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Winnipeg Free Press, Friday, April 30, 2004

Clark's remarks reasonable
Anger focused more on his right to speak than substance of words

by William Neville

Joe Clark said this week that although neither Paul Martin nor Stephen Harper are ideal candidates for prime minister, Martin represents less of a danger to Canada than would Harper.

Some people will regard Clark's assessment as exactly right, while others will -- and, indeed, have -- disagreed with him.

Whichever the case, however, Clark's comments were neither unreasonable nor intemperate. That can hardly be said of many of those who responded to him, in ways that can only be described as venomous.

Leading members of Harper's party, the Reformed Conservative Alliance, and many newspapers including the Globe and Mail, the National Post (which is, effectively, the house organ of Harper's party) and the Free Press, indulged in similar invective. The Free Press, for example, described Clark as "hapless," "bitter," "a has been," "pathetic" and "washed up."


Let's mark the Free Press down as 'undecided' but others were equally personal in their responses. Tony Clement, for example, a defeated former minister in the former Ontario government and an overwhelmingly defeated candidate for the leadership of the new Conservative Alliance, offered what was clearly intended to be the most cutting comment. The saddest thing, Clement said, is that Clark's views just don't matter any more, which seems to be belied by the fury of the responses.

John Reynolds, MP, described Clark as a "bitter old man;" and "a traitor to the cause." Reynolds, who is himself as old or older than Clark (but, presumably, not bitter despite his bitter remarks) is, as it happens, a man with a history.

He was once a Progressive Conservative MP; then a Reform MP, then a Canadian Alliance MP and now an MP of the Reform/Alliance/Conservative party. His emergence as a Reformer entailed rejecting the old Tory Party -- a traitor to its cause, one might say -- but this man has embraced almost as many political positions as the Vicar of Bray and could give lessons on political transmogrification.

This is classic do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do stuff and Reynolds' colleague, Peter MacKay, daily offers an even more extraordinary demonstration of this let's-forget-my-past approach to politics: he preaches the virtues of honesty and integrity to his opponents even though his own conduct renders him probably the most unqualified member of the House to do so.

What the Reynolds and the MacKays of the world are counting on is the probability that most voters will have short memories; as, apparently, does Brian Mulroney.

Clark's comments have been played out against the backdrop of Mulroney, last weekend, conferring his blessing on Harper and the new alliance. In news terms, this remarkable event has been somewhat eclipsed by the anger over Clark, though the anger might more appropriately be directed elsewhere.

Here we have Mulroney, effectively driven from office and treated as a pariah for a decade, now embracing, and being embraced, by a party overwhelmingly drawn from the Reform/Alliance movement which helped drive him from office, which reduced his party to shambles and excoriated Mulroney and the very idea of any more 'leaders from Quebec.'

They embrace now, not out of an outpouring of Christian charity or simple goodness, but because each wants something: Mulroney wants vindication and rehabilitation; the Reformers and Alliance folk who dominate the Conservative party want power. Those with somewhat longer memories than these folks are counting on, may well recall Mulroney's comment when Bryce Mackasey, a former Liberal cabinet minister and hanger-on, was named an ambassador: "There is no whore," quoth Mulroney, "like an old whore." Little d id one suppose that in 1984 he might be offering his own epitaph.

The anger directed at Clark has focused much more on his right to speak than on the substance of what he said (in fairness, one notes that the Free Press editorial also addressed the substance of Clark's criticisms of Harper) which was focused on why he regards Harper & Co. as a danger to Canada. Their record -- that is Harper's and the Reform/Alliance's -- invites such concern.

Are they still a neo-conservative party wedded to cutting taxes for the wealthy, reducing public services, and imposing fees and surcharges on the services that remain for the least well- off members of society? Are they committed to two-tiered health care? Are they still committed to weakening the national government in favour of the provinces, including those in Atlantic Canada with its "culture of defeat" and Alberta behind its firewall?

Are they still committed to imposing Christian notions of morality on Canadians, of whose values they disapprove? Do they remain committed to eroding the distinctions Canadians have long recognized as demarcating the roles of the state and religion?

Are they still committed to sending Canadians into any war that George Bush sets his heart on? Will they recognize that Canadian and American values and priorities have diverged significantly in recent years and will they continue trying to impose American values on Canada? Is, Harper, a-la-Bush, about to declare himself a "compassionate conservative?"


These concerns underlie Clark's warning. After all, though numerous PC members and supporters have declined to join the new party, apart from one rather idiosyncratic MP, we hear nothing of unhappy Reformers or Alliance members refusing to join.

Could that be because they do not see the merger as posing any serious challenge to any of their cherished positions? Their apparent happiness gives credence to the notion that the merger has been a takeover of the smaller party by the larger one. To know the larger one's history and values is to understand quite clearly the danger of which Joe Clark warned this week.

William Neville is a regular columnist with the Winnipeg Free Press. He can be reached at wnwfp@mts.net

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