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Toronto Star , Sunday, Jun 27, 2004

No 'progressive' in Harper: Senator

by Sandra Cordon

OTTAWA - On the eve of a federal vote that's certain to be a cliff-hanger, an elder statesman of the former Progressive Conservative party has aimed a final backhand against Stephen Harper.

The new Conservative party led by Harper has carefully wiped out all its progressive elements to create a "reprehensible" right-wing movement, Senator Lowell Murray said one day before a tight federal vote.

The old Tories were "a moderate, centrist influence on Canadian politics," Murray said in an interview today from a vacation home in his native Cape Breton, N.S.

"But the longer this campaign goes on, the more we are seeing that the new Conservative party is not any of those things," said Murray, a confidant of two former Progressive Conservative prime ministers - Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark.

He said he was driven to speak out after several controversial comments by Conservative MPs recently came to light.

Late last week, struggling Liberals grabbed on to statements by Conservative MP Randy White, who said a Conservative government would redefine the Charter of Rights and use the notwithstanding clause to overrule court rulings it doesn't agree with, such as gay marriage.

Conservative justice critic Vic Toews said his party would ask MPs as early as next month to help choose two new Supreme Court judges - something experts say would politicize the top court.

And early in the campaign, Ottawa-area Conservative MP Scott Reid talked about limiting official bilingualism.

Such remarks show that while Harper has tried to present the new party as moderate, its intellectual roots lie in its predecessor Canadian Alliance and Reform parties, said Murray.

"Harper has been fudging and fudging and fudging ... trying to present a moderate, centrist face," said Murray.

"But people like Scott Reid ... and Vic Toews and now Randy White keep popping up and they're the honest ones, they're very upfront about what the Reform-Alliance policy is and what they're going to do."

Murray, appointed to the Senate in 1979 after spearheading Clark's successful election campaign, now calls himself an independent.

He said he didn't vote Conservative in advance polling for tomorrow's federal election.

And he admitted he contacted the Liberal war room after White's comments fired up his concerns - something Liberal strategists quickly passed on to the media.

Murray's resentment of the new party has been public for some time and is only growing.

"I see the former Progressive Conservatives have had no influence at all - you only have to look at the platform, none of the robust Progressive Conservative policies ... have survived," he said.

"I didn't support the new party and I didn't vote for them ... but I'm not joining another party."

Murray said he acted to light a fire under the Liberals to fight harder against Harper's Conservatives in the campaign's final hours.

"There's something quite, I don't like to use (the word) scary but there's something that's definitely not in the Canadian tradition."

Murray and Clark have been vocal critics of the new party, created last year by what the two have termed a takeover by the former Canadian Alliance party of the Progressive Conservative party.

Clark launched another broadside of his own, endorsing Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan in Edmonton - capital of Alberta, which is almost entirely Conservative and before that, the Alliance and Reform.

Those parties were both very critical of the Supreme Court, complaining that too often the top court - and not Parliament - was making Canadian laws.

Conservative MPs have been fairly quiet during the campaign to avoid controversy - White's remarks were made to a documentary film-maker shortly before the campaign began.

But Toews said in mid-June that he would like to see an all-party committee set up to grill possible candidates to the Supreme Court, but tempered that by saying those should only be drawn from sitting judges with extensive judicial experience.

That has alarmed some in legal circles who fear that, with two vacancies on the Supreme Court and a third expected in the next year, a Conservative government would seek our right-wing appointees.

Traditionally, the prime minister appoints Supreme Court judges after widely consulting the legal community.

Sandra Cordon is with Canadian Press

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