CANADA

Divided over unity

Reformers want to tango, but will the Tories dance?

JOHN GEDDES November 9 1998
CANADA

Divided over unity

Reformers want to tango, but will the Tories dance?

JOHN GEDDES November 9 1998

Divided over unity

CANADA

Reformers want to tango, but will the Tories dance?

JOHN GEDDES

The young turks of Canada’s political right are trying hard not to gloat. As they watch the Progressive Conservative leadership race limping towards an uninspiring conclusion, they are privately congratulating themselves for turning away from the old federal party years ago. From their jobs in provincial Conservative governments or with the Reform party, their attention is focused these days on the “united alternative” effort to forge a new right-of-centre coalition—not on Joe Clark’s return to the helm of the federal Tories. Still, the new generation has too much political savvy to publicly mock an elder statesman. Some outside observers felt no need to be so polite about the former prime minister’s prospects. “Beyond being a nostalgia candidate, I don’t understand the electoral appeal of this particular product,” scoffed Darrell Bricker, executive vice-president of the polling firm Angus Reid Group.

The united-alternative machine was revving loudly last week, threatening to drown out the last sputtering of the Tory leadership campaign. Conservatives and Reformers alike were excited by Alberta Premier Ralph Klein’s announcement that he will attend next February’s unite-theright convention in Ottawa. Clark, meanwhile, was left struggling to hold the waning interest of his supporters until an anticlimactic run-off vote, scheduled for Nov. 14, for the leadership that he came within a hair of winning on the first ballot on Oct. 24. One by one, his main adversaries have dropped out—all except antifree-trade crusader David Orchard. With no realistic chance of winning, but nothing to lose, Orchard vowed to stick it out to the bitter end—to Clark’s dismay.

The organizers behind the united-alternative movement looked on with barely contained glee. “A lot of people have been standing on the sidelines waiting to see how the Tory leadership turned out,” said Reform MP Jason Kenney, a 30-yearold key organizer of the drive to bring right-of-centre political forces into a new configuration to challenge the federal

Liberals. “Now, there are going to be a lot more reasonably prominent people coming forward in the next few days and weeks to endorse our process.”

Klein’s decision to throw his considerable weight behind the new movement gave Kenney’s boast credibility. For Clark, the prospect of a succession of establishment Tories following the Alberta premier onto the united-alternative bandwagon must be deeply dispiriting. Maclean’s has learned that among the respected Conservatives being courted actively by Kenney and his fellow organizers is Manitoba Justice Minister EricToews. Gaining Toews’s support would be significant, since the government of Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon is viewed as moderate and cautious—a Conservative outpost wary of the Reform-led united-alternative drive. Filmon himself is unlikely to participate. Neither, for that matter, is Ontario’s Tory Premier Mike Harris, who is being careful to avoid alienating longtime Tories in the run-up to a provincial election anticipated sometime next year.

But the fact that Harris and Filmon are not personally following Klein’s lead will be little solace to Clark. Already, up-and-coming Harris Tories figure prominently among united-alternative strategists. If one or more Filmon lieutenants also sign on, organizers will be able to claim solid support from the three

provincial Conservative regimes. “We’ve reached critical mass, and it’s going to continue growing,” says Tony Clement, 37, Ontario’s transportation minister and a leading member of the united-alternative steering committee. Clark apparently senses the same momentum—and made a tentative bid to stop it from building. He held out hope last week of his own bid to lure back disaffected small-c conservatives to the federal Tory fold—a sort of alternative to the united alternative. But the former prime minister offered no details, pleading at a news conference for time to conclude the drawn-out leadership campaign.

Many observers question whether Clark’s camp has the energy to muster a credible unite-the-right movement. The united-alternative campaign, launched by Reform Leader Preston Manning last May, has been propelled in its day-to-day operations by much younger right-wingers—like Kenney and Clement. They latched onto conservatism more than a decade ago, inspired by the ascendancy

of U.S president Ronald Reagan and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and are now rising to prominence. “There is a group of people who came through campus Tory clubs in the early 1980s who are now leading the united-alternative charge,” says Bricker. By contrast, Bricker—himself a former federal Conservative research director—dismisses the leadership campaigns of Clark and his closest rival, Hugh Segal, as having been controlled by jaded party pros. “People who have old scores to settle or careers to remake are still the dominant elements in the federal Conservative party,” he adds.

Kenney and Clement epitomize the united-alternative mind-set— and age group. Kenney got his taste for politics as a teenager in the Liberal party’s youth wing at a private school in Victoria.

But he converted to U.S.-style neo-conservatism after he enrolled in 1987 at the University of California at San Francisco, influenced by, among other things, his roommate’s back issues of the staunchly rightwing National Review. He came back to Canada, gaining national attention in 1995 by leading the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, then running successfully as a Reformer in the 1997 federal election. A few years before Kenney’s conversion, Clement was part of a wave of feisty rightwingers who challenged the University of Toronto’s previously dominant left-of-centre bent. ‘There was Thatcherism and Reaganism and neoconservatism,” he remembers of his university days. “The status quo was Liberal-left. We were the true radicals, challenging from the right.”

Conservatives who came of age along with Kenney and Clement made their marks in the rise of the Reform party on the federal scene and in the provincial Tory regimes of Klein and Harris. But is their fervent brand of politics a prescription for Canada-wide success under the united-alternative banner?

Last week, Hugh Segal, in announcing his withdrawal from the second stage of the Conservative leadership race, rejected the united alternative—with a warning for Tories who might be tempted onto a hard-right ideological path. “If you get all the right-wing voters of the country to vote together, you get to form a pleasant little third-place party,” the longtime Tory strategist said. He called for Conservatives to reach out instead to minorities, women and Quebecers from a moderate, centre-right position. “And I want to be as clear as I can,” Segal added. “Any coalition centered around Preston Manning cannot meet any of those goals.”

United-alternative organizers insist they are not rigidly ideological. They also deny that Manning is being set up as the inevitable leader of any new right-wing movement that could emerge from February’s convention. “This is not a process that we can control,”

Younger conservatives are leading the unity charge

says Rick Anderson, a senior Manning adviser and a member of the united-alternative steering committee. In fact, he argues that losing control is the whole point—that while the united-alternative proposal originates with Reformers, it will only succeed if the February convention comes to be seen as something more than the initiative of a single party.

It is electoral strategy, not policy or ideology, that most motivates the united-alternative campaigners. “We could have a scoreless tie between Tories and Reformers for 30 years and keep on giving the game to the Liberals,” Clement says. ‘We spent the 1997 federal election tearing each other’s hearts out and look what happened. The Liberals lost four per cent of the popular vote, compared with 1993, and still held on to their majority.” But he insists the united alternative can amount to more than an expedient vehicle for fighting the next election. “Power is very interesting, but if you don’t know what to do with it once you have it, you’re no better than Liberals,” Clement adds.

United-alternative organizers say that, once in power, they would pursue four main policy thrusts: fiscal responsibility, in the form of lower taxes and paying down federal debt; social responsibility, including anticrime policies and pro-family measures like better tax treatment for stay-at-home mothers; democratic reforms, such as giving ordinary MPs more power; and rebalancing federalism, largely in the direction of increasing provincial powers. The question is whether these ideas, rooted in conservative values, can be packaged as a winning election platform. “I believe there’s a generation emerging here of small-c conservative people who are savvy in the ways of getting elected, without losing their principles,” Anderson says.

Yet Segal’s warning against swerving too hard to the right must be taken seriously. In Europe, the so-called New Middle politicians, from Britain’s Tony Blair to Germany’s Gerhard Schröder, have shown how to achieve electoral victory by straddling fiscal discipline and social conscience. “That’s a great place to be,” Bricker says. Could Finance Minister Paul Martin be staking out that turf in Canada? Widely expected to lead the Liberals into the next election, Martin seems to be moving to soften his deficit-busting image by restoring some health-care spending in his next budget. United-alternative organizers acknowledge that the federal finance minister is a formidable political threat. “His potential leadership is all the more reason for there to be a new alternative,” says Clement. It is that future election battle, not this season’s polite jostling with Joe Clark, that has the young true believers of the Canadian right hoping that a new vehicle for their ambitions is about to be born. □