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Tony Clement thrives on being the Teflon man Add to ...

Trouble has a way of finding Tony Clement. This year alone, the Industry Minister has been roasted for lavish government spending in his riding, which played host to the G8; for his ham-fisted defence of the decision to make the long-form version of the census voluntary; for the $16-billion to be spent buying and maintaining a new fleet of F-35 fighter aircraft; and this week for vetoing BHP Billiton Ltd.'s attempted takeover of Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan.

During these contretemps, all the usual criticisms were trotted out: that Mr. Clement too willingly sacrifices his conservative principles to political opportunism; that he is hyper-partisan; that he is little more than an errand boy for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, doing his bidding and cleaning up his messes.

But those critics miss a larger point. From the outbreak of SARS when Mr. Clement was Ontario health minister in 2003 to the BHP decision this week, he has survived and surmounted a string of crises that long ago would have sunk a lesser politician.

That which did not kill him made his as strong as he is today: one of the most powerful cabinet ministers in the federal government. And harsh experience has done more than streak his hair with grey. It has transformed a radical neo-conservative into a thoughtful, engaged and, yes, pragmatic political leader.

"There's a difference between being pragmatic and being cynical," he said Friday in an interview. "I'm not cynical. But on certain issues I think I've learned to put some water in with the wine."

Just about anyone with an opinion on the matter has noted that the decision not to allow the Australian mining giant to take over Potash Corp. prevented open political war between the Conservatives in Ottawa and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who had staked everything he had in opposing the takeover.

Few also believed that Mr. Clement made his decision without taking into account Mr. Harper's views.

Mr. Clement maintains the call on BHP was a meeting of minds. His staff worked up a report, without offering a conclusion; he developed his own opinion, based on the facts of the case, and then he consulted with the Prime Minister.

"We went over the reasons that I was considering … and he was pretty well of the same mindset," Mr. Clement said. "Those are the meetings when you come out saying, 'Phew, at least we don't have a clash of views on that issue.' "

The two men have evolved together, from ideologues in the 1990s to savvier politicians today. Their backgrounds, though, are very different. Mr. Harper is the product of a settled, stable WASP family from Toronto.

Mr. Clement's background is partly Middle Eastern, and, after his parents moved from England to Canada when he was four, the marriage ended, leaving him to be raised by a single mother.

The disillusions of perceived American decline in the 1970s, along with just about everything Pierre Trudeau stood for, turned him into an enthusiastic neo-conservative. He joined a band of young radicals who gleefully waged war on moderate conservatives on university campuses and then within the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, setting their sights on Mike Harris as the party's saviour, for whom they collectively wrote the Common Sense Revolution manifesto.

Mr. Clement won a riding in the suburban city of Brampton, outside Toronto, in 1995, and two years later, at 36, found himself in cabinet, where he quickly earned a reputation as an articulate spokesman for the radical conservative government.

But the revolution - especially the endless warfare with teachers - exhausted Ontarians, who turned to the conciliatory Dalton McGuinty in 2003. And Mr. Clement went through a kind of perdition visited on few politicians. He ran for the provincial party leadership in 2002 and lost to Ernie Eves. He lost his riding in the 2003 election. He ran for the leadership of the new Conservative Party in 2004 and lost to Stephen Harper. He ran in the 2004 federal election and lost. By then, he was generally considered politically dead and buried.

But Mr. Clement refused to stay dead. "If I still had the fire in my belly," he recalled, "if I didn't feel that was the proper juncture to write the final chapter of my political involvement, then I had to keep trying till I found myself again, found a story that I wanted to tell the electorate, and tell that story and let the electorate decide."

In 2006, he told that story to the electors of Parry Sound-Muskoka and made it to Parliament with a margin of 28 votes.

His tenacity speaks to Tony Clement's most formidable asset: his seemingly limitless stamina. No matter how often he gets pummelled by his political enemies, he's back in their face the next day. No matter how complex the file or how unsavoury the controversy, he will master and defend the government's position.

It is also why he has developed a reputation as a political animal with little real-world experience outside the bear pit of Parliament, though Mr. Clement has briefly worked as a lawyer and entrepreneur between political gigs.

In a way, Stephen Harper's government is a more mature reiteration of the Mike Harris government, with Mr. Clement, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and House Leader (and interim Environment Minister) John Baird - all former Harris cabinet ministers - its most powerful figures in cabinet.

It enjoys, as well, the loathing of the intellectual, cultural and academic elites of central Canada, who don't just oppose the Harris/Harper regimes, but regard them as vandals who prefer ideology to fact and the preservation of power at all costs to the preservation of democracy.

The census debacle and the repeated prorogations of Parliament offered much fodder for that point of view, which bothers Mr. Clement.

"First of all, it's not true," he said, "and second, it seems to set us apart from those who wish to make informed decisions in the best interests of the country … and it does come from people who think they know better than anybody else."

To the extent that Canada has a culture war, this is it.

Environment minister Jim Prentice announced this week he is leaving politics, and there are rumours other resignations could be coming, as the Tories prepare for an election they expect to fight in the spring. Mr. Clement will not be one of them.

"I plan to keep on going … I'm enjoying what I'm doing," he maintained.

Even if that involves, as it's bound to, getting into more trouble.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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