OTTAWA — He’s come a long way since the day of the wetsuit.
Stockwell Day earned political infamy for zooming to his first news conference as an MP on a Sea-Doo, clad in a wetsuit, with a three-metre plume of water appearing to emerge from his rear end.
He went on to preside over a fractured Canadian Alliance party that lurched from embarrassment to calamity before ceding the leadership to Stephen Harper in 2002.
Now, after years spent quietly climbing back to political prominence, Day has been tasked with making sure the country’s massive deficit is erased within a few years — the Conservatives’ top policy priority ahead of the next election.
As president of the Treasury Board, he will be responsible for clamping down on spending, finding billions in savings and reining in the public service.
“A lot of water has gone under the bridge, since 10 years ago, and a lot of it has been white water,” the 59-year-old Day said in an interview. “I think it’s like anything in life. You learn how to navigate. That’s a part of life and it’s certainly part of government experience.”
A decade ago politicos, conservatives and members of the punditocracy wrote him off as a bumbling politician who didn’t know North from South. The prime Minister touted Day on Wednesday as one of his most trusted colleagues, putting him front and centre in his quest to balance the books.
“It will be essential for government to constrain the growth of spending. The president of the Treasury Board plays a critical role in overseeing government expenditures,” Harper said.
“I’m assigning this task to one of the most senior members of the cabinet, a former provincial treasurer who has distinguished himself in every portfolio he has held. And I refer of course to the Honourable Stockwell Day.”
Day has exceeded the low expectations his foes inside and outside the Conservative party had set for him since he abandoned his leadership aspirations. First as foreign affairs critic, then as public safety minister, and most recently as international trade minister, he has proven himself thorough and competent, insiders say.
He surpassed those low expectations by sticking closely to his political script, knowing his files well and adding a splash of self-deprecating humour to his public remarks. The result has been not a single major misstep for years.
His time spent as treasurer in the Alberta government during the cost-cutting days of the late 1990s could also serve him well.
“He’s actually enhanced the government’s reputation in all the things he’s done,” said former MP Monte Solberg who was part of the Alliance caucus that rebelled against Day when he led the party. “I give him credit for having really grown.”
As international trade minister, he played a major role in repairing the Canada-China relationship and is well-respected in the business community for his handle on complicated files, said Ottawa-based international trade strategist Peter Clark.
Day will need a thick skin going forward.
As soon as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty introduces the budget in March, “we’ll all sit down and sharpen our pencils and look at the best way to keep the message out: that we’ve got a strong economy, but we need to keep spending under control,” Day said.
“…I imagine the No word will come up from time to time.”
The Conservative caucus and the cabinet are dedicated to balancing the budget, he said, so he doesn’t anticipate too much internal opposition to cutting costs.
But he’ll also have to deal with the public service, which is gearing up to resist any attempts to cut its generous pension and benefits packages.
Day was already subtly digging in his heels on Wednesday. When asked if he planned to cut public-service costs, he said everyone must carry part of the deficit burden.
“The signal that the prime minister is sending and that the minister of finance is sending is that all of us working and pulling together can achieve the goal of a balanced budget. And that’s our plan,” he said in the interview. “A balanced budget means our economy will be strong.”