Reformers may have been grabbing most of the public attention with their convention in Vancouver last week, but their main rivals on the political right were speaking out as well. In a clear reference to Reform’s high-profile divisions over social policy, Progressive Conservative Leader Jean Charest promised conservatism with a human face when he addressed the Confederation Club in Ottawa. He also stressed the danger to national unity of electing a party that he said is openly hostile to Quebec. “At the end of the day, our energy would be wasted tearing ourselves apart and then trying to patch ourselves together again,” said Charest. Later, in an interview with Maclean's, he said that threat, along with concern about Reform’s extremist fringe, will restore the Tories to national prominence—despite the humiliation they suffered in 1993 when they were reduced to two seats in the House of Commons. Charest was also blunt in his assessment of Preston Manning and his movement. “Here we have a leader and a party that will never govern Canada,” he declared.
In speeches across the country, the 37-year-old lawyer from Sherbrooke, Que., has been working hard to distance himself from Reform, while at
the same time consulting party members and preparing for an August convention in Winnipeg that will determine the party’s future direction. The party, whose membership has grown to well over 100,000, also raised $5.6 million in 1995. Charest says its debt, which reached a peak of $7.8 million after the last election, will be down to $1.5 million by the end of this year. But to achieve a Tory renaissance, Charest must also convince voters that his party has learned from its mistakes and is the best alternative to the governing Liberals. At the same time, talk of a merger between Reform and the Tories has cooled, despite a recent poll showing that such a union under Charest’s leadership would put the party within six percentage points of the Liberals.
Conrad Winn, chairman of COMPAS Inc., the firm that conducted the poll, says that Charest’s strong performance during last year’s Quebec referendum campaign created a public image that is his party’s greatest asset. “The Tories are doing better because Charest is the most charismatic leader of any of today’s parties,” he said. The question is whether that charisma can return the Progressive Conservatives to the political promised land.
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