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Toronto Star, Saturday, November 12, 2005

Still feeling jilted after right-wing marriage
Many unhappy with PC-Alliance union

By Thomas Walkom

Almost two years after the merger that created it, Canada's new Conservative party remains haunted by the circumstances of its creation.

In theory, it should be riding high. The 2003 union of the old Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance created, on paper at least, a viable right-of-centre alternative to the Liberals of Prime Minister Paul Martin.

However, reality has not lived up to the promise. Even the release last week of the Gomery report, with its detailed litany of kickbacks and corruption inside the Liberal party's Quebec wing, has given the Conservatives and their leader Stephen Harper little traction.

And while analysts blame the stiff and uncharismatic Harper for his party's failures, the roots of the problem are much deeper. They lie in the merger itself, a shotgun marriage driven too much by fear and opportunism and too little by genuinely shared convictions.

Instead of seamlessly uniting two powerful social movements, the merger drove away many of those involved in the nitty-gritty of political organizing and election campaign work.

The high-profile Tory defectors are well known. Flora MacDonald, a cabinet minister in the federal Tory governments of Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney, voted for the New Democrats in 2004. Former Newfoundland premier Brian Peckford says he just didn't vote at all.

Scott Brison, a former Progressive Conservative leadership contender, is now a Liberal cabinet minister.

Sinclair Stevens, another former Mulroney minister, is so irked by the December 2003 merger that he's been challenging it in court ever since.

But the Tory diaspora involves more than a handful of disgruntled old-timers and failed leadership contenders.

The merger left much deeper scars, particularly among the organizers, fundraisers and volunteers who make party politics work on the ground.

When the Tories merged with the Alliance, many of these people just walked away — and they haven't come back.

It was 1980 when Toronto businesswoman Annette Snel, then Annette Borger, became an active Progressive Conservative. She was 16.

As a teenager, she knocked on doors in her home riding of Leeds-Grenville in Eastern Ontario. Later, she worked as Queen's Park aide to then-Tory MPP Don Cousens.

During the 1993 election campaign, she laboured long and hard for former prime minister Kim Campbell. Four years later, she worked to elect then-Tory leader (and now Quebec Liberal Premier) Jean Charest.

"I always thought this was the party for me," she says.

Like many Ontario Tories, Snel had no time for the Canadian Alliance or for its leader, Harper.

She was pleased in May 2003 when her party's new leader, Peter MacKay, vowed not to merge with the Alliance. She was horrified when MacKay went back on his word and quietly authorized unity negotiations.

When both sides ratified this merger, she ripped up her party membership card.

She can't bear to vote Liberal. On most issues, she doesn't agree with the New Democratic Party. But in the 2004 federal election, she voted for it because she liked the local candidate.

"I'm the sorriest Tory that ever lived," laments Snel. "I'm an orphan. I'm so disenfranchised I don't know who to vote for."

She's not unique.

Take Bruck Easton. The Windsor lawyer had been a Progressive Conservative since 1974. In late 2003, he was the party's national president.

Easton did not oppose the idea of merger. In fact, he tried, unsuccessfully, to be on the board that oversaw the union of the Tories and Alliance.

"We were in a tough position," he says, "three or four months from an election. We were halfway off the cliff at this point."

Easton did object to the manner in which the merger was rammed through. As the contours of the new party emerged, he became increasingly alarmed. In particular, he says he was horrified by a Conservative platform of tax cuts and spending increases that he reckoned would cause the federal deficit to shoot up.

"The Liberals used to be the party of big spenders and big deficits," he says. "Now, everything has flipped. With people like (U.S. President George W.) Bush and Harper, it's the right that is the party of deficits."

So, Easton supported Martin's Liberals in 2004. And when the next election is called, he's thinking of running as a Liberal.

If the Conservatives dump Harper, would he go back? "I think the leader is representative of the party, unfortunately," Easton says. "It's not a place I'm comfortable in any more."

Other former Tory activists echo this same refrain.

"My party disappeared," says Toronto corporate communications consultant Kiloran German. She joined the Tories when she was 14 and until the merger laboured as a party organizer. Now, she supports the NDP.

To German, the new party's problems go far beyond Harper.

"Harper is a reflection of the party base," she says. "It's very right wing and largely Western ... My goal would always be to ensure that Stephen Harper and his party are defeated. If Peter MacKay became leader, I would do the same thing. He's a complete opportunist."

Mississauga public affairs consultant Susan Walsh is another who cannot abide the new party. A Progressive Conservative since the age of 12, she was so committed that in 1983 she skipped her brother's wedding to attend a federal leadership convention.

Initially, she supported merging with the Alliance and worked hard to make sure the proposal carried.

"I really thought that folks like (former Ontario premier) Bill Davis had someone in mind (as leader of the new party) who'd be acceptable to most Canadians," she says.

But when Harper was elected leader in March 2004, she says she realized that she'd been wrong.

"I had no idea the PC party would be swamped by the Alliance," she says. "I absolutely misjudged what would happen."

Now, she says, the party has moved so far from the ideological centre that she can't imagine ever voting for it again.

"Where the Conservative party stands on social issues is so far away from what I believe that I would not lift a finger to help them get a vote," she says. In the next federal election, she's planning to support the Liberals.

In any political marriage, there are critics. In 1942, when Progressive leader John Bracken decided to wrap up his party and join the Conservatives, many of his members deserted him.

In 1961, when the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation joined forces with the Canadian Labour Congress, former CCF leader Hazen Argue quit to become a Liberal MP.

But the Conservative merger seems to have produced an unusual level of bitterness. Two years after the fact, none of the dissidents I interviewed spoke of forgiving and forgetting. The feelings are as raw as they were in 2003 — perhaps rawer.

In large part, this bitterness results from the very speed of the merger. The Tory-Alliance marriage was formally proposed on Oct. 15, 2003, voted on by Dec. 6 and consummated the next day.

By the time the federal election was called five months later, the new party had a leader, a combined asset base and functioning central organization.

But in the long run, this bulldozer-style efficiency may have been counterproductive. Those who chose not to go along with the merger talk of stealth, of leaders breaking their word, of a merger vote they claim was tainted.

They note, correctly, that the deal the Tories and Alliance voted on was never implemented as written. The so-called agreement in principle arrived at in October envisioned a more leisurely process, where most of the spadework (including the writing of an interim constitution) would be done by a joint oversight committee well before the merger took legal effect.

Instead, MacKay and Harper short-circuited these arrangements by persuading Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley to come into work on a Sunday — before dissidents could mount a legal challenge against the just-completed ratification vote — and declare the merger a fait accompli.

As a tactic, this worked. But in the longer run, it only aggravated the deep divisions.

To the anti-merger side of the party, the Alliance and its Reform party forebearers were alien seed — an amalgam of Republican-style neo-conservatives and fundamentalist Christians so far outside the Canadian mainstream as to be unelectable.

To the pro-merger side, the existence of two parties claiming to speak for conservatives merely assured that the hated Liberals would stay in office forever. The evidence seemed incontestable. A decade after they had been ignominiously turfed from office in 1993, the Tories were the country's fifth-place party in Parliament and no closer to winning power.

Then, there was the David Orchard factor. Since he first contested the Tory leadership in 1998, the Saskatchewan farmer and populist had been a thorn in the side of the party establishment. His vigorous opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement struck business Tories as fundamentally unsound. Yet, he was remarkably popular among rank-and-file members. Some in the Tory establishment feared that unless they merged with the larger Alliance, the Orchard forces could end up controlling their party.

Still, for a full decade, anti-merger forces dominated. Any suggestion that that the party of Sir John A. Macdonald might co-operate with the Alliance was soundly defeated.

In May 2003, MacKay won the Tory leadership only by promising in writing that he would never countenance such a merger.

Yet, to the alarm of the party establishment, that leadership convention also highlighted Orchard's growing strength. It was to Orchard that MacKay made his promise. And it was Orchard's delegates who, in return, put MacKay over the top.

Within weeks, MacKay secretly authorized negotiations with the Alliance. In September, the existence of these talks became public. A month later, the negotiators delivered a plan to unite the two organizations into a new Conservative Party of Canada.

To pro-merger forces in both parties, speed was essential. The Liberals were about to anoint Paul Martin as their new leader. At the time, Martin was viewed as a near-unstoppable force who could be derailed only if the two conservative opposition parties united.

As well, pro-merger Tories knew Orchard would try to do his best to derail any unity deal. In fact, to some, the merger would accomplish something far more important than unity: It would rid them of David Orchard altogether.

"The merger succeeded not to unite the right but to purge David Orchard from the party," says Jim Love, who is now president of the Progressive Canadian Party, a small splinter political organization formed by disaffected Tories.

(Orchard has been denied membership in the new Conservative party. He says that when he tried to join last year, his $10 membership fee was refunded with no explanation. [*see correction below])

Whatever the reason, the pressure for unity was enormous. To ensure a pro-merger result, the Tory establishment used all of the standard tactics political parties employ. Delegation-selection meetings were stacked; those who complained were ruled out of order.

To attract as many pro-merger votes as possible, Tory membership rolls were left open for a month after the deal was announced. Potentially, this gave Alliance members two votes each. They could vote for merger in their own party (which had an earlier membership cut-off); then, they could buy Tory memberships and vote for merger there.

Over the month, Tory membership rolls swelled by more than 10,000. In the final vote of Saturday, Dec. 6, a whopping 90 per cent of Tory delegates voted to accept the unity proposal.

The next day, MacKay and Harper paid a visit to Kingsley, the chief electoral officer. Federal bureaucrats don't usually work on Sundays. But in this case, Kingsley was willing to oblige. The two leaders wanted the merger officially recognized in law, and they wanted this recognition immediately.

The reason is explained in a memo from former Tory lawyer and merger supporter Paul Lepsoe that was filed in the Sinclair Stevens court case. The leaders, Lepsoe's memo says, feared a court challenge to the merger — from either Orchard or Stevens.

"Both were threatened and potentially able to be filed at the opening of court office bright and early on Monday, Dec. 8 as an indirect means to frustrate the will of both the PC party and the Alliance," the memo says.

Kingsley obliged. The new party was registered.

With the stroke of a pen that Sunday, the Progressive Conservative party legally ceased to exist and a lot of long-time Progressive Conservative workers and activists began to melt away.

Maybe the last word should go to Toronto lawyer Tamara Kronis.

Another lifelong Tory (she started canvassing for the party when she was 10), Kronis actively supported the merger.

She stayed with the new party as a Toronto riding association president after Harper was elected leader — only to publicly break with the Conservatives over same-sex marriage rights during the 2004 election campaign.

Now, she's a card-carrying federal New Democrat actively working to build her new party. She says she cannot envision going back.

"When the next election is called and Harper loses and the party looks for a new leader, I don't think it will move more to the centre," she says.

And the merger?

"I supported the merger then and I support it now. I supported it then for me. Now, I support it for them, the fiscally conservative and socially conservative. Uniting makes them stronger.

"But I'm not one of those people."


*Walkom misconstrues the actual situation: David Orchard registered early in 2005 as a member-observer to attend the first Conservative convention in Montreal last March. His registration and membership were accepted, and only cancelled when he was already on his way to the convention, a couple of days before it was to start. The party apparently did not want Orchard around to even observe the goings on. Members of other parties were able to register and attend. See details on www.davidorchard.com, under "Media coverage."


twalkom@thestar.ca


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