Is Harris the hero conservatives need?
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 25 October 2003)

Canada never makes premiers into prime ministers, as all of Mike Harris's backers surely know. It's one significant way we differ from the Americans. They find it natural to turn a governor like Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush into a president, but we refuse to promote our premiers. Once elected to run a province, a Canadian politician hits an invisible ceiling.

Premiers like William Davis and Peter Lougheed, recognizing this stubborn reality, resisted their supporters' attempts to push them into national politics. They knew that we Canadians brand our premiers forever with the provinces they led. Robert Stanfield remained a Nova Scotian all the time he led the federal Conservatives, despite his earnest attempts to master national issues, above all the Quebec question. A generation earlier, George Drew, moving from the Ontario premiership to the federal Tory leadership, never managed to look like anything but an arrogant Toronto guy. Bill Clinton, by comparison, had no difficulty moving beyond his roots in Arkansas; nor did anyone praise or blame Richard Nixon for being a Californian.

This Canadian tradition, stretching back 136 years, seems to demonstrate that we are more obsessed by regional differences than the Americans, and less confident in our ideals of national citizenship. Whatever the cause, such a persistent fact of history must surely intimidate almost anyone who imagines raising Harris to prime minister as leader of the freshly reorganized conservative party. Presumably the rule will one day be broken, but would anyone cast Harris as the consensus-forming national leader who could manage it?

While we don't welcome premiers into the Prime Minister's Office, Canadians do have a rich tradition of sacrificial lambs. Perhaps this is Harris's fate, possibly even his intention.

Canadian politicians often choose electoral self-sacrifice as a career strategy. If you're a federal Liberal candidate in Alberta, for instance, and not even your mother dreams of seeing you in the House of Commons, and you just happen to be a fairly bright lawyer, then we can expect that as you trudge from doorstep to doorstep in sure pursuit of defeat, you will comfort yourself with the image of a judge's robes. The process has a name, "running for judge." Others run for the Senate. Some run for jobs on federal tribunals. A few even run for lieutenant governor.

Mike Harris, joking about the protesters who greeted him in Halifax the other day, jabbing at the Liberals, even dancing through that I-must-consult-my-family ritual, sounds more like a candidate every minute. He's agreed to consider taking on this "awesome task." Some will automatically classify his intentions as a form of death wish. Sensible columnists never make predictions; we remain haunted by the memory of the fellow who announced on many occasions that Jean Chretien could never conceivably become PM. Still, Harris's chances seem exceptionally slim. With no hope in Quebec and little hope in the Maritimes, up against Paul Martin's carefully tuned machine, Harris could become a one-man Charge of the Light Brigade, marching nobly into the valley of Death.

Even so, he may be precisely the hero the conservatives need and want. He could, with luck and good management, bundle together the Alliance's Western seats with a couple of dozen Ontario seats, maybe more. That would turn the conservatives into something resembling a national party for the first time in more than a decade.

Having made a decent showing, he would then graciously withdraw in favour of a leader with a chance of actually winning an election. The part about graciously withdrawing could be tricky, since on that point politicians can be unpredictable. Finding the appropriate leader for the next election might also prove difficult, though that can be put off for the time being. And of course the scheme could founder if the Martinites make the kind of gains in the West that they've been plotting to make for years.

Nevertheless, this scenario must now be among the visions buzzing around the brainpans of anyone now urging Harris to run. Does Harris himself understand he's being led to slaughter? It will certainly have crossed his mind, along with the uncomfortable thought that he would be the seventh leader trying to revive some variety of Canadian conservativism since the landmark election of 1993. But where others might resent such an idea, Harris just might consider it one of the more interesting things he could do in the next couple of years. His reward, should it come, won't be traditional. As a non-lawyer, he can hardly become a Supreme Court judge, but if things worked out reasonably well he would emerge as the elder statesman of the national conservative party as well as the Ontario conservative party. More important, he would go down in history as the candidate who brought two-party democracy back to Canada. Politicians have gloried in lesser accomplishments.

But are those frustrated by Liberal hegemony so desperate that they will put forward a candidate who almost certainly can't become prime minister and probably wouldn't be much good at it if he did, by some accident, win? Are they that desperate? Yes.

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