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