Winnipeg Free Press, August 28, 1998
Orchard deserves a hearing
By Bill Neville
Of the candidates for the leadership of the federal Conservatives, none presents a clearer and bolder challenge to the party than does David Orchard. He wants to lead the Conservatives back to their roots and revive their commitment to a strong nationa identity and a strong national government.
Central to his position is the conviction that the free trade agreement with the United States can and should be reopened and rescinded, and that the well-being of Canadians is very much tied up with their ability to regain control of some of the levers of government and the economy.
In taking this tack, Mr. Orchard is -- in a way that no other candidate can claim -- seeking to purge the party of the Mulroney legacy. He pulls no punches in arguing that in 1988 Brian Mulroney hijacked the Conservative party over free trade and, in doing so, wrenched it from a 120-year-old party tradition.In this, he is perfectly right.
Conservative prime ministers from Macdonald to Diefenbaker were consistently wary of the American connection and of cooperative arrangements, commercial or political, that would erode Canadian sovereignty and identity. They were wary of elephant-and-rabbit pie, where the ingredients consisted of one elephant and one rabbit. Orchard is articulating something that not a solitary Conservative of any prominence was prepared to say back in 1988. Seduced by the perks of office, the party was extraordinarily docile in accepting -- indeed, embracing -- an historic reversal of policy.
In a recent conversation, however, Mr. Orchard asserted that many rank-and-file Conservatives were not happy then, and are even less happy now with 10 years to observe the consequences. Such Conservatives have brought Mr. Orchard into the leadership race, and it is they -- and others like them joining the party now -- upon whom Mr. Orchard is depending. Mr. Orchard is no stranger to this issue. He was an anti-free trade leader and publicly debated the issue with John Crosbie in 1988. He is intelligent, articulate, passionate about the country and yet, appealingly soft-spoken. He reckons he can make a stronger case now than he could 10 years ago; there are now independent assessments suggesting the dispute settlement mechanisms don't work equitably; that much-vaunted economic benefits have not materialized; that the continental economy has adversely affected the prosperity of the wealthier provinces and eroded their capacity to sustain inter-provincial transfers and equalization; and that countries like Norway, which withstood pressure to join the EU, demonstrate that small and mid-sized powers can survive and prosper outside large trading blocs.
For Mr. Orchard, diminished independence has conferred no benefits to compensate for the freedom Canadians are losing with respect to setting their own social and industrial priorities. The weakening of the national government and the clamouring of provincial fiefdoms are, in his view, reinforced by the disintegrating forces of free trade. Whatever else this argument may be, it is classic Canadian Conservatism. But will it fly?
Mr. Orchard, after all, is challenging the new orthodoxy and, with some notable exceptions, is getting short shrift from the media for doing so.
Free trade, the organs of opinion pronounce, represents the character of the age, reflects the inevitable unfolding of history and is irreversible: it is, or ought to be, beyond discussion. The suggestion that Canadians cannot re-examine these questions, because change is neither desirable nor possible, is an alarming one. It would confirm the most extreme free trade criticism that, once in, we could make no further independent political decisions. It would also represent the ultimate triumph -- indeed the ultimate tyranny -- of economic considerations over all others: questions of politics and policy, questions of philosophic or moral values, questions of conserving a particular society's defining character -- all of these become subsidiary or non-issues.
For Mr. Orchard to win would require an upset -- far beyond Joe Clark's in 1976.
Though possibilities of second-ballot support (if Clark doesn't win outright
on the first) and new rules (allowing all party members to vote)
inject a degree of uncertainty as to where any candidate stands,
Mr. Orchard has to be regarded as a longshot. He is, however, doing
the Tory party a favour by reminding it of its reason for being,
and the party would be doing itself a favour if it listened carefully.
Bill Neville is a Winnipeg writer.