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Winnipeg Free Press, February 7, 2003

Tories tout exclusionary policy
Not what a major political party should be trying to do

by William Neville

Many years ago, as a youth with a somewhat unusual interest in politics, I unexpectedly became a delegate to the Progressive Conservative convention that ultimately chose John Diefenbaker as party leader. I then lived in Edmonton but, at almost the last minute, a delegate from the neighbouring rural constituency of Vegreville withdrew. With so few living, breathing Tories in Alberta in those days, local Conservatives were unable to find a replacement and I was recruited: a classic instance of sending a boy to do a man's job.

In such difficult circumstances, delegates were not typically selected on the basis of which candidate they supported. Nonetheless, Alberta delegates were overwhelmingly pro-Diefenbaker. Shortly after our arrival in Ottawa, an enterprising reporter was able to establish that I was the youngest delegate at the convention. This temporary notoriety resulted in my meeting a number of prominent Conservatives, including several MPs and MPPs from Ontario.

Several were less than discreet in their opposition to Diefenbaker. He marched to a different drummer, was a lone wolf, was too radical, too populist, and was not really a Conservative: these were the typical criticisms. What could not be denied, however, was that he was a longtime MP and had already run twice for the leadership. His own electoral success, moreover, suggested an appeal to voters beyond the ranks of traditional Conservative supporters. This proved true nationally; and Diefenbaker, whatever his shortcomings, revived the party, brought it to power after 22 years in opposition and altered the patterns of political allegiance in the country.

Few signs

There are few signs yet of another Diefenbaker waiting to blossom among the current contenders for the Conservative leadership. There is one, however, apparently being poor-mouthed in rather similar ways with the notable difference that what was mostly a whispering campaign more than 40 years ago is now quite open and rather unpleasant. The object of this unfriendly attention is David Orchard, the Saskatchewan farmer who fought the last Tory leadership campaign espousing environmentalism, fair trade rather than free trade and a nationalist perspective on the preservation of Canadian values and institutions. He drew new people into the party, finished second to Joe Clark and remained, against his detractors' predictions, to run as Tory candidate in Prince Albert in the last federal election. These bona fides might be thought enough to confer legitimacy, but apparently not.

On ToryDraft.com, a Web page that has become a clearing house for information on the Tory campaign, the text of an e-mail appeared this week over the name of one Tian White, "National Youth Co-Chair" for Peter MacKay's leadership campaign. The message, where it is not merely fevered, is essentially nasty, effectively questioning Orchard's right to be in the race at all. The writer issues "a call to arms" and speaks of "a dire need to ensure that we do not... allow this tourist (Orchard) to stay any longer." It continues: "We need to ensure that Orchard does not have a chance" and then, wading deeply into the purple prose, adds: "I implore you all to firmly stand up and say in no uncertain terms that David Orchard can pry the Conservative party from our cold dead hands...' It concludes "please get in touch with me at your earliest possible opportunity to discuss the Anti-Orchard forces in your area."

I tried to get in touch to ask if White wrote the memo and whether MacKay had authorized these comments. I received a reply shortly before filing this column: White declined to comment. Then there is Jim Prentice, a Calgary lawyer who, on the day he entered the leadership race, spoke of Orchard in these terms: "There is not room in this party for a leader that does not believe in free trade as a principle of the Conservative Party." Well no, actually. That is a matter for the Conservative party to decide; and if it decided it wanted Orchard, Prentice would be free to take his marbles and go elsewhere. On this point Prentice sounded arrogant enough to be a Liberal.

Skewed view

Beyond that, Prentice offers a rather skewed view of the Conservative party's history. What he describes as a principle of the Conservative party became a principle only when Brian Mulroney declared it so. Whether Mulroney was right or wrong, the fact is that he personally reversed the anti-free trade tradition that animated the Conservative party for over 100 years. Mulroney did it, and got away with it, because he was in office with a large parliamentary majority that no Tories were willing to challenge. But to call this a principle of the party because a leader declared it to be policy and was electorally successful with it, is bizarre.

Infallibility at the top may have doctrinal justification in a church, but in a political party it is pure Caesarism. On this basis, one assumes that in the world according to Prentice, there would be no room for any leadership aspirant who did not see the GST or any policy espoused or adopted by Mulroney as now embalmed for eternity as a Conservative principle. He might try selling that to the country.

Orchard must explain and defend his own positions, but the line taken in the White memo, and by Prentice, suggests litmus tests or saliva tests that can and should determine the ideological suitability of those who would join and those who would seek to lead the Conservative party. Such an exclusionary policy is the antithesis of what a struggling, big-tent party should be trying to achieve.

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