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Winnipeg Free Press, September 26, 2003

MacKay out on limbs over talks

by William Neville

Tory leader faces ramifications either way unite-the-right plan goes

Earlier this year the New Yorker magazine ran an arresting cartoon: it depicted a man seated in front of a television screen, on which a pundit was saying, "It could go badly or it could go well depending on whether it goes badly or well."

I was reminded of it this week when, on Wednesday, the Free Press and the Globe and Mail both ran stories on Chapter 18 (or is it 180?) of The Unite-the-Right Chronicles, currently featuring "eminent" persons representing the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative Party. But whereas the Free Press headline reported difficulties (Quebec Tory MP slams Alliance), the Globe and Mail reported cheerfully that "Tory-Alliance talks make major progress." The difference might call to mind the adage that you shouldn't believe everything you read in the newspapers -- including columns like this one -- but there are grounds for thinking the FP was closer to the truth. Indeed, by the end of the day, the party leaders could not even agree as to what had been discussed or whether there was actually a plan for each party to consider. On its face, this seems a rocky way to start a marriage -- you should pardon the expression.

Overlaying this drama are some serious questions about the propriety of Tory Leader Peter MacKay being engaged in this exercise at all in light of previous commitments to people within his own party. However, if -- for the moment -- one gave him the benefit of the doubt, one might suppose that he is acting under compulsion, for the larger question, surely, is why this gavotte is being danced yet again. After all, if the electorate's somewhat inexplicable attachment to Paul Martin holds through to the next election, uniting the right may become a marginal issue. But part of the reason for the parties revisiting union no doubt, lies in an inability to see beyond cherished illusions: some Conservative and many Alliance members and supporters still believe that all they require is to proclaim themselves a single party and all those electors who previously voted for the two will -- Presto! -- vote for the one.

In all probability, a more substantial factor driving this is a corporate sector which, in return for corporate financial support, is laying down its own conditions: several prominent and knowledgeable Conservatives tell me that, ultimately, it was pressure from potential financial backers that precipitated Joe Clark's resignation as Tory leader.

One might infer that although the business community collectively understands business, its understanding of politics is imperfect and displays -- rather surprisingly, perhaps -- little grasp of the phenomenon of genuine product differentiation as it might apply to political parties.

The chief hurdle to uniting the right is the fact that the Progressive Conservatives are no longer the right in the way that the Alliance is. The Conservative party's right decamped in the early '90s to form the Reform party. With their departure, what remained was an essentially centrist party with some claim to being socially progressive and fiscally conservative. One indicator of that lies in survey research that suggests that the second choice of a great many Liberal supporters would be the Conservatives (and vice versa) while very few would vote for the Alliance under any circumstances. Not surprisingly, many current Liberal supporters were, in earlier times, Conservative supporters. For the Liberals to be vulnerable, such voters need to be wooed away and it is the Conservatives, not the Alliance, that have that potential; indeed, many former Conservatives support the Liberals partly to keep the Alliance from power. One may hypothesize that nothing would be more effective in cementing former Conservatives to the Liberals than the prospect of a right-wing party in which the Alliance and Alliance values were dominant.

Moreover, the present imbalance between the two parties is a serious sticking point. In membership, MPs and money, the Alliance is far stronger; and this is only partly offset by the Tories having, currently, similar standing in the polls, and deeper roots and greater potential for growth in most of the country. MacKay made a telling comment this week when he said the Tories were "not going into a process that would allow the province of Alberta alone to elect the leader of a new party." The fundamental issue here was whether a new party would be a union of equals or of two markedly unequal partners governed by the principle of one member, one vote. Under this latter formula, Alberta has enjoyed immense power in the Alliance and all three of its leaders have been Albertans. On the other hand, Alliance Leader Stephen Harper made a point of saying that he would stand by social conservatives if moderates tried to isolate them in an enlarged party -- a greater risk, presumably, if the two parties were treated as equals. Each option, in short, has significant ramifications.

In authorizing these discussions, MacKay has gone way out on a limb. He has already violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the agreement with David Orchard, which enabled MacKay to win the leadership. And if these talks were to lead to Conservatives not contesting every constituency in the next election, he would be openly disregarding the expressed wishes of his party. He thus faces a dilemma: if these negotiations succeed, he stands to lose members and MPs, while raising questions as to whether his word has any value. If the negotiations fail, Bay Street may not be happy. For MacKay, each outcome has significant ramifications as well.

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