Canadians need to know why and where Harper wants to lead us
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, January 10, 2004

“All the truly great ones have all these things going for them — they are very knowledgeable about their disciplines, they have great physical skills, they have learned to control their own learning and their arousal levels. And they can bring it all together instantly to deliver precisely the performance demanded by the moment. That’s what makes them great.”
— Ted Wall, chairman,Physical Education Department, McGill University, 1990

Ted Wall’s comment in a 1990 edition of Saturday Night was about Wayne Gretzky, but the description applies to greatness achieved across the spectrum of human endeavour, including politics. Indeed, we may have seen a glimpse of this when Opposition leader Stephen Harper so deftly orchestrated the Tory/Alliance merger that became a major political event in 2003.

Considering the idea since the 1997 election while he was still vice-president of the National Citizens’ Coalition, the former Reform MP likened the Ontario Tories, and “western populists and Quebec autonomists that make up the other two elements of Canadian conservatism,” to a prominent mountain along the Trans-Canada Highway between Calgary and Banff called The Three Sisters. “Legend has it that an Indian chief placed each of his three daughters on a separate peak to keep them away from unworthy suitors. The strategy was so successful that the three daughters died up there. Is Canadian conservatism also a family of three sisters fated to perish in isolation unless they forge an alliance with each other?” he anguished.

In 1998, Tories pursued Harper to lead Jean Charest’s orphaned party. He resisted. Joe Clark became leader instead and Harper lost hope for uniting Canada’s conservative elements. “Only one thing can change this situation into a genuine quest for unity,” he said in Toronto on the day in 1999 when the Tories passed their 301 resolution. “That would be the arrival of a White Knight.” Two big trends opposed even a White Knight’s success, he conceded, the first being regionalism. “Canada’s regions are becoming more economically, culturally and politically distinct,” he said. “(This) is an enormous obstacle to building a homogenous conservative party in the old-fashioned sense. But I have reluctantly become convinced that there is a second big trend moving against these efforts. That is a fundamental ideological realignment.” Arguing the centre-left parties of Blair’s Britain, Martin’s Canada and Clinton’s United States have subsumed the priorities of the fractious old conservative parties, he concluded that projects like the United Alternative would fail. “Under the twin pressures of regionalism and re-alignment there will be no return to a two-party system in Canada … Canada’s future is in its regions, not in its central government.”

Despite these misgivings, Harper ventured into the fray to support Tom Long's Alliance leadership bid and when winner Stockwell Day proved unsustainable, he relented and answered the call. Campaigning for the leadership of a riven party, he prudently avoided the unity issue.As leader of the Alliance, Harper has faced his share of challenges. Having hired then fired some of Ontario’s A-list Tory operatives to make his biggest donor, Scott Reid ($20,000), his Ontario point man, he then snubbed Bay Street and Toronto’s influential Blue Committee. He insulted Maritimers and Joe Clark whose unity proposals were as doable as anything Harper subsequently agreed with MacKay. To appease the Day supporters, he sacrificed Reform matriarch and chief dissident Deborah Grey. Then, with consuming intelligence and a fair whack of political brilliance — enough to make him a capable, perhaps great prime minister — he vindicated her and flew in the face of his own predictions to become the White Knight who united the Alliance and Tory parties.

On Monday, Harper will launch his campaign to lead the new Conservative party. Will he reveal his vision for Canada and state why, given his personal convictions, he is pursuing a job that could take him to the highest office in the land? Canada needs to know. After all, look what happened the last time a Gretzky-like politician with a regional agenda emerged. Had he marshalled his skills to deliver the performance demanded by Canada’s federal system, Lucien Bouchard too would have made a great prime minister.

Margret Kopala writes weekly on western perspectives.

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