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Globe and Mail, Monday 01 December 2003

Who will write the new Conservatives' platform?

by John Ibbitson

Early returns from the weekend's delegate-selection meetings suggest that Progressive Conservatives across the country have emphatically endorsed the proposal to merge with the Canadian Alliance.

Even the homophobic rants of Alliance MP Larry Spencer, a disturbing reminder of the undercurrent of bigotry that lurks at the fringes of populist conservatism, proved insufficient to deter the merger. Having come this far, the Tories are painfully aware that rejecting union now would leave their party in a shambles.

After ratification, the new Conservative Party of Canada will launch a leadership race, with a new leader of the Official Opposition to be selected in March. Since Paul Martin's Liberals have signalled their intention to call an election in April, that will leave the newly chosen leader little time to prepare for the campaign.

Which prompts two questions. What will be the new party's election platform? Who will write it?

The Alliance, in particular, prides itself on its grass-roots roots. The party eschews poll-driven election platforms. Its rank-and-file debate and ratify policy, which is then refined by the leadership.

Unfortunately, the new party's inaugural policy conference is not scheduled to occur until after the election, which means its platform will have to be crafted exclusively by the leader and his advisers. The Conservative Party of Canada will have the most elite-driven agenda of any major party in the election campaign.

Both the PC Party and Canadian Alliance claim to embrace the same values. That is true, to the extent that the merger commits the new party to "a balance between fiscal accountability, progressive social policy and individual rights and responsibilities." Liberals believe the same thing. So do New Democrats. Heck, the anarchists could live with it.

But compare the two parties' specific policy platforms. Here is where the milk goes in the coconut.

Take fiscal policy. Both parties are committed to lowering taxes, keeping the budget balanced, and reducing the national debt. (So are the Liberals. So are the . . . oh, never mind.) The Alliance, however, wants to move to a single rate of taxation (the so-called flat tax). The PCs remain wedded to the progressive system. So what will it be come election-time: flat tax, or no flat tax?

In health care, the Alliance would encourage greater participation by the private sector in delivering publicly funded services. The Tories not only are committed to a fully public health system, they want to expand the Canada Health Act to include pharmacare and home care.

The Alliance would let provinces have exclusive jurisdiction over education; the Tories would expand federal involvement to include easing student debt.

There are a raft of aggressive Alliance policies that the old PC Party shunned, such as: eliminating public funding for multiculturalism; reducing the bilingualism requirement for employment in the public service; reducing and eventually eliminating special status for native people; permitting citizens to recall the MP in their riding and forcing a by-election; eliminating regional economic-development grants and permitting citizen-initiated binding referendums.

It will be useless for the new party to play down these discrepancies. The Liberals and NDP are already sharpening their knives. Just imagine the leaders' debate: Paul Martin points sternly at the hapless Conservative leader. "Answer the question, sir," he demands. "Would you or would you not permit a referendum on capital punishment or the right to abortion? Yes or no?"

The problem is that the new party can't take a stand without alienating one of its two founding constituencies. The more it adheres to the Alliance platform, the more moderate conservatives it will drive away (and the dimmer will be its chances in Ontario and Atlantic Canada).

Ditching the most populist planks of the Alliance platform in favour of wishy-washy PC principles would prove to Western populists that the party they founded is no more. The effort of more than a decade will have been wasted.

To some extent, the choice of leader will settle the matter. During the leadership campaign, Stephen Harper, Jim Prentice, Peter MacKay and whoever else runs will have to spell out where they stand on the issues that currently divide the two parties. The winner's platform will, in effect, become the party platform.

Which is fine, provided you don't mind belonging to a political party whose policies are largely the creation of one person and that person's advisers, with the grass roots trodden underfoot.


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