THE ROAD TO RELEVANCE
Two very different Nova Scotians are vying to lead the Tory party back to mattering again
JOHN DEMONT | May 26, 2003
THERE IS ONE THING -- and sometimes it looks like the only thing -- on which Peter MacKay and Scott Brison agree. The rivalry between them is "all business," says Brison, or it's "nothing personal," according to MacKay. They're brothers-in-arms, they point out, fellow Tories aspiring to lead the same federal party into battle against the Liberal dauphin Paul Martin. So what if things got a little testy during the television debates and the delegate selection meetings leading up to the May 29-June 1 leadership convention in Toronto. Or that just last week Brison accused MacKay of vote-buying by offering to help out with leadership drop-out André Bachand's campaign debt after he threw his support behind MacKay. So what if they disagree about everything, from decriminalizing marijuana to disbanding the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. That's just politics. They're friends, they say.
Still, each man's convinced only he can help their party rediscover its glory days. At a glance, it's hard to choose between them: they're young, athletic, stylish and genial as talk-show hosts. Both hail from Nova Scotia, a province that is home to four of the party's 15 seats. Both arrived in Ottawa in 1997. Few seemingly care about the obvious differences: Brison, 36, is openly gay and a self-made man, while MacKay, 37, one of the Canadian political scene's reigning hetero sex symbols, has steadily followed in the footsteps of his father, Mulroney-era cabinet minister Elmer MacKay. What counts is that they embody diametrically opposed sides of the same political coin. The dull, six-man campaign(seven until Bachand, the lone francophone, dropped out)to lead a party that's still only in fourth place after winning a by-election in Ontario last week, has underscored a central irony about the candidates from Down East. "Peter has the charisma Scott needs," opines one prominent Nova Scotia Tory and friend of both men. "Scott has the ideas Peter lacks." For a party that can still remember when it mattered, the question is: can either man lead it down the road to relevance?
Consider MacKay, the clear front-runner, who has a rugby fullback build, a white '63 Corvette and a photogenic girlfriend, Lisa Merrithew, who also has the best kind of Tory roots -- she's the daughter of former veterans affairs minister Gerry Merrithew. His father gave up his seat in Nova Scotia's hardscrabble Pictou County in 1983 for incoming Tory leader Brian Mulroney and was rewarded with a succession of cabinet posts. Though MacKay's parents separated when he was eight and he grew up mainly with his mother, Macha Delap, a university student counsellor, he has followed his father's lead -- first to law school at Dalhousie University in Halifax, then back home to New Glasgow to set up a legal practice before becoming a Crown attorney. At 31, in the 1997 federal election, he won the Pictou County riding his father held for 21 years.
MacKay is more than just Elmer's boy. His quick mastery of the cut-and-thrust of parliamentary debate made him an immediate hit on the Hill, where he became justice critic and Tory House leader and has been voted sexiest male MP four years running. Still, the family name doesn't hurt with Conservatives who remember the good old days. Most of all, his backers seem to think MacKay has the look of a winner. "People are supporting him because they think he has the best chance of leading the party back," explains one of his campaign advisers.
On the stump and in person, P.M., as he's known by his campaign team, sprinkles his conversation with sports analogies and down-home wisdom. But, in case anyone figures him for a political lightweight, he's quick to voice his admiration for Tory icons like Bob Stanfield and Mulroney. He talks about Canada's "muscle memory" for his party and preaches a return to "the fundamental principles and values that were always associated with the Conservative party" as the answer to Canada's problems. "How would I approach things differently?" he mused in a recent interview in Moncton, N.B. "I would try to revisit what we know works rather than simply pulling the ideas out of the thin blue air and foisting them on an unsuspecting public."
MacKay's comment is a not-so-subtle dig at his nearest opponents. David Orchard, the Borden, Sask., maverick who was runner-up to outgoing leader Joe Clark in the 1998 vote, is running against the party's traditional pro-free trade line. Jim Prentice of Calgary, who was national party treasurer from 1991 to 1995, has also fashioned a more policy oriented campaign, including a proposal to give a tuition tax credit for post-secondary students who make high enough grades. The most adventurous ideas, though, have emanated from Brison, in fourth place behind Prentice.
Born in Windsor, N.S., in the luminous Annapolis Valley, to a homemaker mother and storekeeper father, Brison got the political bug early. He attended his first Tory rally at age 12 and became president of the provincial party's youth wing at 19. He put himself through Dalhousie University selling beer fridges to students and using the profits to buy old homes to turn into student housing. Upon graduating with a bachelor of commerce, he joined a paint manufacturer, eventually moving for six years to New York City to run its North American operations. As Tory finance critic from 1998 to 2000, he learned the hard way: Martin hammered him every time he threw out a question. But Brison proved a quick study. Back home, he helped his riding by attracting businesses to Nova Scotia, a natural role for a politician who was also a vice-president with Yorkton Securities, a job he only resigned when announcing his run for the leadership.
Despite those big business credentials -- and his condos in Ottawa and Toronto -- he's really more Main Street than Bay Street. A kayaker and marathoner, he drives a Volvo station wagon when back in Nova Scotia and shares a house with his partner, Bernard Doucet, a banker, on a gentrified Halifax street. The couple has a weekend getaway just minutes from Brison's parents' home in Cheverie and his Windsor birthplace. His sexual orientation hasn't emerged as an issue in either his home riding or among the mix of prominent Bay Streeters and younger, change-oriented Tories attracted to his business-friendly campaign: replacing the controversial ACOA with tax-based measures to increase regional investment; negotiating a new security and economic co-operation partnership with the U.S.; revamping the tax and employment insurance systems. "We need a leader," Brison says, "who can passionately present and defend bold new ideas that will change people's lives and in doing so will earn the support of Canadians."
Is he that guy? MacKay has the support of over 40 per cent of the roughly 3,000 elected delegates who will be attending the convention. And Bachand's decision to drop out and throw his support behind MacKay makes a first-ballot victory even more possible. Orchard, decried by the other camps as a special interest candidate, has more than 25 per cent support among committed delegates. But analysts say he has little chance of gaining support on a second ballot. The best bet for Brison -- or Prentice -- lies in making a breakthrough with the nearly 1,000 automatic voters -- which includes MPs and elected provincial Tories -- who are not committed to any candidate, and then luring away rivals' supporters. "The big question," stresses Steven Patten, a political scientist at the University of Alberta, "is how many of these automatics actually show up."
If Brison loses, there's already talk about him running in the Nova Scotia provincial election that Premier John Hamm is expected to call later this year, then becoming finance minister if the Tories return to power. It has also long been rumoured that MacKay will one day decide to run his home province rather than a dispirited national party. Both say, don't bet on either of them heading for the Nova Scotia legislature, no matter what happens on June 1. "There's plenty of work to do in Ottawa," says Brison. On that much he and MacKay definitely agree.