Globe and Mail, 25 June, 2003
An Alliance kiss of death
The Tories should call Stephen Harper's bluff by proposing a common platform
for the next election
by Norman Spector
Stephen Harper wants to make "common cause" with newly elected Tory leader
Peter MacKay in order to throw the Liberal rascals out of office. The
Alliance leader says voters expect the two parties to present a single slate
of candidates in the next election.
That's eyewash: Most Canadians -- including out here in British Columbia,
where the Alliance traditionally elects the plurality of its MPs -- expect
Paul Martin to be their next prime minister. They'd be appalled if
Tory/Alliance backroom boys and girls came together to carve up the country
for political gain.
The role of opposition parties in our parliamentary system is not simply to
bring down the prime minister or to win elections. Their responsibility is
to prepare an alternative capable of forming a government, and to convince
Canadians that they can be entrusted with the serious business of running
Of course, it would be entirely legitimate for each party to decide,
independently and without any visible co-ordination, to contest only those
constituencies in which it had a fighting chance. Though he has forced the
issue, Mr. Harper's electoral coalition is no more likely to be realized
than such a coincidence.
In truth, the proposal is largely tactical, a cleverly designed kiss of
death for the Tories. Were Mr. MacKay to accept the plan, he'd be tainted
with the Alliance brand name in his party's remaining stronghold, Atlantic
Canada, as well as in Qu*bec. If he turns it down, he'll be seen --
including by the moneybags on Bay Street -- as the impediment to unity in
Under either scenario, electoral oblivion beckons. It's no wonder Mr.
Harper's proposal caught Mr. MacKay off guard. So he plays for time,
mumbling about being ready to talk if it's not in public. One wonders what
he'll say behind closed doors, beyond proposing another attempt at
parliamentary co-operation, which Mr. Harper already nixed shortly after
Rather than playing the Alliance game, the more democratic alternative --
and the better Tory strategy -- would be to call Mr. Harper's bluff by
proposing development of a common platform for the next election. The
objective should be an eventual merger of the two parties.
Mr. Harper says he "embraces the vision of uniting all conservatives,"
though in truth he has never been interested. Reform Party policy purity is
what brought him into politics. As the most ideological of the Canadian
Alliance leadership candidates, he was the least willing to pursue unity
talks with the Tories.
Indeed, the Reform Party was founded by Mr. Harper and other westerners
precisely to split the coalition of former prime minister Brian Mulroney,
rather than to try to redress from within the party's various resentments
against Qu*bec. Liberals would never make that mistake; they've maintained
unity through an unprecedented internal coup against a sitting prime
To bring the conservative coalition back together, the Conservative and
Alliance parties should each name two representatives to develop the common
program. (Mr. Mulroney and Peter Lougheed for the Tories? Preston Manning
and Mr. Harper's policy guru, Tom Flanagan, for the Alliance?) With an
election looming, they should be given two months to see whether it's
possible to reconcile on divisive issues such as abortion, Qu*bec and
regional economic development. Each party should then ask its members at a
special convention to accept or reject the proposed compromise as the price
of a united opposition to the Liberals.
Success is by no means assured. For many members of the Alliance, compromise
continues to be a four-letter word. Moreover, Mr. Harper is hamstrung by his
Alberta base, with public opinion in that province often outside the
The debate over gay marriages illustrates Mr. Harper's dilemma. Premier
Ralph Klein's threat to use the Constitution's notwithstanding clause is
However, Mr. Harper could legally move such an amendment in the expected
free vote in Parliament, which would make the Charter of Rights a principal
issue in the next election.
Mr. Harper may yet roll the dice. Above all, he fears ever having to tell
members of his party that compromise is the essence of politics in a country
of Canada's size and diversity, and that, if the Alliance is ever to form
government, it must be prepared to accommodate people whose views are
different, but no less legitimate, than theirs.
Some speak a different language. Some have a different sexual orientation.
And some, like David Orchard, even believe that the provisions of the North
America free-trade agreement (NAFTA) are not the equivalent of the Ten
Commandments from Sinai.