The Canadian Alliance has with astonishing speed become a negative force, a black hole of politics into which we are asked to drop our votes. Only total desperation will persuade a substantial number of us to accept that invitation. This is, obviously, a party that wants to defeat itself before its first trip to the polls, a party without spirit or energy, a party whose ideas could be written on a cocktail napkin.
The rhetoric that dominated the debates leading to Saturday's first round of voting demonstrated that Alliance leaders have lost the courage of their own prejudices. They are self-stifled by their longing for success, conservatives with the conservatism bleached out. Just as the Reform MPs went to Ottawa breathing fire and changed overnight into standard hack politicians, so the would-be leaders of the Alliance have instantly transformed themselves into genial centrists whose greatest goal in life (so they keep saying) is to save the public health service. They are committed to a few radical ideas (a 17% general tax rate, for instance), but the commitment seems listless at best.
They have managed to make Canadian public life more tiresome than it was when they started up. It turns out that even Alliance members are bored with the Alliance. Only 119,828 of the claimed 200,000 members voted (which proves at least that they aren't fanatics). In some circumstances, such a figure might be considered reasonable, but most of those people were signed up for the sole purpose of voting on this occasion.
In their "debates" the potential leaders came across as three Sunday School teachers and a pool shark. The shark, of course, is Tom Long, a man with SHREWD OPERATOR written in block capitals on his forehead. His friends insist he's honest, and no doubt they speak the truth, but he insists on talking like someone who would sign up every graveyard in the Gaspé if he had the chance. The Alliance found him a bit much, and rewarded him with fewer than 19% of the votes. He fell out of the "race" after the first turn around the course, beaten even on his own Ontario turf by Stockwell Day.
Mr. Day did better than anyone expected, perhaps because party members sensed that independent voters will like him better than Preston Manning. That's a sound judgment: Mr. Manning has turned into Yesterday's Man before becoming Today's Man. But Mr. Day, while forthright in style, gives every sign of being flexible to the point of spinelessness. He's a horse who has been broken by the whips of the pollsters. Everyone thinks he's a social conservative but no one can say what that means in his case. He runs and hides when the word "abortion" is mentioned and lately he appears to have decided that, whatever you may have heard, he's friendly to gays: At the moment his Web site carries a light-hearted Edmonton Sun piece quoting a gay clothing designer's opinion that Mr. Day is the sexiest and best-dressed of all our federal politicians ("He's 10 out of 10"). For an extra point, the designer is a Montrealer.
Mr. Day says he opposes Jean Chrétien's ideas ("European socialism") and favours what he calls "the Canadian virtues," defined as "honesty, integrity, respect, thrift, co-operation and responsibility." Actually, those are the values of Sesame Street, an American program, but I endorse them too. So, I bet, does Joe Clark -- and for that matter, Jean Chrétien and every single living New Democrat and the entire editorial board of the Toronto Star. This is not the foundation of a distinctive platform.
The Alliance is often called the party of nostalgia. Certainly it makes me nostalgic for the politics of the Canadian past. Setting aside the recent choosing of Joe Clark, there has never in living memory been a "race" for leadership as pathetic as this one. Canada has usually been led by individuals of vitality and even originality. Trudeau, Diefenbaker, Mulroney, Pearson -- love them or hate them, they were in their different ways alive, their vital signs not yet flatlined. They exhibited even a certain ambition for their country and some dream of excellence, however vague, for themselves and their colleagues. Often they fell into mediocrity; but the Alliance leaders appear to seek mediocrity as if it were the Holy Grail. Apparently their secret slogan reads: Give me mediocrity or give me death.
Parliamentary democracy requires a reasonably adequate alternative to the government, which at election time can with luck be elevated to the point of credibility. Today we need the alternative more than ever. The huddled masses, yearning to break free from Chrétien Liberalism, straining under the dumbest and least articulate cabinet since the Second World War, have turned in vain to the Alliance. We asked them for bread, and they gave us Melba toast.
Perhaps, between now and the final ballot on July 8, the competition between Stockwell Day and Preston Manning will bring one or both of them to life and produce ideas that will stir the voters out of their torpor. But only a crazy optimist will bet on that prospect.
Candidates for Alliance leadership decline to lead (June 7, 2000)
The 2002 Canadian Alliance leadership convention (March 21, 2002)