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Winnipeg Free Press, 24 October, 2003

Alliance to overpower Tories
But merger math may not add up in polling booth

by William Neville

The proposed Progressive Conservative-Canadian Alliance marriage (you should pardon the expression, but others have already characterized it as a same-sect marriage) is going to be the phenomenon of the fall -- in several senses.

Vast amounts of media attention covered the project's launch. Yet, amid the enthusiasm, with conservative newspapers and business interests acting as cheerleaders, several aspects received relatively short shrift.

In negotiating this merger, Tory Leader Peter MacKay repudiated an agreement that he made with David Orchard at the Tory leadership convention -- which agreement delivered the leadership into MacKay's hands. This has been duly noted by the media but it has been generally treated as inconsequential -- that is, without repercussions or significance for MacKay or the Conservative party. Last week, the National Post asked Hugh Segal about the issue. Segal, a senior Brian Mulroney official during Mulroney's last years as prime minister was quoted as saying -- in words worthy of Mulroney himself: "A lot of things have been said at political conventions that didn't have much substance after the event. There is enough grey there for legitimate manoeuvrability." "Legitimate manoeuvrability," in the world of weasel words is right up there with "maximum plausible deniability" and means much the same thing: lofty lying.

Orchard knew that things said at political conventions often don't have much force afterwards which, presumably, is why he got it in writing, with MacKay's signature at the bottom. By getting MacKay's signature, Orchard unwittingly tested MacKay's integrity; and MacKay flunked. Poor Orchard: he foolishly believed MacKay was an honourable man. Poor MacKay: he never imagined anyone would mistake him for an honourable man. And poor Segal: he doesn't believe in honourable men; he believes in manoeuvrability where words are cheap and principles are elastic. Harper, to his credit, read MacKay shrewdly, though it is a measure of the Alliance's desperation that they are prepared to take MacKay's word on anything. Nonetheless, it is not surprising that MacKay, a man readily bought and sold, should end up as an item in Harper's bazaar.

This corrupt bargain, launched on a broken promise, is to be consummated by MacKay's agreement that his party's decision can and will be subverted by the votes of partisans from the other party. Brian Pallister, a member of Gary Filmon's Conservative cabinet, and more recently an Alliance MP, blithely announced this week that he has retained his Conservative membership and intends, as a Conservative, to vote the party into a merger with the Alliance to which he also belongs. What we are witnessing is a kind of coup d'etat that subverts any notion of an independent Conservative party freely deciding its own fate. It is increasingly likely that Alliance members will determine the outcome for both parties, a result so offensive to notions of democracy that is hard to decide whether the impending fate of the Conservative party is the handiwork of fools or knaves.

How fitting, therefore, to see Mulroney preening himself on the "achievement" that he counselled MacKay to seek. Unlike the Bourbons, Mulroney seems to have forgotten everything and learned nothing. A man with a better memory or of greater sensitivity might -- given that he was the primary cause of the Tory Party's fracturing 15 years ago -- have seen the wisdom of maintaining a dignified silence. Listening to Joe Clark and MacKay last week, one observes that while Clark invokes John A. Macdonald, Peter MacKay evokes Mulroney.


And finally, there is the widely-heralded "transforming" effect of last week's deal on our politics. The Globe and Mail helpfully published a table depicting some constituency results from the last election. It was accompanied by a caption, "If those who most recently voted either PC or Alliance were all to vote for the combined party... 35 ridings would be affected." -- that is, won by the new party from the Liberals. Similar analyses were offered in other newspapers and other media. It is similarly true that if pigs had wings, they could fly.

It is bizarre even to hypothesize that the last election's Tory and Alliance voters will vote for the new party. Some of those voters are dead; some have moved to other constituencies; most constituency boundaries have changed, and the 2000 numbers were part of an overall result in which the Alliance won nearly 26 per cent of the popular vote and the Tories just over 12 per cent -- whereas, at present, the polls have the Alliance at 13 per cent and the Tories at 14 per cent. Those who hypothesize a future for the new party on the basis of combining PC and Alliance votes in 2000, might just as readily hypothesize that the combined vote of 2000 -- 38 per cent -- will be reduced to the combined vote -- 27 per cent -- suggested by the recent polls. Those participating in the recent polls are, presumably, alive. Along with all these imponderables is a further one: how many supporters of the Conservatives who have -- for 10 years -- resolutely declined to support the Alliance, will now support a new party in which the Alliance, both by members and resources is the preponderant partner and in which, as noted above, Alliance members will be making the critical decisions?

It is quite possible that one plus one will equal two or more, but the distaste many have for the Liberals may be blinding them to the possibility that one plus one may be less than the sum of its parts. That's an issue that Conservative party members might wish to ponder, but the signs are that what they think will matter little.

William Neville is a regular political commentator for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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