Right place, right time, right party

Paul Wells on how Ted Byfield helped pave the way for Harper’s majority win
Alberta Report Alumni gathering and banquet with Ted Byfield and Preston Manning, in Edmonton on Thursday, September 15, 2011. John Ulan/Epic Photography
Right place, right time, right party
Right place, right time, right party

Stephen Harper sent his regrets and a note, which was read to the 300-odd revellers the other night at the Coast Edmonton Plaza Hotel. “Special greetings to Ted Byfield and Preston Manning, who have done so much to inspire, inform and lead the conservative movement in Canada,” the Prime Minister’s note said.

The occasion was a “victory celebration” for a defunct magazine that never made anyone rich. The magazine was Alberta Report. Well, sometimes it had other titles, but we’ll stick with that one. Its founder was Ted Byfield, an irascible right-wing coot—I do not believe his friends would disagree with that description—and a mentor to dozens of journalists who went on to other roles, including this magazine’s Ken Whyte, Mark Stevenson and Colby Cosh.

But as I’ve said, the Report shut down in 2003. So what’s to celebrate? Power. “The West Is In,” the party invitations read. The reference was to the Harper Conservatives’ majority government. The dinner’s souvenir program promised a “national gala to reunite the original authors of Harper’s historic victory.”

Those “original authors” are Manning and Byfield. In May 1987, Manning was a key figure at the Western Assembly in Vancouver that gave birth to the Reform party. Months before the Vancouver assembly, Byfield met Manning and decided to put the weight of his magazine behind Manning’s venture.

Ken Whyte, who was Byfield’s right hand for a time at the Report, and has been my boss for most of the past 17 years, told the gathering Byfield’s decision was “a historic choice.”

In 1986, not even two years after Brian Mulroney’s landslide election, it was hardly obvious that the Progressive Conservatives had no future, Whyte said. Nor was Manning’s the only splinter group on offer. But Byfield “went out for dinner one night with Preston Manning and he came back the next day convinced that Preston Manning was the answer and that he had the answers,” Whyte said. “It was his choice, his decision.” Whyte called that decision “just one of the many reasons why Ted stands as one of the greatest journalists Canada has ever produced.”

Many Canadians would disagree. Most simply wouldn’t know what to think of such a claim. But one of the evening’s main arguments was that people who think like Ted Byfield are running the country now.

“It is a real honour to be speaking here to this nostalgic reunion of the vast right-wing conspiracy,” Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told the dinner crowd.

The “eastern elites,” Kenney reported happily, are “afraid and shocked” at Harper’s majority. “They say that the lunatics have taken over the asylum.” But those elites have already lost much of the battle, Kenney said. “Let’s recall just what it was like when Ted set out on this amazing mission to recast Canadian politics.” Back in those dark days, in the Progressive Conservative leadership race of 1983, “John Crosbie was the populist right-wing candidate.” Yes, Crosbie, “who was opposed to free trade with the United States; opposed to cutting federal spending to balance the budget; was in favour of tax increases; was in favour of tough gun control; made condescending remarks about social conservatives at every opportunity. And that was considered conservatism in 1983.”

Now, Kenney said, Canadians have a Conservative government that acts like one. “We’ve cut the GST. We are going to, in the next few months, end the Liberal long-gun registry. We are in the last few days of the monopoly of the Canadian Wheat Board. We are putting victims ahead of criminals in Canada’s criminal justice system. We have rebuilt Canada’s armed forces.”

One of Byfield’s early insights, Kenney said, was that “culture would be at the heart of many of these political debates. Of course the culture of the Byfield operation was—at all times, at least in intention, implicitly, in some sense—Christian, dare I say it.”

He certainly did dare. So did Byfield, nearly 83, who addressed the dinner crowd last. “All news is judged on the basis of certain assumptions. Most editors I’ve known aren’t even aware of this. But they have certain values. Certain things they think true and false and self-evident.” Alberta Report’s values, Byfield decided early, “would be Christian. As simple as that. What do I mean by that? I mean, the belief that the creeds of the Christian church were simply true.”

Now, all kinds of people believe they are being true to Christian faith. Bill Blaikie sat in the House of Commons for a quarter-century defending his conception of the social gospel for the NDP. Byfield’s Christian truth, on the other hand, led him to write, in 1980, “If adultery or homosexuality is wrong in the sight of God, then all the task forces in Christendom aren’t going to make it right.”

It may be Harper’s and Byfield’s shared good luck that the latter was no longer putting out a magazine when the former became Prime Minister. That way everyone can skip lightly over the way Harper countenances abortion, same-sex marriage, bilingualism, taxpayer money for Bombardier and other apostasies. Now, at least over dinner, they can claim that Harper’s triumph is a victory for Byfield’s values and ask no more questions.

“I have long believed and often said,” Harper’s note to the Edmonton dinner crowd said, “that fundamentally Conservative values are Canadian values. And I also believe that history will record that this year’s federal election began a new era of pre-eminence for those values.”