David Orchard
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Globe & Mail, March 14, 2001

PCs belong in the centre

by David Orchard

Joe Clark has stated clearly, and often, his opposition to any merger or change of name of the party which he leads. In response, prominent members of the Alliance have declared merger talks will take place with or without Mr. Clark's support. Well meaning, but naive, voices from within the PC party itself declare that "we must do something." If only the votes weren't split on the right, then perhaps the Liberals could be defeated, they repeat.

The problem is that the Conservative party and its supporters are not now, and never have been, mainly of the right. The party's past actions -- battling apartheid in South Africa, opposing the death penalty, creation of the Bank of Canada, the CBC, the Canadian Wheat Board, Canada's first unemployment insurance plan, nationalization of Canadian National Railways, construction of the CPR and of course confederation of Canada itself -- are a far cry from those generally regarded as right wing.

Peter Lougheed, former premier of Alberta, in explaining why he would not support a unite-the-right movement, said: "I've never been on the right. I've been in the centre. I'm a Progressive Conservative. And that's where I want to be and that's where the people are. Don't get on the right, because the people aren't there."

A recently published study of Canadian voting patterns in 1997 election shows that Conservative voters are 3 1/2 times more likely to turn left in their second choice as right. Forty-four per cent of Conservative voters surveyed chose the Liberals as their second choice, 20 per cent chose the NDP and only 18 per cent chose the Reform party.

So any move to unite the right, while undoubtedly rescuing the Reform/Alliance would end up undercutting the Conservative party's own support and driving more voters to the Liberals, not less.

Since Confederation Canadians have repeatedly refused to elect a party running to the right of the governing party.

John Diefenbaker won his major victories running to the left of the Liberals, whom he condemned for the sellout of the TransCanada pipeline to American interests. Diefenbaker was attacked as being a "prairie Bolshevik" by some members of the same central-Canadian establishment now attacking Clark. (R.B. Bennett was labelled a "Tory of the Left," when he introduced some of the pivotal Canadian institutions mentioned above.)

The idea that a few financiers on Bay Street can snap their fingers and create a new party that will appeal to the voters ignores political reality. The Liberals would love to have such an opponent to target in the next election. John Diefenbaker ran against Bay Street -- and won 208 seats in 1958. When Pierre Trudeau stood for the leadership of the Liberal party in 1968 he was, and continued to be, regarded by some of that same establishment, including many Liberals, as a raving radical, a communist. He was, however, elected four times by Canadians, governed the country for roughly 15 years and was named Canadian news maker of the century just over a year ago.

In the last election, far more eligible Canadians didn't vote at all than voted for the Canadian Alliance. Does anyone believe merging with the Alliance will attract disillusioned youth? Aboriginals? New Canadians? Francophones?

Many more Canadians vote Liberal than Reform/Alliance -- and many are swing voters without any real allegiance to the Liberal party. They cannot be won over by merging the PCs and the Reform/Alliance; they will be permanently repelled.

The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan has remained in power for over 50 years for one simple reason -- lack of a credible mainstream alternative. An alliance between the PCs and the Reform/Alliance would ensure a similar result for the Liberal Party of Canada.

The choice before us is either permanent Liberal rule or a rejuvenated mainstream Progressive Conservative party which steers well clear of the Reform/Alliance. The Progressives came and went; so did Social Credit; so will the Reform/Alliance. Instead of chasing fantasies of quick power through backroom deals and dragging the PC party through yet another divisive and exhausting consultation about joining the Reform/Alliance, these hyperactive souls dreaming of a merger would do well to reread Aesop's fable about the tortoise and the hare.

The PC party faces a golden opportunity to rebuild itself, to build on the excellent job Joe Clark and his caucus are doing in the House and to reconnect with the Canadian public.

Marriage to the Reform/Alliance is a substitute for a vision of the future and hardly the way to fire the imagination of Canadians. It is time to stop looking backwards, stop spinning our wheels and stop flirting with oblivion. There is a brave new world out there with burning issues for those bold enough to respond. Let's seize the moment.

David Orchard is the author of The Fight for Canada -- Four Centuries of Resistance to American Expansionism and was runner-up to Joe Clark in the 1998 federal Progressive Conservative party leadership contest. He farms in Borden, SK and can be reached at tel (306) 664-8443 or by e-mail at davidorchard@sasktel.net

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