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Road to unity clogged with controversies « Douglas Fisher



Road to unity clogged with controversies

There are several reasons why a bystander’s enthusiasm should be restrained at the news from Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay there will be a rather hurry-up merging of the Canadian Alliance and federal Progressive Conservatives, creating a united right-wing party in time to fight the election Paul Martin is almost sure to call in five or six months, (given Jean Chretien’s persistence about his February exit date).

First, do not believe it is certain to happen until a new leader has been chosen and accepted with genuine acclaim at the convention. And to be worth a hoot, this has to happen with widespread approval by delegates from 300-plus federal constituencies, all pumped and excited by an attendant national interest created by massive media coverage.

To get the latter necessity there will need to be a considerable shift from the coverage Martin has been getting.

In the present media gang which closely covers federal affairs, there seems more entrancement and less skepticism about Martin, or about the integrity and capabilities of the Liberals as governors, than you might expect. This will wear down over time (one prays), but along with this fascination for the Grits goes more derisive belittling of persons, ideas and practices generally tagged as “conservative” or “right wing” than there has been for years.

One can catch a flavour in this in the surprisingly substantial notice and the greater respect being given the newish NDP leader, Jack Layton, in the past three months. Meanwhile, Harper and MacKay have been derided down to the generalized conclusion that neither would be a positive factor as leader of a new Conservative Party.

Harper, however knowledgeable he may be, is seen as too cold a dude; and MacKay, despite his relative youth, is old-fashioned and a dodger. Neither is seen as a credible alternative to the great Martin.

Time is short for this “conservative” party. So much has to be done that, even in the most stable of parties, is quite edgy or contentious. Chances abound for a string of new shemozzles arising from the Alliance’s blunt western populism and benign welfare-state Toryism.

A string of such collisions — particularly any anti-gay stuff — could foul the process of picking a plausible leader while also readying to fight a general election almost immediately, the choice is made.

This potential for dissension goes well beyond clashes between those who are truly conservative (one might say both economically and culturally speaking) and those who are much broader minded about social behaviour or Employment Insurance.

In at least 200 constituencies there are both Alliance and Tory riding associations, and most have regular members who have planned to stand for election to the House. Redistribution changes being rushed for the next election have already caused clashes between sitting MPs over constituencies with new boundaries. Add to such jangling, the contesting ambitions there will be of loyal Alliance and PC followers for riding offices and candidacies in the new party.

Nailing down a new organization for each constituency has the doubled need of getting delegates for the leadership convention while preparing to select an electoral candidate from old Tories, former Reformers and brand-new crusaders against perpetual Liberal domination.

One matter sure to bedevil the choice of the Conservative Party leader is official bilingualism. A party leader cannot be taken seriously if he or she cannot speak in both English and French in a public fashion or, if he or she is English-speaking, is at least deeply engaged in mastering French. Harper seems to have a respectable competence when speaking French, well ahead, say, of what Stockwell Day or Kim Campbell demonstrated as leaders, and also ahead of MacKay.

As for some of the most heralded leadership prospects, surely no one anticipates public performances in French from Ralph Klein (age 61), Mike Harris (58) or Preston Manning (62), although the latter has studied hard to master the language.

The obvious choice for bilingual quality would have to be New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord, a touted but reluctant prospect. It’s my hunch Lord has to be the choice, if he’ll run, and, if not, the best choice left has to be Harper.

Common sense suggests a candidate from Ontario, and the only one in sight with a fair record is Harris. But among the broad centre and left he almost rates as much abuse as that heaped on right-wing icons Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Of course, the likeliest prospect as a catalyst for rancorous conflict is David Orchard, the aspirant in this year’s Tory leadership race whose backing made MacKay the winner. It’s not impossible that Harper, MacKay and Harris might be joined in the race by Orchard and by Day, bucked up by his stint as Alliance foreign affairs critic.

Such a spectre makes one wish the two men who most deepened the division on our “right” — Brian Mulroney and Preston Manning — would join the leadership race.