Seeing red

An old Tory loyalist, Daniel Veniez has turned on the party

Seeing redIf the speculation among Ottawa insiders that a general election will be called for Nov. 9 proves to be correct, the Liberal party will be tested as never before. Early indications are that the election campaign will be fought according to the smack-down rules of the wrestling world. Last man breathing wins. Will it be the urban cowboy from Alberta whose approach to governing is not so much pre-Keynesian as Precambrian? Or will it be the Count from Petrograd whose many careers deserve the same designation as his jazz equivalent, Stan Getz, the high-strung saxophone virtuoso, who was once described as being “a swell bunch of guys”.

For the first time this decade, the Liberals are firmly united behind their leader and plan to wage a campaign that will eradicate the memory of Stéphane Dion’s nightmarish stewardship. As Liberal leader, he behaved like a debutante who had strayed into an abattoir and never regained consciousness—until he vanished into a void of his own devising, otherwise known as “the Coalition.”

Still, there is one glaring gap in the Liberals’ plans for returning to their accustomed roost as the country’s natural governors: a constellation of star candidates who will create a buzz and can deliver regional votes. Those who qualify must be tough enough to survive Stephen Harper’s character assassins and become keepers of the flame that burns for the golden ages of Laurier, Pearson and Trudeau. We already have enough bush-league Tarzans loose in the House of Commons, beating their chests, playing the great conciliators, and accomplishing nothing.

Among the worthy candidates who qualify as the kind of practical idealist the Liberal party will need to win the election is Daniel Veniez, 47, a senior corporate executive and former Harper supporter, who is being wooed to march under the rouge Liberal banner.

Originally a Montrealer, Veniez, who has lived in British Columbia for the past eight years, has yet to declare himself. He is being tempted by Grits to try for the nomination in several ridings. Veniez is a thoroughly political animal with a problem. His political hang-ups are, in ascending order, that he is an incurable idealist who believes that the Canadian future should be built on dreams as well as appetites. But he’s an activist who has laboured in several vineyards—but without ever finding his long-term Camelot.

Veniez’s background has all the politically correct prerequisites except for not having been born in a log cabin. He was raised in the separatist working-class suburb Pointe-aux-Trembles on the east side of Montreal where his father was an Anglophone truck driver while his mother was a pure laine Québécoise who worked in the local paper-sack plant as a labourer and volunteered as a provincial Liberal party worker. As a kid, Veniez attended the federal party’s national convention in 1982 and was appointed vice-president of organization for the Young Liberals. The following year he worked on John Turner’s leadership campaign but became disillusioned with Turner’s transformation from being a fiscal conservative to a hard-left nationalist, and switched to the Tories as an admirer of the youthful Brian Mulroney, then about to form his first government. He worked in the offices of three Progressive Conservative ministers and was an avid backer of the Meech Lake accord but couldn’t stomach the Charlottetown smorgasbord that followed.

He left politics to become a senior vice-president of Repap Enterprises, a lively pulp and paper company, and became a Stephen Harper supporter in 2006. “I wanted him to succeed,” says Veniez. “He was from the West, obviously smart, while the Liberals had become like the PC party that I left in 1992—tired and intellectually bankrupt. While I admired Harper, like many Canadians I didn’t trust the Reform crowd, their social conservative bent, and their dogmatic theology on economics, social and foreign policy. But I also thought that the party was maturing and that they had renounced their populist and evangelical impulses.”

Veniez became a successful West Coast entrepreneur and in 2007 was appointed by the Harper government as chairman of Ridley Terminals Inc., a Crown corporation that operates a Prince Rupert, B.C., bulk commodity hub. Tories had been suggesting that he run in one of three Vancouver ridings but by then his hopes for the Conservative Prime Minister had evaporated. “The PM’s policy of incrementalism was inconsistent with my vision of responsible governance and leadership. It’s really the mindset of big “r” Reform—his small-tent western and rural populist base, and its Christian fundamentalist core. And that’s anathema to my essential DNA.

“The Conservative party and its leader are permanently angry,” he goes on. “That’s an ingrained part of who they are and what they represent. On a visceral level, they remain a protest party and have turned themselves into a protest government. They manage by negatives and are genetically incapable of inspiring hope or thinking big. They attack, assassinate character, tell lies, lower the bar on public discourse, and engage in tactical and divisive wedge politics and governance. The tone, strategy, and culture for this government are established by Harper, a cheap-shot artist and cynic of the highest order.”

That harsh judgment flowed directly from Veniez’s experience trying to run Ridley Terminals according to the terms of reference he was given that he never exceeded or disobeyed, but which were decisive in forcing his abrupt dismissal on June 28. He had been doing exactly what he was hired to do and his annual salary for chairing—and, in effect, running—the multi-million facility was only $12,500. His managing abilities were never in dispute, but his insistence that all customers had equal call on the terminal’s rates and services became the deal-breaker. That infuriated the multinationals who expected a continuation of their special treatment, including highly subsidized rates. They were backed by regional Conservative MPs. Veniez was summarily fired without even a day’s notice; his severance was $1,563. (No cents.)

Veniez is proud of what he accomplished at Ridley Terminals. “We replaced the management team, ratified a long-term collective agreement with our union, forged new partnerships with First Nations, improved governance and accountability, and recalibrated the economics of the enterprise by asking our customers—among whom are highly profitable multinational giants—to pay fair and reasonable market rates for our services.” He points out that “in the past year, productivity has increased over 150 per cent, efficiency is up over 65 per cent, and costs have come down. I was fired by a Conservative government—no less—for building value, and leading the turnaround of a largely discarded public asset that the taxpayer had poured $500 million into over 30 years.”

Daniel Veniez’s search for the ideal political leader has landed him in the Michael Ignatieff camp. “Studying his body of work,” he says, “has convinced me that I am in lockstep with the Liberal party under his leadership.” Brian Tobin, the former Liberal cabinet minister who now advises a Bay Street legal firm, describes Daniel Veniez as, “a successful businessman, powerfully articulate, a commanding presence on a podium and a passionate Canadian.” That’s a valid summary. May he find his ideal at last.