The new body politic shapes up for Canada

The radical, right-wing agenda of new opposition leader Stockwell Day is making waves
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The Independent US

There aren't many political leaders who would show up for the first day in a new job bare-foot and dressed only in a neoprene wet suit. But then there aren't many political leaders who can boast the body-builder pectorals that the new Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance Party leader Stockwell Day can, or who are as anxious to change the image of Canadian politics as he is.

There aren't many political leaders who would show up for the first day in a new job bare-foot and dressed only in a neoprene wet suit. But then there aren't many political leaders who can boast the body-builder pectorals that the new Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance Party leader Stockwell Day can, or who are as anxious to change the image of Canadian politics as he is.

Earlier this week, Mr Day easily won a by-election created for the specific purpose of getting him into the House of Commons as the MP for Okanagan-Coquihalla, in the British Columbia interior. For his morning-after press conference, he invited journalists to meet him at the water's edge of Lake Okanagan, a large body of water which dominates the scenic valley named after it.

He roared up at the appointed time on a SeaDoo, one of those small, highly manoeuvrable jet boats - a spectacle which ensured him front page coverage in every newspaper and on every television newscast. The incident was dubbed Daywatch, a play on Baywatch, the series about the California life-saving team that features jet boats and pulchritude (much of it belonging to Pamela Lee Anderson, the most recognised Canadian in the US).

And just as he has upset the usually staid image of Canadian party leaders, he plans to upset the comfortable reign of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien by bringing a radically conservative agenda to parliament when he takes his seat tomorrow as the leader of Her Majesty's Opposition.

Mr Day, 50, was finance minister of the Alberta provincial government when he won the leadership of the Canadian Alliance, a new formation that includes most of the former Reform Party and defectors from the increasingly feeble Conservative Party. He convincingly defeated the Reform Party's founder Preston Manning, who was not able in two national elections to expand beyond its mostly rural base in Western Canada, the fertile ground for redneck populism.

No party can win power nationally, however, without making substantial inroads into Ontario and Quebec. And Day has presented a more modern and energetic image that is already reverberating in those large, vote-rich provinces, prompting comparisons with the young Pierre Trudeau, who took Canada by storm with a similarly irreverent approach in the Sixties and Seventies.

Stockwell Day has some of his charisma but none of the intellectual rigour, however. He did not go to university but developed his homespun charm during a varied pre-electoral career that ranged from working on fishing boats and as a undertaker's assistant, to lay preaching and auctioneering.

His policy mix is in sharp contrast with his swinging image. He is advocating a downsizing of the federal government, turning responsibility for most social, recreational and cultural functions over to provincial governments. A Day government would also cut back native welfare. The only exception to this slash-and-switch approach is a promise to spend more on the military and police force. All this would facilitate a quantum decrease in federal taxes and large breaks for high income earners. Mr Day says this is necessary to prevent the drain of brains and investment to the US. The Day phenomenon has worried the Liberals. They are conscious that he presents a fresh face and energetic image compared with 66-year-old Mr Chrétien, who was first elected to parliament in 1963. Tax cuts and the lure of the US are also hot issues, especially when the economy is in overdrive with the tax system producing large surpluses - an estimated C$30bn (£15bn) this year.

So the Liberals are targeting Day's born-again Christian fundamentalism, his opposition to abortion and gay rights and his law-and-order policies including a return of the death penalty. Even his performance on the SeaDoo is under attack. If Stockwell Day wanted to show off the natural beauty of Lake Okanagan, Liberal MP John Godfrey declared, why do it on a machine that pollutes so aggressively with its noise, fumes and speed? "In Canada, real men canoe."

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