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Globe and Mail, 6 June, 2003

History is what happened this morning

by Rick Salutin

I am bemused by the journalistic apoplexy over the deal between Conservative Party leadership winner Peter MacKay and anti-free-trade maverick David Orchard at last weekend's convention. It's at a level up to which pundits rarely reach: "stupid . . . foolish . . . shortsighted . . . desperate" (Roy MacGregor); the new leader will "lose his own soul" (John Ibbitson); he "flushed" his principles down the toilet, along with his party's chances (Chantal Hébert); showing "cynicism and ineptitude" (Richard Gwyn). Everyone referred in some terms to a "Faustian bargain" or "deal with the devil" in the person of David Orchard. You won't have an easy time finding comparable shock and awe on topics such as war and terror.

They especially choked on the agreement, "unbelievably for a Conservative leader" (Jeffrey Simpson), to an internal party review of free trade, which is "the Conservatives' proudest legacy" and "to the Progressive Conservative Party what official bilingualism and the Charter" are to the Liberals (see previous pundits). Here's where I start to gag, too. The historic legacy of the Conservatives, for more than a century, right into the Mulroney years, was opposition to free trade. Brian Mulroney ran for leader in 1983 as a free-trade foe and promised (you can look it up) never to mention it again. I don't mind him changing his mind, but please don't cite history as a reason to deny a hearing to the skeptics. Unless by history we mean only the last thing that happened, and nothing that occurred before it.

It's also odd since the review won't likely amount to much: a panel discussion in a fourth-place party that might even endorse more free trade. You can find anti-free traders, including some Orchardites, who are great plot-spotters, who see the review as a Trojan horse for Brian Mulroney and others who want a customs union, a joint currency and even less of a border. So whence the distemper? Well, at the least, the pact makes uniting the right far more difficult for now. Alliance Leader Stephen Harper has said as much. Maybe that's what rots their socks.

Personally, I don't see what's wrong with a party using its leadership convention to ponder the state of its soul, including the claim that it should have no clearly definable ideological soul. That's a plausible position, and a successful one in the history of Canadian federal politics. It is not reprehensible or intellectually lightweight to define your party as non-ideological in the sense of left versus right. The slogan of such a party might be, "Include the right," rather than "Unite the right," on the ground that inclusiveness, not ideology, may well be the route back to power. The MacKay-Orchard deal exposed "the myth that the Conservatives are in any sense a conservative party," wrote Andrew Coyne. But that's on the assumption that conservatism is right wing, which was one of the points at issue in the stimulating debate last weekend.

As for hideous damage to the party, well, let's see: The convention is still a story, a week later, due at least as much to drama as to perfidy. (But don't underestimate perfidy forgrabbing attention.) It revealed the hitherto bland, risk-averse new leader, choice of the dull old party brass, as having a mild touch of ruthlessness (I'm not ready to go to Faustian), which can be attractive -- or useful -- in a politician. And this lame-o party turns out to be a prize people are still willing to shed blood over.

None of this would have happened at one of the bloodless phone-in conventions now common, in the name of true democracy and one person, one vote. The Reform-Alliance leadership contests had all the excitement of family gatherings where people sit waiting for a phone call from overseas. In old-style conventions, like last weekend's, decisions get made on the floor, or behind a curtain, in real time. But it's undemocratic, you say, even if it is entertaining. Okay, then, let's talk democracy.

One person, one vote is part of democracy, but it's also part of opinion polling and market research. The other democratic essential is open discussion, in which all opinions do not weigh equally, and people decide which views to value and which to discard, including their own. In an intense democratic context, voting is often nugatory, since everyone has been persuaded by what you could term the emerging common sense. I call as witness ancient Athens, not a democratic slouch. Athens did not have one man, one vote. Even if you exclude women, who were deemed not quite human, there were still slaves, who did the work. But they had great public debates over what policies to follow. In fact, Athenians didn't care much about actual elections: All their officials were chosen by lot, in a kind of afterthought. Oh, but I'm forgetting, that's history so far gone it doesn't count. They don't call ancient Athens ancient for nothing.


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