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Winnipeg Free Press, June 11th, 2003

What's the big deal about big deal?
Outcry over MacKay's 'Faustian bargain' surprising, given Tories' long tradition of political bargaining

By Rae Murphy

A perception that bedevils the federal Conservative party and the governing Ontario provincial party is the notion that "conservative" and "right-wing" are interchangeable political terms.

The recent Progressive Conservative leadership convention and the media coverage in its aftermath -- just as the current policy flip-flops of the Ernie Eves government -- illustrate this perception.

The ideological right captured control of Ontario's Conservative party and strengthened its control by winning back-to-back elections. In its two terms it has pushed the whole Reform/Alliance/Republican agenda -- tax cuts, privatization, an ever-diminishing role for government.

Former premier Mike Harris resigned when the polls indicated the public was turning against his hard-nose policies and confrontational style. The struggle for succession hinged around continuing the Harris legacy or returning to old Conservative tradition of moderation and caution. Eves represented the latter tradition, campaigned as the "un-Harris" and won as the party establishment choice.

In the immediate aftermath of the leadership convention, Eves reversed the ill-conceived hydro privatization scheme. He then postponed the promised tax cut, postponed tax credits for private school fees, threw money at the schools and promised to rebuild the public health system. The backlash within elements of his caucus and backroom was palpable. With increasingly bizarre gimmicks -- reading the budget in an auto-parts manufacturer's auditorium, releasing his election platform on a go-kart track -- he announced a budget that restored all the Harris nostrums he campaigned against and later released a campaign document that was as hard-nosed as any of Harris's, including support for such "wedge issues" -- beating-up on the teachers and homeless.

This has prompted open attacks by former premier William Davis on the government's education policies and by former Toronto mayor and federal Tory minister David Crombie on the government's urban policies.

The party, however, both provincial and federal, remains essentially a coalition, often of disparate groups. It unites in success and splinters in defeat. The oxymoron, Progressive Conservative, was actually an attempt to reflect its heterogeneous nature -- the former Liberal-Progressive premier of Manitoba John Bracken insisted on it before accepting the party leadership. In its heyday, the party seemed to include everybody who, for whatever reason, was not a Liberal. Most Tory leadership campaigns and conventions are thus lively affairs. We still savour the memories of the influx of Amway distributors, the arrival of residents of Montreal's Old Brewery Mission who took over a Montreal nomination meeting, the sudden interest of Quebec separatists in federal Conservative policies. Remember also charges of the "offshore money" that enabled Brian Mulroney to launch his guerrilla campaign against Joe Clark.

In this context, it is surprising that David Orchard's Conservative bona fides are still being questioned. Brian Mulroney once was as adamantly opposed to a free-trade agreement with the U.S. as David Orchard is today. Orchard, after losing the leadership to Clark, showed his respect by standing in the following federal election, something Mulroney would not do until he was elected party leader.

It is even more surprising that federal Tory Leader Peter MacKay would be criticized for making a deal with Orchard to win his support. Deals among competitors and party power brokers and activists are part of the process of determining policy. Watching deals made and deals unravelled is what made Tory conventions the great spectator sport they once were. It is hard then to understand the hyper-ventilating about MacKay's "deal with the devil," or "Faustian bargain." If the devil himself was a delegate and controlled a block of votes that he needed, MacKay would still need to deal. But it was only Orchard and he is already back on the farm growing organic vegetables.

There are federal Conservative voters in Ontario, enough to win a recent byelection in Stratford. Stratford also proved voters can distinguish the Canadian Alliance from the Progressive Conservatives. That election also indicated there are plenty of NDP voters about. A smug self-satisfied Liberal party can be in serious trouble in Ontario, especially if Sheila Copps and other Chrétien supporters don't go quietly into that good night.

There was another time when the conventional wisdom was that the Liberals would rule forever, that they could run Louis St. Laurent stuffed against John Diefenbaker. Diefenbaker won a minority with no support in Quebec. His later majority government was largely due to Quebec and the assistance of a Conservative (Union Nationale) premier. There is a Liberal premier in Quebec now, but Jean Charest's real political home is in the Progressive Conservative party.

There is no guaranteed outcome of the next provincial or federal election, or the prospects of Peter MacKay, but politics in Canada (Ontario, at least), are potentially more volatile than is commonly thought. And the Tories are still in the game.

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