David Orchard
Opposition to the PC-CA Merger
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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 our country.

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 Ontario.

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 becoming leader.

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 minister.

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 Canadian mainstream.

The debate over gay marriages illustrates Mr. Harper's dilemma. Premier Ralph Klein's threat to use the Constitution's notwithstanding clause is mostly bluster.

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.


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