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Winnipeg Free Press,Friday 07 November 2003

Potential leaders in short supply

Mulroney reappears as a player

by William Neville

During the first weeks of the betrothal of the Tories and the Canadian Alliance, the name that most frequently bubbled to the top as a prospective near-dream candidate to lead the new party was that of Mike Harris, the former premier of Ontario.

One says "near-dream" for even the most starry-eyed of his disciples were bound to admit that Harris had his imperfections: he is an Ontarian possessing a very limited national perspective; he does not speak French; his being from Ontario could be a hard sell in the West; and no premier of any province has ever been elected prime minister of Canada. Moreover, he carries personal baggage like the Walkerton deaths, seen as symbolizing a government so eager to reduce taxes and pass on tax cuts to the wealthy by cutting public services that it literally cost lives.

By the time he retired from the premiership, he had come to be viewed as largely insensitive to the negative consequences of his government's policies. And the government he led has now, under his successor, been trounced at the polls and subsequently revealed, by an independent audit, to have run up a deficit of $5.6 billion.

This last might not have been fatal. After all, as we see currently in the United States, conservatives are far less perturbed by deficits when conservative governments create them. Just the same, with this rather long string of liabilities or disabilities, it is hard to imagine how -- or why -- ostensibly clear-minded people saw former Ontario premier Mike Harris as their closest approximation of an ideal candidate to preside over a united right-wing party. (Alberta Premier Ralph Klein liked Harris, but sh ould be excluded from the ranks of the ostensibly clear-minded: Klein, after all, also liked Stockwell Day.) To be sure, Harris never repudiated the name Progressive Conservative even as he was jettisoning most of its traditions and policies; and if being from Ontario was at best a mixed blessing, it might have put the lie to the notion that the new party is just the old Alberta-based Alliance, revised and edited.

Nonetheless, the sudden interest in Harris is largely explained by two considerations. Since Harris had no interest in being in Opposition, his being seriously tempted hinged on the possibility that lightning, real or metaphorical, would strike and stop Paul Martin and the Liberals in their tracks. That could happen, of course, but it suggests that the boomlet for Mike Harris was a triumph of hope over probability.

The other consideration, however, is that with Harris out of the picture (as he now is), the paucity of what is left, among the nominally Progressive Conservatives, would be there for all to see. There is, to be sure, New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord whose hold on power, unfortunately, is so tenuous that his government would likely fall without him. And there is Jim Prentice, a Calgary lawyer whose views suggest that he could comfortably join the Alliance without taking the Conservative party with him and could continue the Alliance habit of Alberta leaders. And the current PC leader Peter MacKay may think himself a possible candidate but, having lied his way into his present position as party leader, he is surely not someone who would inspire trust or loyalty from his present party, the new party or voters at large. This week, he enlarged his catalogue of clangers by deploring the formation of a No committee, complaining that it creates the impression of divisiveness with! in the Progressive Conservative party -- a phenomenon he apparently has not previously twigged to, and has opposed the committee's request that Conservatives be able to vote on their party's future by secret ballot. MacKay is quite oblivious to the extent of his own corruption.

MacKay's present status and role appears increasingly as an artifact of Brian Mulroney and friends. MacKay's father -- also a Nova Scotia MP in his time -- once resigned his seat to allow Mulroney to get into the House of Commons; the senior MacKay, of course, ended up in Mulroney's cabinet. Many of the key players in the junior MacKay's leadership campaign were also Mulroney's cronies. Don Mazankowski and Bill Davis both endorsed MacKay's leadership bid, then emerged as key players in the merger talks, alo ng with Belinda Stronach of Magna International, all linked by interlocking corporate directorships and connections with Mulroney. Viewed in light of these connections, getting MacKay into the leadership seems to have been merely the first part of a larger plan, with MacKay's inconvenient no-merger agreement with David Orchard little more than a momentary distraction.

The juxtaposition of these events has precipitated Mulroney's reappearance as a player and thereby created -- nowhere more, perhaps, than in his own mind -- a sense of Mulroney being rehabilitated. Mulroney has been very visible -- preening himself on his role in encouraging these developments, commending the wisdom of those pursuing the merger, commenting on prospective candidates for the leadership, and even reminding us that he is younger than Paul Martin, suggesting thereby -- in jest, we must all pray -- that even he might be induced to re-enter the political wars.

The net effect of these machinations is that the Progressive Conservative party risks oblivion either way: it may be consumed by the Alliance, or it may be too shattered by the current process to recover. And, for his role it, Brian Mulroney may well go down as the only man in our history to kill the same party twice.

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