Globe and Mail, October 10, 2003
Unite the right? Don't bother us with details
by John Ibbitson
'We're not worried about things like the party constitution," one Tory close to the unite-the-right talks said, "we're just trying to do a deal, here."
Well guys, it's time to take a look at that constitution.
The negotiations to unite the Conservative and Alliance parties are
foundering over an ostensible obstacle that hides a larger truth. The
Conservatives insist the new leader must be chosen by delegates
representing all 301 ridings. The Alliance prefers one member, one vote.
This so-called process question really speaks to fundamental and
conflicting values: the Alliance's dedication to the principle of equal
rights for all members, versus the Tory commitment to fair
representation for all parts of the Canadian community.
Both sides, however, are forgetting a third principle, of government by
rule of law. In this instance, that law is the constitution of the
Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. For those who care about such
things, it's worth a read.
Let's start with section 1.1: "The name of the party is the Progressive
Conservative Party of Canada." Simple enough.
Both sides have agreed that the name of the new party is to be the
Conservative Party of Canada. So the constitution will need to be
amended to delete the adjective.
(It will also need to be amended to admit the membership of the Canadian
Alliance, absorb the assets and liabilities of the two parties and
change the leadership process. But let's start small.)
How hard is it to amend the Progressive Conservative Party constitution?
For that we turn to section 14.1: "Amendments to the constitution may be
made at any national meeting."
What could be easier? Peter MacKay simply needs to ask the national
council to convene a national meeting of the party. (Please see section
8.9.) Across the country, constituency associations will immediately
gather to select delegates.
Except, there is the unpleasantness of section 14.4, which states that
notices of motion to amend the constitution must be submitted at least
42 days before such a meeting. That means, at the very earliest, that
the party could not meet until the end of November. You're only four
months away from the expected April election, and you still don't have a
Even if the party can find a venue for the end of November, delegates
from across the country will have to pay for air fare, hotel
accommodation and antacid tablets. Could you even get enough delegates
to a meeting to make a quorum?
Let's assume that the delegates actually assemble. Now, all they need to
do is vote to amend the constitution. Nothing could be simpler, were it
not for section 14.6.
"The constitution shall not be amended unless a motion to amend is
carried by at least two-thirds of all members voting on the motion to
amend." Oh dear.
Most insiders estimate that David Orchard and his supporters control
about one-quarter of the membership of the party. They are concentrated
in certain ridings, especially in the West, but their influence remains
formidable. Then there are all the others in the party who have their
own reservations about this shotgun marriage.
"We could certainly get half," of the delegates to support the leader,
one person tracking the numbers predicted. "I don't know if we could
ever get two-thirds."
Add up all those obstacles, then calculate the odds.
One expert thinks there are a couple of ways around the problem. The
first is to simply poll the entire membership directly. The other is to
hold a virtual meeting, getting the delegates to vote electronically or
by phone from their constituencies.
Possible, but risky. Even if the pro-union forces got their two-thirds
support, Mr. Orchard would probably challenge the result in court,
saying the process violated the party's own binding rules, since neither
the direct vote nor the virtual meeting might stand judicial scrutiny.
Don't bother us with these process questions, the Tories say, when asked
about such things.
How can the party of Confederation choose to dissolve itself by flouting
the written expression of its very existence? Would you vote for a
political party that believed written constitutions could be overthrown
by popular will?