James Moore’s Rise To Political Power

November 1, 2010

On a June evening rich with the portents of summer, the top-floor reception room of the Vancouver Art Gallery teems with dandy white shirts and elegant black dresses. It’s the opening-night gala of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, and credits are about to roll. In the knot of people between the stage and the fire escape stands an imposing yet unfamiliar figure—a man wearing a dark suit and a pale pink shirt that are well-tailored but not quite hip. ames Moore, the MP for Port Moody–Westwood–Port Coquitlam and Minister of Canadian  Heritage and Official Languages, steps out of the pocket and onto the stage. He announces that the festival will get a special grant of $615,000 from Industry Canada’s Marquee Tourism Events Program, a mark of the festival’s international stature. Then he takes his swing. “Governments need to step up and support the arts, not step back.” Moore doesn’t name Gordon Campbell and the BC Liberals, but the target is clear. The federal Conservatives did not cut arts funding, as the BC Liberals did, in the wake of the global economic pratfall.

In fact, the Conservatives have lately delivered the biggest arts-funding budgets in Canadian history. Not what you would expect from the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose remark during the 2008 election campaign that arts galas and funding don’t resonate with “ordinary people” boomeranged so badly in Quebec that it may have cost him a parliamentary majority.

Politicians don’t last long if they make the same mistake twice. James Moore has been sent down from the mountain to the city to spread the new Harper gospel, and he’s been working the message hard. Last fall in Vancouver, he called provincial cuts “potentially devastating.” The local media ignored him.

Tonight, at the VAG, Mayor Gregor Robertson is the star. He opens his remarks with a homily: “There’s nothing better than the arts to bring people together for a beautiful summer.” Then he plays the bongos. It’s Gregor who will make the six o’clock news.

Moore has always been a bit of an outsider. As a teenager in Coquitlam, he was a high-school contrarian fixated on American politics; his 1994 Centennial Secondary School yearbook entry declares that “multiculturalism doesn’t work” and praises Richard Nixon and Oliver North. “My future plans are to meet my idols (Rush H. Limbaugh and Ronald W. Reagan), then to pursue a career in politics.” He studied business, economics, and political science at Douglas College and the University of Northern British Columbia, then worked briefly for 1040 AM, at that time a struggling Vancouver radio station.

James Moore is not a Harvard man. Those who underestimate him, however, do so at their peril. In 2000, just 24 and fresh from a stint hosting a Prince George radio talk show, he ran for the Canadian Alliance Party in Port Moody–Coquitlam–Port Coquitlam. He nearly doubled the vote total of the Liberal heavyweight, longtime Coquitlam mayor Lou Sekora, becoming the youngest MP in B.C. history. Today, at 34, he’s the first heritage minister from Western Canada, the youngest federal cabinet minister, and the most important Conservative MP in Metro Vancouver. Yet Sekora, who’s back on Coquitlam city council, still sees him as an unfamiliar quantity. “I don’t really know the man,” he says.

At the jazz festival party, after the mayor finishes jamming with a group of teenage Vancouver jazz prodigies, he’s back shoulder-to-shoulder with Moore. Like Robertson, Moore, at 6-foot-3, is tall. But if Robertson’s a wide receiver, Moore is a lineman. Moore leans in. “So,” he says, “did you like it?”

“Oh,” says Gregor, “I have to remain neutral.”

They’re talking about a very different gathering a couple of weeks earlier at GM Place: UFC 115. Robertson’s Vision council majority voted last December to allow the controversial mixed-martial-arts event. Moore had appeared before council to advocate for the Ultimate Fighting Championship and assure the city that the feds were unconcerned the UFC would violate a federal law governing prize fights. Robertson came to GM Place to see what his council had wrought; Moore was there as a fan, and tweeted his fight-by-fight predictions (he was four for 11). The traditional media, of course, only noticed Robertson.

As UFC supporters, the mayor and the minister made a curious pair. Robertson wants a chicken in every backyard and a bike in every garage. Moore is the Conservative government’s champion of avant-garde video and modern dance. Yet there they were, as Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” thundered through the building. Peterbilt young spectators with baroque tattoos scrambled for a mouth-guard that one victorious fighter had tossed into the stands. Headliner Rich Franklin broke his arm and then defeated Chuck Liddell, and four different fighters all made their way to Vancouver General Hospital. Is there really, as one UFC advocate told council, more theatre in wrestling and more violence in politics?

Culturally, It’s a long way from the Vancouver Art Gallery and what is now Rogers Arena east over Snake Hill and onto St. John’s Street in Port Moody. There are six martial-arts clubs within a few blocks of Moore’s constituency office, along with North America’s universal touchstone, the neighbourhood Starbucks. Over a coffee at a window seat, Moore makes no apologies for his support of pugilism’s new face, the tightly managed Las Vegas-style spectacle that plays to a generation raised on video games (another of Moore’s passions: his favourites are Doom, Madden NFL, UFC Undisputed 2010, and the gunslinging Red Dead Redemption.) “I’m a big guy, I like the rougher sports,” he says. And to those who don’t share his taste, he says simply: “Don’t impose your views on me. It goes back to my small-government principles. It goes to art, culture, and sport.”

And it goes to same-sex marriage. Moore was three seats over from Stephen Harper when he voted against his party leader and in favour of equal marriage rights. He says he paid no price for that decision. Today, he is an increasingly influential insider trusted to speak freely on behalf of the Conservatives.

Moore allows that he is “in some ways” a libertarian, although he believes in a broader role for government than that word suggests. You could also say he is in some ways a child of Pierre Trudeau. Coquitlam immersion programs made him fluent in French, a prerequisite for the Heritage portfolio, and of course his role as minister responsible for official languages. His father, Jim Moore, a dentist and Social Credit foot soldier, told him: “There are two things we can agree with Pierre Trudeau on: government has no place in our private lives; and official bilingualism.” Today, one of Moore’s two sisters teaches French immersion.

In Moore’s mid-teens, a confluence of events made him “want to do more than make the hockey team.” First, his mother, Gail, a former Canadian amateur golf champion and a teacher, died of brain cancer. Then he read his first serious adult book, the Martin Luther King, Jr. biography Let the Trumpet Sound. And he made the Charlottetown Accord a Grade 11 social studies project. Preston Manning’s call for no distinct society and equality in the senate inspired him. What’s more, he realized he wasn’t going to become a pro hockey player.

A few days after the Starbucks coffee, Moore makes the constituency rounds in his black BMW X5 SUV, beginning in Port Moody’s town centre, where he announces $575,000 for the New View Society to build 10 beds for people suffering from mental health and addiction issues. Coquitlam mayor Greg Moore is there, praising the minister for helping to turn the society’s vision into a plan. The mayor shares more than a name with his political colleague: “I’ll tweet the minister and he’ll tweet me right back. It feels like you have a real partner in Ottawa.”

Then it’s off to Riverview to discuss the 100-hectare site’s treasured historic buildings and spectacular arboretum. The Riverview Horticultural Centre Society wants to see the area declared a National Historic Site, as a bulwark against on-and-off provincial plans to develop the area as market housing.

“You can’t have any declaration made without the consent of the province,” Moore cautions them.

Finally, there’s a trip to the Port Moody Station Museum, the original terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway. It operates on an annual budget that barely tops $200,000 and is struggling with unexpected shortfalls in provincial funding. Moore and a staffer from Canadian Heritage work through all the possible opportunities for federal support. Corporate sponsorship money is in short supply; Moore says he thinks the biggest private-sector employer in the area is Costco. Perhaps they can partner with Golden Spike Days for a chunk of a big one-time grant that the annual festival will receive from the feds.

While Moore has little concrete to offer at Riverview or the museum, he’s the consummate constituency politician: he knows the territory, asks smart questions, and listens carefully. There’s a reason he’s unassailable in his home riding. Taking his message to the far side of Snake Hill, however, has proved rather more difficult. During the day’s rounds, Moore’s 20-something ministerial assistant, a congenitally Conservative West Point Grey theatre nut, laments the stereotype that afflicts her party. “We don’t eat babies for breakfast,” she says.

After the constituency meetings, Moore grabs a Starbucks chicken panini and heads over to the Port Moody Civic Centre grounds to launch a few balls for Jed, his beloved Bernese Mountain Dog. Jed takes up the space a family might someday occupy.

Moore acknowledges that the Conservatives hold not a single seat in the Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver city centres. Then he rattles off a list of areas where the Liberals have no representation. “What we lack in political geography compared to what the Liberals lack—I’d much rather have our challenge.”

He openly derides Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff: “We call him Iffy.” As he lobs another ball for Jed, a little dog fur stuck to his dark blue suit, he adds: “If you’re smarmy and wear French-cuff shirts and are too slick by half, people won’t vote for you.”

Moore, whose sartorial style was described by a Toronto Star columnist as suitable for Mad Men, believes the diversity worm has turned in national politics. “We are the big-tent party.” He lists the demographic specifics, and his case is persuasive. Yet despite Prime Minister Harper’s high personal approval ratings, Conservative party support of about 33 percent remains a little on the low side of its historic range. It’s our fractured national political landscape, in which the left continues to divide while the right has merged, that has made the Conservatives the most enduring minority government in Canadian history.

Thus Moore’s job of winning all those city centre voters becomes more important to his party’s future—and, of course, his own. The Tories used to hold seats on Vancouver’s West Side, and getting them back will be tough. One reason is that many in the city centre are only beginning to learn about Moore; in part, he says, that’s because of the local vacuum in reporting on national politics. Not a single member of the Ottawa press corps is dedicated to covering Parliament for a British Columbia audience.

When Moore does make the news, the reasons are often trivial. In May, for example, he made a national impression with a tweet that said the Canucks were Canada’s team while the Montreal Canadiens were also still in the playoffs. “Tony Clement was saying he was a Canadiens fan, and I joked that the Canucks were Canada’s team,” he recalls. Yet no one reported it that way. “I just rolled my eyes.”

Those in the Vancouver and national arts communities who do know Moore describe him as accessible, well briefed, and influential. They may worry about the Conservatives’ overall cultural vision, or fret about Moore’s preoccupation culture as a commercial product, or object to specific aspects of the copyright legislation he has crafted with Industry Minister Tony Clement, but they respect that he has fought vigorously to protect their interests. “He has clout with the prime minister,” says Canadian Conference of the Arts national director Alain Pineau (adding that Moore’s “a very ambitious young man”).

“People see the copyright bill as a good-faith effort,” Moore says. As for the CBC, he believes it plays “a critical” and “stabilizing” role during the huge transition in the way people consume media. “They’re an R&D base in terms of new media. They’re doing that very well.” He remains uncertain ofthe implications of the Internet revolution on content distribution for Canadian cultural protectionism policies, but invites Canadian artists to “engage markets,” but adds that “Canada punches above its weight in the creativity sector.”

Interesting stuff from a Conservative. On issues ranging from offshore oil and global warming to the financial burden that child care places on working families, however, he doesn’t skate far from the pat answers of the Tory playbook.

“I don’t think taking care of children is the responsibility of the state,” he says. “It’s the responsibility of parents.”

On marijuana—another issue that put him in the news—when supporters of extradited pot-seed seller Marc Emery briefly occupied his office (and mocked the framed Martin Luther King image on his desk)—his libertarian tendencies make him equivocate. “I go back and forth on the issue, but I can count on one hand the number of constituents who’ve brought it up.”

What is top of mind? “Nine out of 10 times, when the phone rings in my office it’s a call in regard to immigration.” People want help, he says, with delayed visas or family reunification. He doesn’t worry that the government’s hard line on refugees will offend recent immigrants, whose socially conservative values are putting them increasingly in the Conservative fold. He says frustration over bogus refugee claims is most acute among those “who have recent appreciation of the privilege of Canadian citizenship.”

Exactly the sort of smart, deft phrasing that shows why Moore’s a rising star in the Conservative firmament. At dusk on a balcony at the Vancouver Art Gallery overlooking Robson Square, the jazz fest proceedings are winding down. If VAG director Kathleen Bartels has her way, it won’t be the VAG balcony for long. Moore reserves judgment on her vision of a grand new $350-million home a few blocks east on Dunsmuir Street. He doesn’t expect to have an opinion until he sees concrete plans and firm numbers, and figures it will take a couple of years to get that far. By then, at least, there will have been another election.

Tonight, Moore is simply revelling in the warm evening air, waxing nostalgic about the 2010 Winter Olympics. The Heritage portfolio also encompasses sport, so during the Games the minister spent a lot of time downtown, some of it right where he’s standing today—the VAG’s fourth floor was transformed into the BC Pavilion. Yet when the cameras were rolling on politicians during the Games, it was usually Gordon Campbell or Stephen Harper they found, just as it was Harper, not Moore, whom people remember at the National Arts Centre last fall, sitting at the piano and singing, implausibly, “I get high with a little help from my friends.”

A B.C. Conservative heavyweight muses privately that James Moore may well one day be a contender for the prime minister’s job. For now, of course, Moore will happily remain in his boss’s shadow. He doesn’t seem to mind; he’s young, smart, and patient, and he knows that naked ambition has made more than one political lion kill all the cubs.

What’s more, while Moore may not share Stephen Harper’s views on same-sex marriage, or his deep religious conviction, he clearly respects Harper’s leadership—after all, it has made him a remarkably resilient prime minister. Moore says that Harper’s political rivals grossly misjudged him during the last election. “They underestimated their opponent because they did not know their opponent.”

Moore’s own political rivals, present and future, may want to file that comment away. VM

 

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