The Nation’s Business

Why the United Alternative won't fly

Peter C. Newman March 22 1999
The Nation’s Business

Why the United Alternative won't fly

Peter C. Newman March 22 1999

Why the United Alternative won't fly

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman

Why does the United Alternative remind me of croutons, the kind you sprinkle on your soup? Because croutons are sold in fancy vacuum packages—even though they're stale bread. There is a strong sense of something stale being repackaged for voter consumption about uniting the right, especially since the two main characters have yet to prove they are even capable of establishing telephone contact. The United Alternative-which is neither united nor a realistic alternative-has turned out to be a one-trick pony. Unable to agree on any strategy or policy initiatives, it is defined almost entirely by its critics. Most of the causes the political right is trying to turn into an ideological jihad have been co-opted by the Chrétien Liberals-notably reducing social programs and balancing the budget.

For U.A. true believers, winning elections isn’t everything. At the very butt of the 20th century, they are dedicated to bringing about a market economy, more suitable to the 19th. They do not feel at home in the contemporary world and want nothing less than to revoke its imperatives of accelerating change. Such once-heady crusades as uniting the free world to fight communism or deregulating business have been won.

The need to assert family values remains, but if the Clinton escapade proved anything, it was that moral codes cannot be legislated, and that cheatin’ hearts no longer disqualify anyone from anything.

Instead of becoming its launching pad, the United Alternative’s recent defiantly boring convention in Ottawa could well turn out to have been its burial. Typical of the delegates’ reactions was that of Ed Odishaw. A leading Vancouver corporate lawyer and card-carrying Conservative, he got his political start in the 1960s as executive assistant to Ross Thatcher, then-premier of Saskatchewan. Thatcher was a one-man United Alternative of his day, bringing together Liberals and some Conservatives to defeat the Socialists. (Thatcher listed himself officially as a Liberal, but was several moonbeams to the right of Preston Manning, or Genghis Khan, for that matter.)

“It was the best-organized political convention I ever attended,” Odishaw, 63, told me last week. “The place was jammed with Ontario Tories who want to knock off the Liberals—and need Reform votes to achieve that. The problem is that the United Alternative can’t work, unless there is something to unite. Joe Clark hasn’t been able to keep or attract enough of the party’s real animators to his colours, and Preston Manning lacks much potential for growth.”

Odishaw reached back into the history of the French Foreign Legion to characterize the battle-weary state of the Tory high command. In Beau Geste, the best-known book about that fabled desert commando force, author P. C. Wren described how the legion-

Democracies need the comforting notion that the voters can throw the rascals out and throw a new bunch of rascals in

naires triumphed during a drawn-out siege of one of their fortress outposts. To fool the surrounding enemy forces into believing the legionnaires were indestructible, they propped up dead soldiers in the battlements and placed rifles in their lifeless hands. That’s a pretty apt description of Canada’s once-great Conservative party.

Apart from having the hapless Clark as leader and no policies, the Tories big problem is money. John Reynolds, a former Tory backbencher who now is the Reform member for West Vancouver/ Sunshine Coast, spent two weeks recently making the rounds of the Toronto-based financial institutions that contribute the bulk of the country’s political donations. He claims to have nailed them down for his party. Meanwhile, the Conservatives’ overall deficit is at least $5 million. ‘We’re collecting the money that used to be tapped by the Tories when they were the alternate government,” says Reynolds. “Our funding situation is very good; we have cash in the bank and more is coming in.”

One of Manning’s more effective lieutenants, Reynolds points out that the Reform party won’t latch onto the United Alternative unless the caucus decides to switch. “And once we vote to do it,” he says, “there will be no Reform party. We own the name.” He can’t see the Tories making any gains in Western Canada on their own, and adds that even in Ontario, running under Preston Manning in 1997, the Reformers came second in 39 of the province’s 103 ridings. “Our party memberships in Ontario have gone up every month for the last seven months,” he reports. “Half of the funds we now collect from new memberships originate in Ontario.”

He is convinced that if the United Alternative initiative does go forward and a lively leadership convention follows, the Conservatives could be hived into permanent minority status like the Liberals in Britain. That, of course, could also happen to the Reform party if its leaders—new or current—were to make too many ideological concessions to get Joe Clark’s middle-of-the-road Tories to join the U.A. That would leave behind a rump of disaffected Reformers hanging in as a hard-rock reactionary splinter group, not dissimilar to the Social Credit federal wing headed by Robert Thompson during the 1960s.

Either way, this would divide the parliamentary opposition so many ways that the Liberal party would retain its current monopoly on governing. That’s the scariest thought of all. We must have an alternative party with national representation, some intellectual credentials and a mainstream platform, ready to govern. Democracies are the most fragile form of government. They cannot be preserved without the comforting notion that the voters can throw the rascals who hold power out at election time—and throw in a new bunch of rascals. Now, we’re stuck with one bunch of rascals running a political party that threatens to become a permanent government.