Tony Clement: What is he thinking?

In politics, you can keep your job or keep your principles. Industry Minister Tony Clement wants to do both.

One Thursday this fall, Tony Clement started his day with a breakfast speech to the insurance industry in Toronto; by noon, he would be hyping an auto-industry research fund in Hamilton. This was not an exceptional day for Canada’s industry minister. His department has a leading role in implementing — and selling — the government’s economic recovery plan. He has spent the past two years hustling, from wooing top researchers to Canadian universities to appointing a Bollywood Star as a tourism ambassador. But squished between the insurance speech and the auto industry was a meeting with the press. The top question focused on yet another file, and was a variation on one he faced all fall: Would the government allow BHP Billiton to buy Potash Corp.?

The 49-year old Clement has a prominent place in Stephen Harper’s government; he is arguably the most ambitious industry minister in a decade, pursuing new copyright legislation, anti-spam legislation, strategies to improve Canada’s online business acumen and exploring more foreign investment in the wireless sector. All will have lasting implications. The death of the $38.6-billion Potash purchase will have its own repercussions, particularly spurred by a principled Conservative in a government with a free trade agenda. Commentators quickly cast the Potash refusal as a victory of politics over principle, but Clement argues that is a gross oversimplification of his handling of a review mandated by the Investment Canada Act. “The last thing I wanted to do was a crass political calculation,” he says. “I really wanted to look at what the bid would mean and assess it under the Act and do the weighting. I don’t think that detracts from being a free trader and being a small-C conservative. I have to exercise my responsibilities.”

Maybe the Conservatives capitulated. Maybe Clement, actually committed to the legal process, was barred from following his better instincts by a bad piece of legislation. Satisfying broad ideological principles, the responsibilities of office and political necessity can be impossible for a cabinet minister. But friends say Clement has always been a man of duelling instincts.

“There’s the old line about Canada being two nations warring in the bosom of a single state. Well, he’s got two dominant philosophies warring in his own bosom,” says Tim Murphy, who attended law school with Clement and later served as Paul Martin’s chief of staff. “He is a free trader by ideology and by experience, but he is also very much a political person.” An issue like the Potash decision, Murphy says, “is where the two halves of Tony — the guy who believes in Conservative ideals and the Tony who loves politics and understands the team game — may be bumping up against one another.”

As Potash dominates headlines, other items in Clement’s sprawling portfolio will have equal bearing on how Canada does business in the post-recession world. His profile has never been higher. If only folks believed it when says he’s held on to his principles along the way.

Even people who disagree with his politics concede that Clement is a genuinely nice guy. “He was always a dangerous Conservative, because he was a combination of extremely likable and ideologically conservative,” says Murphy. After inherent decency, Clement’s second-most-noted characteristic is his early embrace of conservative principles. With a mother who worked as a secretary to William Hodgson, a Conservative backbencher in Ontario, Clement had early experience with campaigning. He was already known as “Tony the Tory” in high school. Attending the University of Toronto, he was president of its Progressive Conservative club, building its ranks from 12 to 500 members. During one recruitment week, Clement dressed in a penguin suit. “A campus Liberal came up to me and said, ???You look ridiculous,” he recalls. “I said, ???You look ridiculous too, and you’re not wearing a penguin costume.'”

Beyond the chance to play dress-up, the minister, a fervent music fan, notes that conservatism in the late ’70s had the same appeal as, say, punk rock. “My political involvement was because I liked something, but I was also reacting to something. And what I was reacting to was an establishment that was statist and left-wing,” says Clement. “So when I see a band that is anti-establishment, it speaks to my core values.”

Clement won his first seat in the suburban riding of Brampton South during the 1995 vote that elected Mike Harris as premier. He joined the cabinet two years later, moving from transportation to environment to municipal affairs to health in less than five years. During the 2003 SARS crisis, he gained international prominence by successfully lobbying the WHO to lift a travel advisory. But the SARS victory came amid a string of defeats for Clement. He lost his bid to replace Harris as party leader in 2002, his seat in the 2003 provincial election, his bid for the leadership of the Conservative party in 2004 and his first attempt to win a federal seat later the same year. A four-time loser in less than three years, Clement seemed to have run out of political lives. He kept coming back, telling reporters after his 2003 defeat, “Don’t write my political obituary yet.” Friends note politics is the only career that has ever interested Clement. He enjoys the game as much as the highfalutin ideals. “It’s definitely in his blood,” says Bruce Fitzpatrick, who attended university with Clement and later became active in Conservative politics. It’s tempting to cast Clement’s attendance at every graduation and rubber duck race in his riding as the labours of a man who knows what it feels like to be unloved by constituents, but he’s always been that kind of politician. “There’s certain guys in our caucus — and a lot more Liberals — who never worked at the constituency thing because they lived in ridings where you win for being a particular [party] colour,” says Fitzpatrick. “But Tony’s always been a guy who goes to the doors.”

Clement eventually worked himself back into office — barely. In 2006, he won a seat by just 28 votes in Parry Sound???Muskoka, a rural Ontario riding. Harper first appointed him as health minister, a position he held for more than two years before a cabinet shuffle landed him at Industry. “I’d been a health minister for five years, if you count provincial time plus federal time,” he says, leaning forward on an armless lounge chair in his office. “I shouldered the SARS outbreak plus some other large crises. Let’s say I agreed with the prime minister’s decision that I could play a role as something other than a health minister.” Since grabbing the Industry portfolio, Clement has seemingly become Harper’s firefighter-in-chief, dousing controversy after controversy. Last summer, he justified spending $50 million on treats like gazebos and model lighthouses in advance of the G8 summit, which took place in his riding. He defended a $3.3-billion bailout of Canada’s auto industry. And he was the Conservative’s point man for making the long-form census no longer mandatory, a decision so contentious it drew condemnation from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. Despite reports that Clement was initially wary of the changes, he backed them with zeal. He paid a price, emerging as the lead villain when Munir Sheikh, the country’s top statistician, resigned in protest.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if how that census thing played out troubles Tony,” says Murphy. “The perception that he hasn’t acted decently would weigh on him.”

Equally controversial, albeit within a more niche audience, was the government’s push to update the country’s antiquated copyright law. The new legislation finally makes it legal to transfer music from a CD to an MP3 player, but it also imposes sharp fines for breaking the so-called digital locks placed on DVDs and video games by their manufacturers, a restriction that critics argue will undercut consumers’ ability to enjoy material that they have legally purchased. Clement was reportedly far less committed to the digital locks provision than James Moore, the culture minister, but, just like with the census debate, emerged as a loyal standard bearer. “We obviously work as a team,” the minister says. “I have never, so far, found a case where I have been in such disagreement with the eventual outcome that I’ve posed the existential question about whether I will continue with the ministry or not.”

As with the Potash issue, the government’s position on copyright feels at odds with its ideological home turf. “The new law represents significant marketplace intervention,” says Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, who nonetheless says the minister deserves credit for dragging Canadian policy into the new millennium. “He’s certainly done better than any of his immediate predecessors,” Geist says.

On both copyright and the census debate, Clement turned to Twitter to sell the policy. He joined the social networking site earlier this year, updating followers on his guitar practice and posting a picture of himself doing the Time Warp from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but he also attempted to engage his critics, with mixed success. “In the census, things were so polarized, people weren’t really listening to one another. With the copyright bill, there was an engaged community that had a point of view, but were still listening ,” he says.

While not contending with these headline-grabbing controversies, Clement has also quietly been pushing forward with initiatives with major implications across a host of sectors “One of the nice things about politics is you get to engage in a little bit of self-definition as to what your job is,” says Clement. “And when I define my own job here, it’s to focus on innovation and competitiveness as part of what Canada is, as part of our culture.” And so there is the $225-million plan to extend broadband access across Canada, particularly in rural communities. There’s Clement’s push for a “digital economy” strategy, designed to find ways for Canadian companies to take advantage of e-commerce and other business opportunities created by the ever-expanding online world. And there are consultations on liberalizing foreign-ownership rules in the telecommunications sector. A 2008 report prepared by a panel chaired by former Bell Canada executive Lynton (Red) Wilson recommended allowing foreign firms to establish or buy Canadian telecom companies with less than a 10% market share. “We are taking our cue from the Red Wilson report that there needs to be more access to more capital,” Clement said in September. Indeed, if Clement was not such a proponent of foreign investment up until this month, the Potash decision would not have been cast as craven political opportunism. Clement told reporters he blocked the bid over concerns that BHP lacked the expertise to mine and market potash. He also suggested the acquisition would make unneccesary BHP’s plans for its own $12 billion potash mine in Saskatchewan. “Who is in the position to make that decision?” asks William Robson, president and CEO of the C.D. Howe Institute. “Is it the government? Is a policy analyst? Or is it everyone who makes up the market? Even if I have real concerns, I don’t see anybody can make that decision better than the marketplace.”

But the minister has no regrets. “I can assure you I can sleep at night, being a conservative and a free trader and still having made that decision,” he says.

The industry minister jabs at his iPod. Clement’s reputation is well publicized and well earned. Asked for recommendations, he digs in a briefcase slouched beside his desk, extracts a music player and starts naming recent purchases: Broken Bells, Arcade Fire (“really enjoyed that,” he says), Stone Temple Pilots (“Good to see them back — and sober”) and MIA, a rapper with famously radical political views. “She’s a bit out there,” he says. “I can take her in little doses. I respect her.” Praise for an avowed supporter of the Tamil Tigers seems discordant coming Tony the Tory. But the Minister of the Crown still sees kindred spirits in punk rappers with an anti-establishment sneer.