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International spotlight falls on Manley
Foreign affairs minister eclipses cabinet colleagues
Allan Thompson
Ottawa Bureau
JOHN MANLEY
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OTTAWA - AS CANADA BRACES for a war on terrorism, people are suddenly noticing John Manley.

The foreign affairs minister has impressed some critics with his performance in the aftermath of the devastating attacks on the United States and has improved his long-shot chances as a contender to replace Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.

"In this crisis, he's certainly been more impressive than any other minister, including the Prime Minister," says political historian Michael Bliss, of the University of Toronto. "Maybe Manley is a serious leadership candidate and we are now seeing his emergence. He may prefer not to be in the current situation, where he gets noticed, but he is, and people seem to like what they see."

Before the events of Sept. 11, Manley was widely regarded as a dark horse in the Liberal leadership race, a centre-right candidate who would be a good stand-in if the front-runner, Finance Minister Paul Martin, stumbles or drops out.

Senior Liberal insiders are quickly turning their attention his way, for he's stepped onto the world stage at the side of such high-powered stars as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

But while some political analysts suggest Manley's star is rising quickly, other observers are quick to note that he still faces a steep uphill fight to change his bookish and dull public image.

Indeed, pollster Frank Graves of EKOS Research found in a survey released this week that while many Canadians have a largely positive view of him, many others had no opinion of his performance and still don't know him.

Twelve per cent of respondents in the EKOS Toronto Star/La Presse/CBC poll couldn't identify the foreign affairs minister and 41 per cent found his performance "average," a number that Graves says indicates a lack of familiarity with his role among respondents. Thirty-six per cent said he was doing a good job.

When Manley took over the job from Lloyd Axworthy last October, he made fostering Canada-U.S. relations his top priority. In the days after the Sept. 11 attack, Manley was the most unabashedly pro-U.S. minister in the cabinet.

During one appearance on CNN, Manley told his American audience that Canada also feels violated.

"There's no sense of a border when there's a catastrophe like that, and we feel that we were equally under attack," he said. "Even though the event occurred on U.S. soil, it could as easily have happened in Toronto or Montreal."

He also made clear that Canada's support for U.S. action should be unreserved.

And while other frontline ministers struggled for words in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Manley seemed to capture the mood. In one emotional exchange with reporters early in the crisis, he flared with anger as he responded to a question about whether Canada would shirk from getting involved in a conflict that could lead to casualties.

"Canada does not have a history as a pacifist or neutralist country," he said. "Canada has soldiers who are buried all over Europe because we fought in defence of liberty, and we're not about to back away from a challenge now because we think somebody might get hurt."

One publication dubbed him Canada's informal "minister of war."

After all, he was the first minister to clearly state that Canada should commit "military resources" to the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism and speculated about compromising some liberties for greater security.

"We must be precise, even clinical, in our actions and be prepared to use all of the tools at our disposal - diplomatic, legal, financial, as well as military resources - to combat this evil," he said in the House of Commons.

But Manley is not freelancing. Insiders say he and the Prime Minister carefully orchestrated their good-cop, bad-cop routine so the government could straddle the spectrum of Canadian public opinion.

In the early going, it seemed some days as if Manley was everywhere, on television, radio and in print.

And despite security precautions in the aftermath of the attacks, the fitness-conscious Manley was still jogging on the streets of Ottawa and walking, unguarded, from Parliament Hill to a downtown appointment.

(Manley also hopes to take part in the next running of the New York City marathon, if the race goes ahead.)

Behind the scenes in the days since the disaster, he has been in personal contact with a staggering number of his counterparts, including the Iranian foreign minister, who informally used him as a conduit to send condolences to the U.S.

And at a time of crisis, Manley has become the de facto spokesperson for the Canadian government, at home and abroad.

The recent surge of attention is quite a change for the veteran politician who toiled for years in relative obscurity after first being elected in his native Ottawa in 1988.

The 52-year-old Manley, a tax lawyer, is considered bookish and brainy. One newspaper account after his appointment even called him a geek.

The most notoriety he garnered during seven years as industry minister came when he told a reporter that Canada should cut its link with the British monarchy after the death of the Queen and, later, when he reneged on his decision to promote federal bailouts for professional hockey teams.

At Industry, Manley oversaw the connecting of every Canadian school and community to the Internet and grappled with such complex - and largely unnoticed - issues as copyright law and intellectual property.

He did well, but, in his first months at Foreign Affairs, Manley seemed accident-prone.

In a January interview, Manley bluntly disclosed that Canada had offered to resettle Palestinian refugees. While most observers of the Middle East always assumed that to be the case, no Canadian foreign minister had stated it so openly, publicly prejudging the peace process. Manley's comments sparked an outcry in the Middle East and he was burned in effigy in one West Bank refugee camp.

And when confronted by the case of a drunken Russian diplomat who drove into and killed an Ottawa woman, Manley first came out blazing, demanding that Russia waive immunity and allow the diplomat to stand trial in Canada. Protocol officials in his department were horrified by Manley's harsh, undiplomatic demands and, before long, his public statements were toned down.

Insiders say Manley has long since gained a sure grasp of his file and established strong personal contacts with a number of his counterparts, particularly Powell.

And in more ways than one, Manley looks quite different from when he took on his new portfolio.

For one thing, the owlish politician has undergone something of a physical makeover that began well before the terrorist attacks. A course of treatment for a lazy eye, a condition he has had since childhood, has proven successful. His right eye no longer visibly drifts when he looks into the camera.

More often than not these days, Manley appears in front of the cameras without glasses. (Aides insist that is for therapeutic, not cosmetic, reasons, but one way or another, it has changed his appearance.)

And his unruly shock of grey hair seems to be more carefully groomed.

In addition to his composure, insiders say Manley has made a formidable impression on his colleagues and underlings with his conduct at a time of crisis.

"He's mastered the brief. His level of retention is really quite astounding," says a senior diplomat.

As the diplomat puts it, many who thought a year ago that Manley's appointment to replace Axworthy simply didn't make sense, are changing their opinions.

"Many of those people are now seeing a side of Manley they didn't see up to now."



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