A candidate of breathtaking banality
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 22 May 2004)

Barry Cline, the Conservative party candidate for Parliament in the Toronto riding of St. Paul's, seems perversely determined to offer himself to the voters as a politician of no interest whatever. According to a brochure he's distributed to potential voters, Cline has never been elected to anything of consequence, he's never said anything memorable, and he hasn't done any work of interest since the 1960s. If I didn't know (or hope) otherwise, his self-presentation would persuade me that the union of the Tories and the Alliance has sanded all the interesting edges off both parties and left us with a cluster of sleepy nonentities whose only hope lies in a national wave of all-consuming hatred against the Liberals.

The history of St. Paul's, a downtown riding where I've lived most of my adult life, makes Cline look especially inadequate. It encompasses the mansions of Forest Hill, the rich boys of Upper Canada College, the rich girls of Bishop Strachan School, and the congregants of Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, the world's only cathedral-sized shrine to a retail merchant. St. Paul's sees itself as an electoral barometer, with some justification: Its MPs have been on the government side for 54 of the 71 years since the riding was founded. We've been represented by four Cabinet ministers, two from each major party: Barbara McDougall under Mulroney and Ron Atkey under Clark, John Roberts under Trudeau and now Carolyn Bennett under Martin. Half a century ago, St. Paul's elected Roland Michener, a Tory with distinctly liberal sympathies. Diefenbaker made him Speaker; later, Pearson made him high commissioner to India and then Governor-General.

If it's true (as John Ibbitson wrote recently in the Globe) that mass media have "largely obliterated the local factor in federal politics," the news hasn't reached St. Paul's. Call it arrogance, but St. Paul's demands, and usually gets, someone exceptional. Nevertheless, Barry Cline appears to believe that it now requires a candidate of breathtaking banality.

His literature says he's a team player who favours transparency and accountability, he sees a new vision "sweeping our land," and he announces flatly that Conservatives will "eliminate" interprovincial trade barriers, a goal that has eluded many past governments. He's running "because of the problems facing us -- and they stem from the incumbent Liberals," a monumentally stupid remark. Terrorism, AIDS, fractured family life, line-ups at the ER, SARS, inadequate schools, the demands made by swiftly developing technology -- can these problems we face all stem from Liberal failures?

Cline sounds unusual in just one way, his profession. He's an architect (Ohio State University, class of '65), and if elected would probably be the first architect MP ever. But in his brochure he mentions just a single event in his career, an administrative job he had for a while at Expo 67, as liaison between Expo's management and various pavilions. If you interview him, as I did the other day, he'll talk about recent work (industrial buildings, shopping centres, a Sikh temple), executed from his one-man office in his lakeshore apartment; but he doesn't seem to think this worth publicizing.

Nor does he mention in his brochure that he laboured enthusiastically for Joe Clark and served as volunteer advance man for Brian Mulroney. He doesn't mention their names, or for that matter Stephen Harper's. In fact, he mentions no one except Barry Cline. In our interview he said defence and foreign policy will be his main concerns in Parliament, but his brochure carries no hint of his foreign policy and only a brief sentence on defence.

His candidacy was originally Joe Clark's idea. After the 2000 election was called, St. Paul's had no Tory candidate and Clark suggested that Cline run. The riding association accepted with alacrity. As one eminent St. Paul's Conservative recalls, "We were lucky to get anyone. No one else wanted it." Starting late, he ran with enthusiasm and not-bad results. His percentage of the vote was 10% ahead of the Tories' national percentage, though that was not the accomplishment it might have been in some years. In any case, Carolyn Bennett beat him by 15,000 votes.

Last year, he decided that he liked the marriage of the two parties, because, after all, neither of them was going anywhere alone. When he sought the nomination of the conjoined Conservatives, the only opponent was Paul Brown, a long-time Tory activist. Cline personally telephoned every member of the riding association. At the nomination meeting on March 18, attended by fewer than 300 people, he beat Brown by three votes.

Perhaps he'll sail into Parliament on a wave of anti-Martin, pro-Harper feeling, but that seems at best an unlikely prospect. The new, vital, exciting Conservative party seems just a little sheepish about their man in St. Paul's. Mention his candidacy to a senior campaign official, as I did the other night, and the subject changes with blinding speed. In St. Paul's, of course, the upside is that nobody can complain (as many Liberals are now complaining) that a dictatorial national party has imposed on the riding a star candidate.

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