Sat 18 Oct 2003
It’s been said that nothing focuses the mind more than the sight of the gallows.
Peter MacKay and Stephen Harper had seen the same polls as Paul Martin. And while the projected results produced Liberal visions of an unprecedented landslide, the PC and Alliance Leaders looked into an abyss – and the abyss looked back.
The prospect of annihilation – of the PCs being reduced to an Atlantic, rural rump and the Alliance a Western, rural rump – more than anything else pushed aside all the past concerns that stood in the way of a unification of the right. At bottom, the merger of the PC and the Canadian was a triumph of survival over the divisions that caused the parties to separate and that kept them apart for the last 16 years.
But let us not be over cynical about what has been accomplished – and at what cost.
First, and at a personal level, credit must be given to Peter MacKay and Stephen Harper. Both are newly minted Leaders who, I’m sure, had come to enjoy the spotlight and applause that comes with the offices they occupy. Both men went into these discussions, and persevered to a conclusion when they had many excuses and opportunities to retreat, knowing full well that both were probably negotiating themselves out of a job. Putting the interests of the system and democracy before self interest is one of the noblest acts of public service and the sacrifice of both men should be recognized.
At a deeper level, the merger acknowledges the failed experiment and promise of the original Reform Party. By choosing to re-forge links with the party they believed could not accommodate their aspirations, the Reform/Alliance militants have ( at least tacitly) conceded that their vision of a regionally-based, ideological driven party is not tenable and would never be embraced by enough Canadians to move them beyond minor party status. (Whether or not their future behaviour reflects this concession in no small measure will determine if history records this choice as wise or folly).
Coming together also marks the end of a 40 year struggle over who will control the right in Canada. Since the time of the “Dump Dief” campaign in the mid-1960s, pragmatic moderates have controlled the PC Party of Canada. Without interruption, consensus seekers and “brokerage politicians” won the leadership, were appointed to the front benches, charted the course of their election campaigns and occupied the key positions in the Party’s Headquarters and the Leader’s office. It was their stranglehold on the direction and platform of the Party that drove the mission oriented and ideologically motivated members into the arms of a more grassroots, philosophically-pure right-of-center alternative, envisioned by Preston Manning. By accepting these dissidents as equals – a status they never enjoyed within the “big tent” of PC politics – the moderates have turned power over to those they previously viewed as their inferiors and as dangerous ideologues. In the end, the creation of the new Conservative Party of Canada not only expunges the word “progressive” from their name but a Red Tory tradition that shaped both the PC party and modern Canadian politics.
Understanding these fundamental differences that drove them apart in the first place is an essential part of assessing the prospects of the new Party for the future. Indeed, the Reform Party was not born out of immaculate conception. It leapt, raging and determined, from the breast of a Progressive Conservative Party they believed had suppressed their voice and deprived Canadians of a “true” right-of-center alternative to the natural governing Liberals. These differences were great then, continue to persist to this day and ironically now find their most vociferous expression among the ranks of “moderate” Tories who feel they are being pushed aside and their vision lost.
Are these lingering differences so great that they will prevent the marriage from being consummated?
The Red Tory faction of the PC Party is dispirited, fatigued and beaten. For them, the toothpaste is already out of the tube and they understand that trying to put it back will be infinitely messier than the alternative. They will swallow hard and accept their minority status in the new amalgamated entity or simply leave politics, altogether. The Orchard Conservatives (and make no mistake… they are an entirely different breed than the Red Tories) will have about the same effect as the Chicago Cubs fan who reached out to catch the fly ball in the recent National Conference Pennant race. They never will be really on the field but may alter perceptions of the United Right’s ability to win the game.
To get beyond mere survival however, the new Party will have to find an electoral coalition that extends beyond the narrow base the two old Parties were able to garner separately.
Polls demonstrate that not only is the combined support base of the old PC and Alliance Parties insufficient to equal the strength of the Liberals, but that there is not even any guarantee that the two Parties will be able to combine their existing support bases. Current PC supporters disproportionately claim that the Liberals are their second choice, and while Alliance voters are somewhat more likely to gravitate to the PCs as their second choice, they are similarly by no means unanimous in this predisposition. It would appear that the animosity witnessed between the leadership and elected members of the two Parties is mirrored in their electoral constituencies. As a consequence, the new Party cannot expect that one plus one will equal two in electoral terms, but something closer approximating 1.5.
When the right has won in Canada they have done so by cobbling together a rather unholy coalition of right-of-center, decentralist Westerners and left-of-center, nationalistic Quebeckers, held together my moderate, pragmatic political leadership. Clearly, that is not going to happen in the next Federal election. There is nothing in this deal that will appeal to Quebeckers of any persuasion, so the best case scenario for the new Conservative Party must be a two step process that sees them winning enough seats to deprive Paul Martin of a massive majority in the short term, and then, over the next four-to-five years, broadening their base beyond their immediate opportunities.
In all likelihood accomplishing even the first step will require new leadership. Given the on-going tension within their forged ranks, the election of either Harper or (far less likely) Mackay would add to the suspicion in Tory quarters that this has been a take-over rather than a merger. My guess is that even former Alliance members will be sensitive to this and therefore open to accepting someone from outside of their formal membership. Given their organizational superiority however the next leader must be ideologically compatible with these same Alliance members if he/she is to be embraced. By process of elimination therefore the most palatable candidate is most likely to be a “Blue Tory” – someone with both PC and right-of-center credentials.
To reverse the one Party hegemony of the last decade, the minimum (and first stage) task of the Conservatives will be to hold their urban seats and make at least a modest breakthrough in Ontario. These constituencies have eluded the old Parties because they failed to embrace the diversity and modern sensibilities of urban dwellers and the national perspective of Ontarians. Needless-to-say, a “Blue Tory” leader, marshalling the forces of a new party where old Alliance members are likely to have the greatest sway over policy and an election platform will have a formidable task in moderating the excesses of its rank and file and at the same time distinguishing itself from a fiscally respectable Liberal Party.
Whether the Conservative Party of Canada will be able to meet this challenge in the next election in all likelihood will dictate the shape of federal politics for decades to come. Historically, a vibrant two plus Party system has served Canadians and democracy well. We have enjoyed stable government yet had the presence of choice and alternatives that kept the electorate engaged and alive to their responsibilities as citizens. The last decade has threatened this fine balance. Whether you are a Conservative, Liberal, New Democrat we should all hope that they journey Peter Mackay and Stephen Harper have begun sets us on a path where that balance can be restored.