstering his delegate count this time around. He staunchly opposes the war in Iraq and has gathered support across the political spectrum, even though he is shunned by the party establishment.
Orchard plays on his outsider status, comparing himself to Prairie populist John Diefenbaker: "Some people have accused me of bringing too many NDPers into the Progressive Conservative party. Where I come from, that's not seen as a problem. The whole province voted for the CCF and NDP provincially and they all voted for Mr. Diefenbaker federally."
Brison, 35, is the MP for Kings-Hants in Nova Scotia and, like MacKay, was first elected in 1997. An investment banker by trade, Brison made his mark as the party's finance critic but is also regarded as the "ideas guy," the quick-witted, silver-tongued type who could generate much-needed media attention for the party.
"Canadians, particularly young Canadians, thirst for ideas-based leadership ... I'd rather have some people disagree with us, than nobody notice us at all," says Brison, who is gay, likely another first for a Tory leadership candidate.
Prentice, 46, is a long-time Tory activist and organizer but has never held elected office. Ontario-born, he now lives in Calgary. He won the hotly contested Tory nomination to run in last May's by-election in the Calgary Southeast riding vacated by Preston Manning. But at Clark's urging, Prentice stepped aside when the new Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper decided to run there. Prentice has been running a credible campaign, positioning himself as the outsider who is more palatable to the Tory mainstream than Orchard.
"There is nothing wrong with Canada that a Conservative government will not fix," he says. "Canadians want this party to pick itself up and offer them the hope and the vision that this country needs."
Bachand, 41, the MP for Richmond-Arthabaska since 1997, is the only francophone candidate in the race. Bachand, who became the youngest mayor in the history of Asbestos, Que., in 1986, is the only surviving Tory MP in Quebec, something he wears as a badge of honour. Bachand and his organizers seem cozy with the Prentice camp, which suggests there is already an understanding that Bachand could throw his support behind Prentice in later ballots.
Chandler, 32, a former Canadian Alliance member who was a Reform party candidate in the 1993 election, lives in Rockwood, Ont., in the winter months but calls Calgary home in the summer. He has positioned himself as the merger candidate pushing for a coalition with the Canadian Alliance, but he is widely regarded as a fringe candidate, at best. Chandler's pitch is that a merger of the Tories and the Alliance should be the top priority of the party, a view that is simply not shared by the Tory mainstream.
Graffety, 74, a long-time MP who served in the Commons from the Diefenbaker era through to Clark's short-lived 1979 government, was the first to declare his candidacy. In fact, Graffety publicly called for Clark to go. Like Chandler, he is regarded as a fringe candidate and wins polite applause at party events because of his years of service to the party.
Patten, the political scientist from the University of Alberta, says it's likely to become a two-horse race.
"It is really Brison and Mac- Kay, the young part of their very small caucus. It is not the race that Joe Clark hoped for, and virtually promised. And that doesn't say much for the kind of boost they are likely to get in the opinion polls out of the convention."