Robert Fulford's column about the 2002 Canadian Alliance leadership convention

(The National Post, March 21, 2002)

Earlier in the week Stockwell Day referred in passing to "our great party," but it was hard to say what he was talking about. He certainly didn't mean that bacchanal they held in Calgary last night, when Stephen Harper was named leader of the Canadian Alliance. The politicians who assembled at the convention centre had banners, they had balloons, and they had signs to wave, but the atmosphere never quite achieved a festive look. It was no party.

Alliance members interviewed on TV seemed a long way from jovial; most of the time their mood ranged from grim to morose. A woman on a Calgary phone-in radio show yesterday afternoon said, "With Harper, I have a little bit of hope." That was about as close to euphoria as anybody could manage.

And if it wasn't a party, it certainly wasn't a convention. It was somebody reading out numbers, duly certified by accountants, from a platform. It's clear that whoever invented the mail-in ballot was an enemy of politics and politicians. It feels strangely pointless, like hockey played without a puck. It's even more artificial than the carefully staged made-for-TV conventions that most parties now run. The Alliance isn't alone in adopting this perversely arid method (the Conservatives have also been guilty) but last night in Calgary it looked like a plot to make the Alliance appear even more comatose than it actually is.

We have to assume that Mr. Day, no matter how self-intoxicated, wouldn't have called the Canadian Alliance "great." A political cluster that has never formed a government, never maintained a policy for more than 10 minutes, and won a reputation mainly for peevish behaviour doesn't qualify as great, no matter how generously the word is used. Its 2002 leadership campaign, which unfolded in excruciating slow motion, was slightly less exciting than the average meeting of municipal ratepayers in Mississauga, Ont. This sitcom began with a comic premise, Mr. Day running for the job from which he had just resigned. That was fun to explain to foreigners for a while, but soon it lost its charm.

Mr. Harper may now be able to pull the party together and run it in a way that will please his colleagues, himself, and, someday, a substantial part of the public. But there remains the inescapable fact that his best friends would never call him either a persuasive speaker or an engaging personality. He's the politician as economist, which is possibly but not probably what the age demands. In a mild way he's an ideologue, certainly a man who can be relied upon (as Mr. Day could not) to put policy ahead of temporary advantage. Mr. Harper has sometimes yearned in public for the chance to emulate the politics of Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan -- perhaps forgetting that neither of those leaders took a graduate degree in economics or wanted to, nor served as a backroom policy maker and brief writer. Can Mr. Harper know where he is going and what it entails?

There are times, listening to him or reading one of his bloodless speeches, when one wonders whether he should be in politics at all. Is it possible that at some point he made a horrible mistake and pushed himself in the wrong direction, violating his instincts?

Last night's wretched spectacle did him no good; it put on display a non-party from which the life had been drained long ago. But perhaps all this was no more than the natural result of a party history dominated by politicians who seemed determined to betray themselves and disappoint those who admired them.

Long ago, a collection of earnest Westerners created a party designed to be unlike the others. They set out to bring a new civility to Parliament, to conduct themselves as honest politicians, to see the West properly represented at last, and to form, one day, a Canadian government of which all decent folk could be proud. That was the course on which Preston Manning and his first associates (Mr. Harper the brightest young man among them at the founding convention) set out in 1987.

But as they made their way to Ottawa and climbed on to the national stage, they surprised everyone, even themselves. They became, for the most part, ordinary politicians, snarling across at the government front benches in Parliament, looking for all the world just like the traditional trained seals they replaced. They couldn't keep even their most banal pledges, like the promise that their leader would save money by refusing to move into Stornoway, the official residence of the opposition leader. Slowly it became clear that they didn't much believe in themselves as a party and, worse, didn't believe in each other as individuals.

In their second incarnation as the Canadian Alliance, they made Mr. Day their leader, and suffered as all suffer who ignorantly grab for power.

They discovered too late that their ticket to success was counterfeit. Mr. Day couldn't do the job, any of it: He couldn't remember what he said yesterday and couldn't begin to build confidence among those closest to him, his caucus. When they began one by one to reject him, he turned against them in bitterness. From that moment to this, the Alliance has never for a moment looked minimally attractive. Last night, accepting defeat and probably the end of his career in politics, he seemed, almost for the first time, a statesman.

Occasionally, the Alliance has managed to fool itself, with the help of the media; the media, always desperate for something to take seriously, have given the Alliance far more than the benefit of the doubt. (Last night Peter Mansbridge assured us this convention was really important, though nobody, not even the Calgary newspaper, seemed to notice it.)

When Mr. Manning retired recently, even those who disagreed with his policies felt called upon to praise his integrity and leadership. In their eagerness to salute him they failed to notice the major accomplishment of his political life: He made himself Jean Chrétien's and the Liberal party's best friend by destroying the Progressive Conservatives. He replaced our frail alternative national party with no alternative party at all, just a collection of fractious malcontents.

So much hope, so much anger, so much resentment, all come to nothing, or close to nothing. The 2002 leadership struggle became weirdly abstract, a battle over nothing more substantial than who could sign up the most members. It turned into a case of politics for politics' sake, empty of meaning, like what Shakespeare called lust in Sonnet 129: an "expense of spirit in a waste of shame."

One expects the Liberals will make no negative comment on these events, not out of mercy but because it is an unwritten law of politics that you never try to injure someone who may be in the process of committing suicide.

Read other columns about the Canadian Alliance by Robert Fulford:

Candidates for Alliance leadership decline to lead (June 7, 2000)
Canadian Alliance: desperately seeking mediocrity (June 26, 2000)

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