United we stand?

By Gord Gekko
web posted September 1997

Anybody on the political left owes former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Traditional conservatism in Canada, devastated by his 'leadership' in the 1980s, seems a spent or splintered force on the political scene. For years a strong federal party held together conservatives of different stripes, but the annihilation of the party in 1988's federal election has given the country competing flavors of conservatism. According to many of the talking heads, it is this splintering which will prevent a conservative federal government.

Calling for a unification of these flavors has become almost a mania among the so-called experts, both in the media and in the various political parties.

The last year alone has seen conservative author David Frum try and get the various sides together with a conference. In Ontario, underground meetings have been held across the province to see whether a merger of support between provincial and federal Progressive Conservatives and federal Reform members is possible. In Saskatchewan a new provincial party is formed consisting of Liberals and Progressive Conservatives, with some Reformers providing support. In Calgary, October will see the Roots of Change Conference, exploring among other things, the unification of the conservative movement.

What is holding this movement back from any success may be the fact that the three main flavors of conservatism are often incompatible with each other.

The Progressive Conservatives, lead by Jean Charest, have moved to the left (sometimes even to the left of the Liberal Party), shedding much of their traditional platform. Though the party managed to make somewhat of a comeback in the 1997 federal election their support was largely confined to east of the prairies, particularly in Atlantic Canada, and largely due to anti-Liberal feelings. While Mulroney pulled the party a little to the left and didn't tell anyone, Charest has yanked the chain and loudly proclaimed it to the world.

The Reform Party, less conservative than populist, is stuck at the Manitoba-Ontario border. It is seemingly unable to convince the majority of Canadians that their vision of Canada is not extremist. And though the party's populism is conservative today, one must keep the question at the back of their mind whether that will always remain so. The party is also under the grip of a leader who appears to be seduced by the trappings of Ottawa.

And finally, Canadians are seeing a combination of the first two. It is embodied by Alberta Premier Ralph Klein and Ontario Premier Mike Harris, whose provincial wings of the Progressive Conservatives are combining traditional Canadian conservatism with some populist leanings. While they are supporters of free market economics, less taxation and government interference, they occasionally forget that and begin posturing for support, or worse, pass legislation that is opposed to freeing people.

With this varied brew of conservatism, one has to ask whether the movement to unite can ever reap any success?

And to all of this I say, is it worth even trying? Yes, if done for the right reason.

Often forgotten in the debate are the several questions.

Why bother wasting one's time trying to get three groups together who stubbornly refuse to. The three main competitors seem to barely be able to stand in the same room together, much less merge their organizations. Ontario Premier Mike Harris couldn't even bring himself to actively participate on behalf of either Reform or the Progressive Conservatives in the last federal election and Preston Manning and Jean Charest hate each other. It's an accepted fact that federal Progressive Conservatives and Reform members a resent each other. So why bother?

And we have to start asking whether a merger of the three groups is even desirable. This whole debate seems to be centered on trying to win the next election, not trying to determine whether any of the visions is actually correct.

It is that question that Canadian conservatives have to answer before any move should be made to unite the movements. Whatever a unified conservative movement ends up being, our first priority must be to go to Canadians with a clear and consistent message. One that does not change when it is time for an election, but one that will be the bedrock of a new conservative movement.

A unified conservative movement will only be a boon to Canadians when it takes on the principles of traditional conservative thought. Promotion of the free market, reduced or no taxation, smaller government, democratic reform, respect and protection of rights, and subordination of the state to the individual are just some of the pillars that any new party must be based on.

A look at the three players today shows that some are better equipped to carry this banner than others.

In my own opinion, proponents of a unified conservatism should not be looking at the federal Progressive Conservative Party. I have great difficulty these days in telling the Liberal Party and the PC's apart. During the election instead of embracing Manning despite differences, Charest continually targeted Manning, even publicly calling him a racist. The party itself is now the domain of the so-called red Tories (just wait until you hear the Quebec and Atlantic Canada PC MPs in the House of Commons!)  and if we're looking for allies this is not the place to do it. Read their election platform if you have trouble remembering why.

The Reform Party is a little closer to idea of a unified movement, but I still have some reservations. Reform's platform was a nice example of populist conservatism. Tough on crime, less taxation, smaller government, free market ethos...no problems, right? Wrong. When the going got tough during the last election, Reform began to act like other political parties do when they're facing an incumbent government...they began to attack the cuts to spending that the Liberals brought in. The platform was sometimes all but forgotten in their zeal to prove that they too could, if given the chance, spend like Liberals.

The Klein/Harris style of provincial conservatism also has some good and bad about them. Both seem to trust the market, both want lesser government and have acted in that direction, both want lesser taxation and interference in people's lives, and both have moved to reform aspects of government. Like a lot of children though, when they're good, they're good...when they're bad, they're bad. In a complete abandonment of free market principles, the Harris government passed legislation which included a provision allowing the province to force new doctors to practice where the government thought they were needed. That said, they have both done much more good than bad.

So what's the solution? The one that seems obvious, to me at least, is to begin working towards the dissolution of the federal Progressive Conservative Party. It stands for everything that both Klein/Harris and the Reform Party are working against. The support of federal PC members and voters would solidify the West for conservatives even further than it already is now, give Reform a decent shot in Ontario, and maybe even a foothold in Atlantic Canada. For obvious reasons, I don't see much support coming out of Quebec for the new Reform Party.

Provincial wings of the Progressive Conservatives may either remain as they are, or become wings of the Reform Party. Either way, the new Reform Party and the provincial wings must support each other. If PCs and Reformers in Ontario had united in June, there would have been no Liberal majority.

As long as the principles of traditional conservative thought held by Reform and Klein/Harris are stuck too, it is worthwhile trying to unite the parties.

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