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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 Canada.

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 hold?

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 term.

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 Bush.”

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 in Canada.

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 election.

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 the contrary.

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.

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