A Conservative Trojan horse?

By REX MURPHY

Saturday, February 7, 2004 Page A25

Stealth can be an admirable characteristic. Most serious hunting depends upon a degree of stealth. It may be a necessary practice in war. Confounding an enemy by means of concealed manoeuvre has frequently been decisive in battle.

The Trojan War has been famous since Homer for the valour of its great combatants. Hector, Ajax, and Achilles are the prototypes of valour in the West. (It helps to have poets to write up a war. History is long, but art is longer.) But it was not valour that put paid to Troy, the wrath of Achilles notwithstanding. It was that famous piece of stealth, brainchild of "wily Ulysses," the Trojan horse. Nine years of siege and combat, determined in the end by a ruse.

However, for all its accommodations, in war or in life, stealth is a lever, not a goal; a tactic, not a strategy. At some point in every campaign, for all the cunning that may have preceded it, real forces have to engage. The soldiers must leave the horse's belly. It is no good getting inside Troy's gate and then deciding to stay in that sly horse. Stealth without action is useless.

Which brings me to the leadership race of the new Conservative Party. Up to the present time, this race, certainly from the point of view of the great majority of Canadians who are not actually engaged in one or other of its campaigns, is the greatest stealth operation of modern Canadian politics. It is by no means sardonic to ask if the new party is actually having a leadership contest.

As each day passes since old Alliance and old Progressive Conservative so deftly buried their differences and became new Conservative, the merged entity is less and less visible, less present. Leadership contests are by their very dynamic a means of amplifying a party's presence. Traditionally, they are a great showroom for talent old and new. The strife and competition of a run to the top are as honey to the media -- nothing like a controlled and protracted brawl to power the remorseless cycle of modern news.

But this thing? Where is it? Has anyone seen Stephen Harper? Remember Stephen? He was, until a very short while ago, that rather sharp, frequently forceful, always prepared leader of Her Majesty's Opposition. But since he announced he was running to lead the new party, he seems to have gone missing.

Tony Clement? Outside of Ontario most people will not have missed Tony Clement. You cannot miss what was never there. But it was certainly the view of some inside Ontario, who know Mr. Clement as a minister of the Mike Harris and Ernie Eves governments, and recall his brief prominence in the SARS scare, that once he joined the leadership contest of the new national party, people in other provinces would soon share the delight of knowing who he was.

I have the odd feeling, now that the contest has been under way for some weeks, that if anything, rather than adding to his profile in the country, he has subtracted from his previous standing in Ontario. It is a strange leadership race that reduces even the limited stature of those who engage in it.

As for Belinda Stronach -- if she is still running -- it may be necessary to put out the political equivalent of an Amber Alert. Belinda Stronach generated a considerable bit of press and public attention before she announced, and for a couple of days after her hesitant debut. But if she is still campaigning it is like no other campaign I can recall. Ms. Stronach is not under the radar. There is no radar. People have stopped looking.

This leadership race is the Bermuda Triangle of Canadian politics. People who had profile when it began have lost it. Those who had none to begin with, have -- if possible -- less.

It is all stealth. Stealth is its mode. And stealth is its goal. We are told, for example, that it's possible Belinda Stronach could win the leadership.

This outré outcome -- she is, after all, brand new to politics -- depends on what may happen in the phantom world of Quebec Conservative politics.

The Tory party in Quebec is essentially an empty shell. She may, by dint of organization and money, "win" Quebec. This would neutralize Stephen Harper's advantages in the West. Who's to say?

The new Conservative Party is conducting its leadership race as if it were an underground movement. On the eve of a federal election, Paul Martin is issuing Throne Speeches and conducting hour-long forums on national television. Jack Layton has, barely, stopped short of operating a kissing booth in the lobby of the House of Commons.

Both leaders are doing what they should -- setting the contours of the contest to come.

But Mr. Harper, Mr. Clement, and Ms. Stronach would have engineered more publicity for themselves, and their party, if they'd signed on to CSIS. As far as I can tell, all three have climbed inside some strange wooden horse, and that's where they intend to stay.Rex Murphy is a commentator with CBC-TV's The National and host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup.