Day, Manning Contest Party Leadership

When Stockwell Day worked as an auctioneer in Kelowna, B.C., in the 1970s, he was known as a young man who could sell everything from beat-up cars to canoes. After later moving to Bentley, Alta., Day proved equally adept at promoting the word of God through a popular youth ministry at the local Pentecostal Church. Last week, the 49-year-old Day, who has spent the past three years as Alberta's high-profile provincial treasurer, embarked on his most ambitious sales job to date: convincing longtime Reform party supporters and other small-c conservatives that he - and not Preston Manning - is the best person to lead the fledgling Canadian Alliance party (officially, the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance) and, ultimately, the country. "I am not in this race to fill out the list of competitors," Day told Maclean's shortly after announcing his intention to run at an Edmonton news conference. "I am there for one reason and that is to win."

Day's candidacy is conditional on there being a new party to lead. That will only happen if the required two-thirds of Reformers decide in a referendum, with the results to be released later this month, to dissolve their 13-year-old political movement in favour of the Canadian Alliance. But since most Reform insiders - from Manning on down - expect the membership to do just that, Day's entry sets the stage for an explosive leadership campaign pitting two of Alberta's favourite political sons against each other and, probably, against one or more prospective candidates from Ontario Premier Mike Harris's Conservative cabinet. "If nothing else," says University of Calgary political scientist David Taras, "this is going to be great political drama."

At first blush, the 57-year-old Manning appears to enjoy enormous advantages over any would-be rival. Manning - who tried to steal Day's thunder last week by simultaneously announcing he will step down as leader of the official Opposition to contest the Canadian Alliance leadership - is Reform's founder and sole leader. He has exercised an iron grip on the policies and direction of the 75,000-member Calgary-based party - even to the point of orchestrating its proposed dissolution. Starting out with a ragtag group of disgruntled western conservatives, he forged a successful political party that, since the 1997 federal election, has been the official Opposition in Ottawa. But repeated failure to win seats east of Manitoba convinced Manning that Reform must change or wither away. His solution: create a big-tent United Alternative to broaden Reform's appeal among like-minded conservatives across Canada - especially in vote-rich Ontario.

Manning got his wish at January's founding convention of the Canadian Alliance in Ottawa. For the first time, many of the key strategists and politicians behind Harris's so-called Common Sense Revolution actively participated in Manning's bid to unite the right. But they did not necessarily embrace Manning himself. In fact, many of the Ontarians have deep reservations about Manning's ability to sell the new party beyond his western base. "Manning carries a lot of baggage in Ontario, including the perception that he's anti-Quebec," one senior Harris adviser told Maclean's last week. "For the new party to win here, it needs a new leader."

Unhappily for Manning, the latter sentiment is shared even by some of his most loyal foot soldiers. Just two days before Day's announcement, Calgary Reform MP Jason Kenney stoked the "draft Day" fires by declaring his support for the Alberta treasurer. Kenney, who had been appointed by Manning to co-chair the United Alternative effort, says that after "a debate between my heart and my head" he concluded Manning was incapable of breaking free of what Kenney calls "unfair, fixed perceptions" of him in Central Canada. By contrast, says Kenney, the bilingual, Ontario-born Day should prove far more palatable to eastern voters.

An even more significant endorsement for Day came from his longtime boss, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein. An early and influential supporter of the unite-the-right movement, Klein told reporters last week that "for the new conservative party to rejuvenate itself, it needs a new leader with a new tone and a new style." Day, he suggested, fits the bill on all counts.

Support from Klein Tories in Alberta is one of three pillars on which Day's operatives hope to mount a successful leadership bid. Another is to appeal to longtime Reformers who, for a variety of reasons, have grown disenchanted with Manning. This includes people like Vance Gough, a party member since 1988 and president of the constituency association in Alberta's sprawling Wild Rose riding. Gough fought against the creation of the Canadian Alliance and talks bitterly of a process he says was "manipulated from the top down." Now resigned to the idea that Reform will be dissolved, Gough is determined Manning will not lead its successor. "Day," says Gough, "is the only person who can bring the small-c conservative voice into government."

The third, and perhaps most important, campaign pillar is support from the Harris Tories. For the time being, they are - officially, at least - taking a wait-and-see attitude. Tom Long, who chaired the campaigns that helped elect Harris in 1995 and 1999 and who was himself once touted as a Canadian Alliance leadership candidate, says he expects to see at least one Harris cabinet minister enter the fray. The most likely contender: chief whip and deputy house leader Frank Klees, a junior minister who earlier this month established an "exploratory committee" into a possible leadership bid. If Klees opts in, Long told Maclean's, he may garner considerable support from his fellow Ontarians. But Long adds that Day - who in the past 18 months has made a series of appearances at both Reform and Tory functions in Ontario - will also get a sympathetic hearing. "He's a very impressive, very dynamic fellow," says Long. "He also has a track record of success in Alberta that I think is going to be frankly quite interesting to conservatives across the country."

One of the things the Harris Tories will monitor closely is how Day deals, in the context of a leadership race, with his deeply ingrained social conservatism - including opposition to abortion and gay rights. Those are positions that the Harris Tories have tended to steer away from as unnecessarily divisive. But as experience shows, Alberta's outspoken treasurer is not someone who can stay silent on such matters for long.

Stockwell Day has packed a lot into his 49 years. Born in Barrie, Ont., the second eldest of six children, he moved often because of his father's job as a vice-president with the Zellers retail chain. Day spent parts of his childhood in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec - where he learned to speak passable French. After the family moved to British Columbia in 1968, he enrolled at the University of Victoria, but dropped out before earning a degree. Over the next several years, he worked at a variety of jobs, including lumberjack in the B.C. interior, oilfield worker in Inuvik, N.W.T., and drapery salesman in Edmonton.

In the late 1970s, Day moved his family - he and wife Valorie were married in 1971 and have three grown sons - to Bentley, where he began working as a youth minister at the Pentecostal Church. He entered provincial politics in 1986, winning as a Tory in the nearby riding of Red Deer North. Day quickly rose through the ranks, serving as party whip, house leader, minister of labour, social services minister and, finally, provincial treasurer.

Along the way, Day showed a knack for stirring up controversy. In 1995, he supported an unsuccessful resolution calling on the Alberta government to stop paying for abortions under the provincial health-care plan. Three years later, he was embroiled in another losing battle: trying to convince his caucus colleagues to invoke the notwithstanding clause of the federal charter of rights to overturn a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that homosexuals must be protected under Alberta's human-rights law.

Last April, Day sparked yet another uproar by writing a letter to a newspaper criticizing Red Deer lawyer and school trustee Lorne Goddard for defending a pedophile in a child-pornography criminal case. Goddard later slapped Day with a $600,000 defamation lawsuit, which is still outstanding. Asked if he intends to keep speaking out on such hot-button issues during the leadership race, Day told Maclean's: "One of the reasons people support me is that I am transparent. I am open and honest. Even people who disagree with me step back and say they like the whole package. They like to know who they are dealing with."

While Day's views on social issues sometimes raise hackles, he has earned respect for his accomplishments as treasurer - including the introduction of Canada's first "flat tax" on incomes. He has also curried favour with the media for his quick way with a quip - and an almost Trudeau-esque eye for the photo op. During a lull in the Canadian Alliance's founding convention, Day was onstage when he suddenly stripped off his suit jacket and shirt to reveal a T-shirt with sleeves rolled up to his shoulders. Wrapping his tie around his head, he feigned a few martial arts kicks, which naturally earned him a prominent spot in many of the nation's major newspapers the following morning.

Such antics clearly set Day apart from Manning who, despite more than a dozen years in the limelight, often appears stiff and overly rehearsed in public. Day will also try to distinguish himself in more substantive ways. In one media interview after another last week, he cited his track record as a legislator and treasurer - a none-too-subtle invitation to compare him with Manning, who has never served in government. Whether any of that matters in the end remains to be seen. As the University of Calgary's Taras notes, Manning is nothing if not a survivor - a politician who has been counted out on numerous occasions only to emerge firmly at the helm. "Manning is in charge of a lot of political machinery and he's going to run full-throttle," says Taras. To stay competitive, Day knows he will have to run even harder - and use all the sales savvy at his command.

Maclean's March 20, 2000