Canada may yet be saved from Tom Long, the slick operative turned pretender to the prime minister's office. And it's an unlikely constituency that can do it -- they're the very soul of the party he wants to lead.
Sadly for the man who more than anyone made Mike Harris what he is today, Long is less loved among the ranks of the Alliance party than he is in the pages of the National Post. Indeed, for many of the voters who will decide next month if Preston Manning will stay or go, he's Satan with a briefcase and polling data.
Long is running in a party whose members would, until recently, have hog-tied him and run him out of town on a rail. That's his first problem. According to the gospel that founded the Reform party, precursor to today's Canadian Alliance, Tom Long is the enemy.
Nothing stirring Except now he wants to be their leader. And that's Long's second problem. Get past the hype of the Tom Long campaign -- and the generous coverage of Ontario-based national media -- and you'll find a western hinterland full of people who either don't know or don't trust him.
With scores of front-page stories on Long and his leadership bid for the Canadian Alliance, you'd think something might be stirring in Reform country. But the master strategist and corporate headhunter is facing stiff indifference from Reform's western heartland. And without their support, or a windfall of 10,000 new members a week -- the figure the Long people themselves are hoping for -- Long is doomed to failure. (That 10,000-a-week figure would almost equal the 76,000 members the Alliance itself had at the outset of the campaign.)
For many westerners, Long's rise to national politics represents the demise of the Reform legacy, the final sellout at the end of a long series of political betrayals.
"Tom Long is the reason why they formed the Reform party in the first place," says Rich Vivone, long-time political observer and publisher of Alberta Political Scan.
"Perhaps for that reason, there's been little interest in Long in Alberta," Vivone reports. "There's more interest in what's going to happen with Joe Clark, to be honest."
The cool reaction in the West to the Long candidacy is part of a growing backlash deep within Canada's conservative heartland. At a time when Ralph Klein's plans for private health care have divided Alberta, many long-time supporters are losing faith in their own movement. While Long boldly praises Klein's health policy and cost-cutting agenda, small rural communities have been losing their hospitals and health-care facilities.
And ever since Preston Manning moved into Stornoway Mansion in 1997 as leader of the official opposition, the party has been troubled by in-fighting and expulsions that have alienated a growing number of supporters -- and have created a roster of purged dissidents who now lobby for a return to the party's founding grassroots principles.
To this aging, unfashionable constituency -- the very backbone of the party -- Long is still the enemy. "Tom Long is not playing at all, especially in rural Alberta," says Ken Chapman, a sought-after political adviser among Alberta's provincial Tories. "He's got way too many Bay Street ties. People say that after you shake his hand, you want to count your fingers."
When Long's campaign rolled through the West earlier this month, scores of feisty Reformers questioned his Mulroney ties and Bay Street campaign funding.
"You guys back in Ontario better think pretty hard and pretty fast," one cranky western separatist told Long on a BC phone-in show. "As far as I'm concerned, we should hire every man, woman and child in western Canada, take them to the Ontario border and build a bloody wall."
The schism runs deep, dividing urban and rural, East and West. Generally, corporate-connected Alliance members support Long, while Reform's grassroots supporters, the people who for years carried the party with small contributions, do not.
"People who see politics as power, authority and influence -- not governance -- they like Long," explains Chapman. "But with many of the rural people, he doesn't register. It's a matter of principle: open government, accountable, transparent and constituency-driven."
Storm Ottawa When Manning took up the crusade to storm Ottawa in the late 1980s, it could have been former Mulroney staffer and Hollinger employee Tom Long whom westerners were reviling in the fiery community-hall meetings that built the Reform party from the ground up. Long is precisely the kind of central Canadian insider who's figured prominently in the lore of western alienation.
This ingrained suspicion of big business has translated into less than stellar corporate support for the party. With two seats in the House in 1997, the Tories still managed to extract $6.4 million from corporate Canada, versus the paltry $1.9 million cobbled together by Reform.
Obviously, populism doesn't pay. Reform's stunted cash flow helps explain persistent efforts to unite the right and the party's endless behind-the-scenes appeals to corporate Canada. It's also why Long -- with his Rolodex full of high-rollers -- has been embraced by part of the political movement that once promised to purge his kind from the face of the earth.
"Tom Long has good policies and I like the way he speaks, but I don't think he's an open and accountable politician," says Chapman. "Long won't even disclose his campaign finances. Normal people know that money is power, and they're really worried that he'll do to Reform what Mulroney did to the Conservative party."
The right-wing backlash has been building for years. Over the last decade, many of Reform's strongest supporters have been pushed out by what some describe as a Manning clique.
Ousted Reform MP Jake Hoeppner ran afoul of Manning's inner circle last summer when he started questioning the top-down process behind the new Alliance. Responding to complaints within his own Manitoba constituency, the Portage-Lisgar MP criticized both the leader and party strategist Rick Anderson for what he saw as a betrayal of Reform's own principles. Soon after, a confidential memo from Anderson was leaked that proposed ways to rid the party of troublemakers like Hoeppner.
Leader's power Although Reform's membership ultimately voted in favour of Manning's United Alternative proposal, Hoeppner contends that the sellout is written into the very constitution of the new Alliance. "There's more power invested in the leader," observes Hoeppner, who now sits as an independent MP. "And constituency assets are now completely controlled by the head office." Before the Alliance, Reform locals kept up to 80 per cent of the funds raised, giving clout to non-insiders.
Not only are many grassroots Alliance party members suspicious of the former Bay Street executive, but some believe Long's leadership campaign is the beginning of the end.
Chapman, Hoeppner and Vivone all see today's Alliance making the same fatal mistakes that Mulroney's Tories made over a decade ago: marked by arrogance and dominated by political professionals, today's Alliance is challenging the faith of its core supporters with a watered-down version of the old party. "Strategists like Tom Long and Rod Love were the types that controlled the old Tory party," says Hoeppner, "and look where the Tories are."
Moreover, there is the issue of content. Armed with ill-gotten phone lists from the federal Tories and the National Post, insiders like Long still can't deliver the wave of popular support that launched Reform into national politics. "These guys don't have any issues," explains Vivone, citing a recent poll that showed static support for the Alliance, regardless of leader. "Tom Long is running around saying the economy is doomed, but unemployment is at 7 per cent, the best in almost a decade."
In fact, Alliance contenders have purposefully avoided discussing issues of substance for fear of dividing an already troubled party. Having forsaken its grassroots, Alliance candidates have extended their reach, attempting to mainstream what has previously been considered marginal. In Manning's efforts to avoid becoming "a right-wing version of the NDP," the Canadian Alliance gambit seems to have sterilized an unpredictable, feisty political movement.
While Stockwell Day avoids discussion of his ties to the far right, most candidates have been quiet on important issues like health care, despite Ralph Klein's high-profile crusade for limited private facilities in Alberta.
While upstarts like Long and Day have supported Klein's Bill 11, vote-savvy Manning has lain low for much of the campaign. "It's the old Reformers that still number," explains Chapman. "Reform has been deathly silent on health care because their constituency is the elderly -- the health consumers."
Substance lacking The profound lack of substance within the Alliance race seems to forestall obvious questions about why Reform's version of the political Antichrist is now a main contender for the new party's leadership. It's hard not to recall a prophetic passage from Manning's 1992 autobiography The New Canada. "The perversion of populism," he wrote, "occurs from within rather than without."
But don't ask Tom Long to ponder the historical irony. He's too busy selling himself.
Long brought his campaign back to the GTA last week and has wasted no time assuming the mantle of the grassroots populist. "A lot of decisions have been made with sinister calculations in this country," he says at a north Etobicoke meeting, "I want to be a prime minister who finds common ground.'
The packed crowd at Strates Banquet Hall approves with polite applause. Within this wedding venue, Long delivers a reassuring message of tax cuts, economic growth and anti-welfarism. It's only when local Tory organizer Sam Singh steps up to the mike that Long is stumped for easy answers. Singh rails against the "racism and anti-immigrant attitudes" of the old Reform party.
Within a few minutes, Long has smoothly slipped back to delivering clever one-liners about evil Ottawa. "Trusting Martin and Chretien on taxes is like shipping lettuce by rabbit," he says to loud guffaws. By the time the event winds down, he's sold a handful of memberships.
TOM LONG'S RESUME
1978 loses federal Tory nomination for Sarnia riding
1982 graduates law school, practises at Fasken & Calvin
1984 Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's office
1986 elected Ontario PC party president
1986 goes to Conrad Black's DomGroup
1987 lawyer at Burkman Twiss & McNevin
1990 lands job with executive headhunter Egon Zehnder
1995 & 1999 chairs Mike Harris campaigns