“Every cloud has a silver lining” is a rule that seems to be more honoured in the breach than in the observance, but not today.
The unfortunate – yet so principled it turned Belinda’s blonde hair brown – resignation of Michael Chong has a happy by-product: the elevation of York-Simcoe MP Peter Van Loan to cabinet. In a political universe increasingly dominated by so-called “stars” who frequently explode or turn into black holes, Peter is one of those brilliant, talented, quiet workhorses whose effort always exceeds their expectation of reward.
I didn’t meet Peter until I was in university, but he was already a leading figure in Progressive Conservative youth politics. He joined the party in high school (I believe he was just 15). While still a high school student, he became Toronto and District youth chairman, building a strong organization and riding associations. For years “T&D” had a successful boat cruise every summer.
Peter was at the centre of the fierce youth battles that marked the early 1980s in Ontario, which were played out not only in party youth elections, but also in the federal leadership review votes of 1981 and 1983, and in the 1983 leadership that elected Brian Mulroney.
Luckily for the party, Peter was not one of those precocious tiny Tories who flame briefly then disappear before they reach 21. He successfully transitioned into major league politics, running for president of the Ontario PC party in 1994. He was up against the older, better-connected lawyer and lobbyist Jeff Lyons (a former employer of Peter’s, in fact). But through hard work and superior organization, Peter prevailed, and was later acclaimed to a second term.
When people think of the Common Sense Revolutionaries of 1995, they usually conjure up names such as Tom Long, Leslie Noble and Guy Giorno, and rightly so. But the organizational and grunt work of people such as Peter was instrumental in getting those ballots into the boxes. Despite having supported Mike Harris’s leadership opponent, Peter’s knowledge, candour, and skill in building the party made him a trusted figure.
Still, all this was technically a hobby, next to Peter’s full-time career as a successful municipal lawyer at the national firm of Fraser Milner Casgrain, where he worked with Ignatieff fixer Senator David Smith. (How ironic that an episode that was sparked by Michael Ignatieff Ignit-ing the Québec “nation” debate should end with Smith’s former law partner being elevated to cabinet.)
Unlike most busy lawyers, Peter saw no reason to end his education with law school. In addition to his degrees in political science/geography and law, he earned degrees in urban planning and international relations – while in legal practice. He has also taught at the University of Toronto and been asked to lecture Stephen Clarkson’s political science students. I have no doubt that someday Peter will add PhD to the many initials that follow his name.
But it hasn’t been all Diet Coke and popcorn for Peter. Until John Tory’s accession to the Ontario PC leadership in 2004, Peter had the distinction of supporting a losing candidate in every single leadership contest since he first toiled for Joe Clark in 1983. He supported Dennis Timbrell for provincial leader twice in the mid-80s, Dianne Cunningham in 1990, Jean Charest in 1993, then Hugh Segal in 1998, and Elizabeth Witmer for provincial leader in 2002.
I will never forget one night on the (second) Timbrell campaign in 1985. Approximately 600 media packages had been prepared to be mailed out, but the “senior” campaign had neglected to include the all-important (in Peter’s eyes) youth package. So the seniors made us a deal: we could steam open the packages and insert the youth materials – and we had one night to do it. An electric kettle was set up in the centre of the youth office and we steamed open the envelopes, inserted our materials and sealed them back up, well into the night. No doubt some of the media outlets receiving the kits wondered why the envelope looked like it had been sealed by a rabid dog.
After playing a key role in restoring the conservatives to power in Ontario, Peter could have easily retreated to the backrooms, or focused on other endeavours. But in 1999 he set out to capture the presidency of the federal PC Party. The party had slightly recovered from its annihilation in 1993, but it had lost its leader Jean Charest to Québec politics, and had just elected 60ish Joe Clark to replace him (and, as I am always obliged to say, voting for Joe in 1998 is the only vote I wish I could take back).
It was a hotly contested race between Peter and Oakville businessman and former PC candidate Stephen Sparling, but Peter ended up with approximately 70 per cent of the vote. In fact, it turned out to be the last contested presidential race in the PC Party’s history. Peter had a detailed platform, but one of his key promises was that he would forego the usual $80,000 annual salary paid to the party president, in deference to the party’s multi-million dollar debt. (When it was revealed the following year that the party was supplementing Joe Clark’s salary by more than $150,000 annually, it made for a poor contrast, to say the least.)
Unfortunately, Peter’s success in the provincial party was not mirrored at the federal level, despite his efforts. In early 2000, just a few months after Peter was elected party president, the Reform Party would morph into the Canadian Alliance and launch a leadership race. The effects on Progressive Conservatives in Ontario were particularly painful. Peter saw dozens of friends, candidates and MPPs he had helped, abandon the federal PC party to support CA leadership candidate Tom Long.
Then in the fall of 2000, Peter was accused of disloyalty to the leader. The allegations were untrue, but Joe Clark’s public comments made it clear that he did not trust his party president, and Peter felt he had no option but to resign.
Joe Clark regarded his achievement of 12 seats in the election that soon followed – the bare minimum required for party status – to be sufficient victory. And he held on to the leadership until just prior to a scheduled review vote in 2002. But after yet another near-death experience, and with fundraising stagnant, many in the party felt that some type of accommodation would have to be reached with the Canadian Alliance.
In 2001, Peter participated in an effort labelled Forward Thinking, aimed at getting the party to look at working with the Alliance. Several PC MPs were receptive, but Clark and many remaining party stalwarts, not to mention the Orchardistas, would not be moved. Clark’s intransigence, coupled with new CA leader Stephen Harper – who campaigned on a plank of “not playing telephone tag with Joe Clark” – made the prospects for accommodation seem utterly hopeless. In any event, a provincial leadership was underway during this time, meaning there was little time to stew over federal matters.
When Peter MacKay and Stephen Harper made their historic agreement in October of 2003, Peter led the Yes! campaign to ensure the deal would be ratified overwhelmingly by the party. Never one to presume an easy victory, it was his idea to publish a full-page ad in the Globe and Mail listing several hundred recognizable names who supported the pact. This ensured that there was little reneging when the inevitable harping and second-guessing took place leading up to the December vote. When the results of the ratification vote were announced in Ottawa, Peter’s hand was among the first to be shaken by Peter MacKay.
When Peter set his cap for the nomination in York-Simcoe – home of his family’s farm – he brought to the nomination campaign the same running-from-behind attitude that he applied to all campaigns. On nomination night it ensured him a first-ballot victory. What a thrill it was during the 2004 general election to see a huge semi-trailer parked on the east side of Highway 400, announcing his name and slogan “Change for the Better” to hundreds of thousands of commuters and cottage-goers. He handily defeated the Liberal candidate.
Peter managed to increase his margin of victory in his re-election effort in January, despite devoting some of his time to the central campaign. When Peter was not named to cabinet in February, I tried not to be too disappointed, knowing that – barring a sex change – Peter’s appointment would not fulfil any demographic imperatives. But I knew that Peter’s time would come. And so it has.