Globe and Mail, November 14, 2003
Progressives at the brink
Tories who are ready to kill off their own party,
with the help of the Canadian Alliance, should consider
the political outcome, says JOE CLARK
by Joe Clark
The federal Liberal Party is poised to run Canada as
a one-party state for another 20 years, at least.
But the critical decision on that future will not
be made by delegates to today's coronation of Paul
Martin. It will be determined instead by the success — or failure — of the proposed Canadian Alliance
takeover of the Progressive Conservative Party of
Progressive Conservatives are being asked to vote “yes” to suicide. The argument is that a new “Conservative” party — a party ashamed to call itself “progressive” — would be competitive in more seats in the next
election. That is simply not true.
Progressive Conservatives who are being asked to kill
their party should examine what is likely to happen
in the next election, and elections after that. Do
the math; ask the hard question: Where are these new
seats going to be won?
Not in Quebec, obviously — the net result there would
be to lose its one seat there. There would be no new
seats in urban Canada. The anti-"progressive” party might hold some of the seats the CA won in Western
Canadian cities, but certainly not all of them. In
Metropolitan Toronto, the party of Mike Harris and
Ernie Eves has just been wiped out. A federal party
that walks and talks like the Harris/Eves party will
not do better.
So, we're left with English-speaking rural Canada.
Outside Ontario, the PCs and CA hold most of those
seats already. Exactly where in rural Ontario is a
party that is ashamed to call itself “progressive” likely to win new seats? There could be four or five
such constituencies. But not 50, not 40, not 15.
An equally important question is: Where would this
right-wing party lose seats that the PCs and CA now
Obviously, that was the central question for the Canadian
Alliance. All the polls showed it to be in sharp decline,
and members saw their incumbent MPs falling like tenpins.
They needed Progressive Conservatives' votes to survive.
By assisting in the suicide of the PC Party, they will
gain some of those votes. But not all of them. At
least one in four of the people who voted for me in
Calgary Centre in the 2000 election would have nothing
to do with Reform/Alliance under any name. They would
vote Liberal, or NDP, or abstain.
At least nine of the British Columbia seats held by
the Canadian Alliance today are traditionally hard-core
NDP seats. They went CA because the Preston Manning
and Stockwell Day party was seen as “anti system,” and because — in the 2000 election — voters were
protesting the disgraced NDP premier Glen Clark. In
Saskatchewan, the four Saskatoon-area seats have a
similar NDP tradition and — ever since John Diefenbaker — Progressive Conservatives who switch go NDP.
Even more serious is the long-term result. This rush
to the right wing would burn all bridges to Quebec,
the Red Tories, and the urban voters who made the
historic Progressive Conservative coalition broad
enough to replace Liberal regimes in 1957, 1979 and
1984. The Liberals only lose to a centrist opponent,
never to opponents they can caricature as extremist.
That lesson is as fresh as last week. Saskatchewan
was supposed to be the laboratory, which proved that
when a “united right” could “get its
act together,” it would sweep to office. So,
the PC Party was suspended and absorbed, in a new
right-wing party. The result: By playing on fears
about right-wing extremists, a desperately weak NDP
government was re-elected last week for a fourth straight
Just imagine what the federal Liberals would do with
a new party that is ashamed to call itself “progressive” and is defined by Stephen Harper/Stockwell Day/anti-gay/anti-feminist/“We
can win without Quebec”/“Yes sir, President
Moreover, while this new party lunges to the right,
NDP Leader Jack Layton is, I would say, trying to
move his party toward the centre. This takeover would
both strengthen the NDP, and move it closer to the
competitive ground where elections are won and lost
Many PCs are driven by a sense either of fear or of
fait accompli: fear the party would not survive a
vote to reject Leader Peter MacKay's recommendation,
or fatalism that says: This distasteful deal is done,
so let's make the most of it.
Does the PC Party really believe it has no option now,
except suicide? No one should believe that.
Let's assume the party rejects the merger proposal
on Dec. 6. What does that mean for Mr. MacKay? What
does it mean for the party, and our prospects in a
2004 election against a Paul Martin who has none of
the campaigning skills of a Jean Chrétien,
or a Pierre Trudeau, or even a John Turner?
Mr. MacKay advocates the proposal. But the vote is
about the proposal, not the leader. As a matter of
principle, we deliberately amended our party constitution,
in April, 1995, to invest the party with the power
to disagree with the leader. So, Mr. MacKay, if he
chose, would still be the party leader in the next
If, for some reason, Mr. MacKay chose to step aside,
there are at least three other able MPs — in alphabetical
order, André Bachand, Rick Borotsik and Scott
Brison — who could each be very effective leading
the PC Party in a national election campaign.
Could a PC Party that rejected merger raise the money
for a national election campaign? No doubt, some of
our traditional contributors would walk away, but
certainly not all of them. Many of the merger enthusiasts
stopped contributing to the party long ago, so there
would be no change in their position. And is it not
possible that — in this age that is sick of cynicism — we could find more financial support among Canadians
who would be attracted to a party that cared enough
for its principles to fight for them?
Would the party suffer from the divisions generated
by the merger proposal? No doubt, it would in some
quarters, perhaps some regions. But it would also
regain respect, and win support, for defending principles
it believes to be important. Certainly, the PC Party
would suffer less than the Alliance, which has just,
emphatically, voted non-confidence in itself.
I don't pretend this is the ideal way to enter a general
election. I think the entire merger proposal has been
a self-inflicted wound, and a gift to the Liberal
Party, the NDP, even the Bloc Québécois.
That's not the question now.
The question is: Would rejecting the proposal be fatal
to the party and harmful to Canadian democracy? On
A shotgun marriage, which produces a party too narrow
to compete, would be terrible for Canadian democracy.
It would seal our fate as a one-party state.
Joe Clark is the former leader
of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. He
is MP for Calgary Centre.