THE NEW CONSERVATIVES

THE NEW CONSERVATIVES

One argument in favour of the merger is those who are against it

PAUL WELLS October 27 2003
THE NEW CONSERVATIVES

THE NEW CONSERVATIVES

One argument in favour of the merger is those who are against it

PAUL WELLS October 27 2003

THE NEW CONSERVATIVES

The Back Page

One argument in favour of the merger is those who are against it

PAUL WELLS

EIGHTY SEATS. That’s the gentlest conceivable test for the new Conservative Party of Canada (suggested motto: “Some Of Us Used to Be Progressive”). The Tories and Canadian Alliance won 78 seats between them in 2000; in the new 308-seat Commons, that will translate to 80. If the Conservatives win more than 80 seats, it will mean Canadians are more pleased with this new party than they were with the last new party (Alliance); the previous new party (Reform); the new party before that (New Democrats); or the new party that’s so old nobody remembers it (Social Credit). If they win fewer, those of us who called this whole merger business a distraction from serious matters will look clever in retrospect.

I never made much secret of my belief that there is no point replacing two boring parties that appeal to regional rumps with a single boring party that appeals to regional rumps. Either party could, at any point in the last decade, have done what the new party still needs to do: get a clue.

Write a program for government that appeals to Canadians. Explain it patiently. Act like somebody whose ambitions for Canada cannot be contained on the opposition side of the House.

opposition

But the Tories and Alliance never got around to it. (Preston Manning, actually, was on the right track by 1997. But then he started apologizing for the existence of Reform. Stockwell Day was the thanks he got.) Perhaps their new party will be able to concentrate better, once the glittering distraction of unending merger talks is behind them.

I have begun to think my opposition to this merger business has been wrong-headed. It was based on a false alternative to merger. I always thought that if the Alliance and the Tories ignored each other, each could build a creative program and let the voters pick the best. Silly me. It turns out that, for at least one party, the real alternative to endless, pointless merger talks was endless, pointless inertia.

Look at the early opponents to merger with the Alliance: David Orchard, Joe Clark, Senator Lowell Murray. Orchard is sui generis, a genuine phenomenon, but trying to keep him happy would require even more work than this merger thing will.

Consider, though, Murray and Clark. There can be no more rousing advertisement for any course of action than the news that they are against it. Murray was certain Clark would win either the 1979 confidence vote that cost him his government, or the election that resulted. Wrong, twice. He led the attempt to sell the Meech Lake accord as a test of Canada’s right to exist. Now he will offer free advice to Conservatives in places like Alberta and Newfoundland, where provincial Conservative parties actually win the odd election. One assumes he will receive the attention he deserves.

Clark has more heart and more integrity than any 10 other politicians. But holy cow, look at his record. He spent 1979 demonstrating to an astonished nation that it is possible to like somebody less than Pierre Elliott Trudeau. He ran a federal campaign in 2000 whose television ads (“Liberal Lies”) did not show the party’s leader or discuss the leader’s ideas. He essentially forgot to explain why Canadians should vote Tory. They obliged, giving the Progressive Conservatives their smallest share of the popular vote ever. The more time he spent in politics, the less we knew about how he would govern. He actually sucked information out of the national conversation.

As time went on, if you opposed a merger or held no opinion, you found your circle of allies shrinking. In the end, all that is left are people intent on scrubbing their party free of meaning in hopes that someday voters will want to eat off a clean plate. No wonder Brian Mulroney had had enough.

Mulroney isn’t perfect—in the jargon of the news business, we call that an “understatement”—but he rose to power on a determination to build coalitions and he governed from the conviction that power should have a purpose beyond its own existence. Splendid isolation is fine, he told Tories in 1983, if you don’t want to win anything. Twenty years later, the partisans of splendid isolation are literally the same guys he was fighting back then. A quarter-century after 1976, the big fight still comes down to Mulroney vs. Clark—not only to two guys, but to two sets of ideas about how to win. Peter MacKay has spent most of his short political career answering to Clark, but when the crunch came, he rallied to Muldoon. It was the right choice.

Something else. Jean Chrétien never scared the other parties into getting their act together. He looked like the kind of guy anyone could beat, so nobody ever did. And he sure as hell wouldn’t have let his choice of an election date become an open secret half a year before time. It is not Paul Martin’s fault if he gave his opponents a bigger target, but it is his fault that he gave them a deadline. At what cost? The 80-seat test will tell, lifl

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