Preston Manning once told me that the Reform Party of Canada was founded in 1987 at a time of triple crisis: fiscal crisis (federal debt spiraling out of control); constitutional crisis (separatist threats in Quebec); and polit- ical crisis (loss of popular trust in federal institutions). Although the Reform Party never came close to forming a government, it exerted enough political pressure to bring about substantial improvement in all these areas. The feder- al budget was balanced and some tax cuts were enacted, the separatist threat was blunted, and a measure of democratic legitimacy was restored through holding a federal referen- dum on the Charlottetown Accord.
Despite these political successes, Manning realized that a party that was too narrow to go beyond forming the opposition would never be able to achieve all its goals. Exerting pressure in the political system may serve to block proposals to which you are opposed, but it is hard to initiate positive changes unless you control the government. You must be able to draw up the fed- eral budget; appoint judges, ambassadors, deputy ministers, and board members of Crown corporations; and in general conduct executive business by passing orders in council, ministerial orders, and regulations. In my view, goals such as democratizing the Senate, reversing judicial activism, and re-equipping the Canadian Forces are unlikely to be met without forming a government. It was logical, therefore, for Manning to seek to broaden the Reform Party by transforming it into the Canadian Alliance in the year 2000.
Manning’s initiative succeeded, but only partially. Some Progressive Conserv- atives joined Reformers in the new party, but more remained with the traditional PC Party. Things even got worse in 2001 as some of Manning’s closest allies tried to overthrow the new Alliance Leader, Stockwell Day. For a time, there were actually three conservative parties in the House of Commons: the Canadian Alliance, the Progressive Conservatives, and the Democratic Reform Caucus (DRC) " a breakaway Alliance group in uneasy coalition with the PCs.
That has all changed, and while a whole cast of characters played a role in bringing this about, much of the credit for this monumental shift in Canadian politics belongs to Stephen Harper. Nearly two years ago, Harper returned to federal politics by winning the Canadian Alliance leadership race and assuming the mantle of the leader of the opposition. In that role, he car- ried forward the work that he and I had written about since the mid-1990s " creating a single conservative party capable of forming a government.
He began by re-uniting his own party, reconciling with his leadership opponents, and bringing the DRC back into the Alliance caucus. Turning the offi- cial opposition into a disciplined, united and professional party was not enough, however, for the Alliance to challenge the Liberal hold on power. The Perth- Middlesex by-election of spring 2003, in which the PCs took the seat from the Liberals and the Alliance finished third in spite of strenuous efforts, was an object lesson in the difficulty of making the Alliance a contender for government.
Last summer, therefore, Stephen Harper began to work with newly elected PC Leader Peter MacKay to unite two parties into one. Belinda Stronach, now also a contender for the leadership of the Conservative Party, offered considerable assistance in the background as a media- tor and witness to the negotiations.
On October 15, 2003, at considerable risk to their own political careers, Harper and MacKay announced the creation of the Conservative Party of Canada. The agreement called for a leadership race using the Tory formula of 100 points per riding rather than the Alliance formula of one member, one vote. The formula was an obstacle to Mr. Harper’s goal of becom- ing leader of the new party, but he accept- ed it because he could see that it was a sticking point for the Tories. He wagered that he could run for leader and win under these rules, even though it would be more difficult for him than under Alliance rules. No wager, no merger!
In the middle of the ensuing lead- ership race, the new Liberal prime min- ister, Paul Martin, has become mired in the so-called sponsorship scandal, rais- ing questions about his party’s, and his government’s, role in the biggest politi- cal money-laundering scheme in recent history. As a result, the Conservative Party of Canada now has an excellent chance to become what Harper called in a 1995 Globe and Mail article a ”œbroadly based national alternative to the Liberal government.”
The Bloc québécois can never become an alternative governing party. It is committed to dismember- ing, not governing Canada; and because it runs candidates only in Quebec, it can never win enough seats to form even a minority govern- ment, though it could hold the bal- ance of power under certain circumstances.
The NDP is a slightly, but only slight- ly, more plausible candidate to form a government in Canada. It runs candi- dates everywhere and has at various times governed four provinces as well as the Yukon Territory. However, it has never been a true contender at federal elections. Its core support " organized labour, espe- cially in the public sector; spe- cial interest groups, such as environmentalists, feminists, and gay-rights activists; and certain ethnic groups, such as native voters in some parts of Canada " is simply too nar- row to elect a government. Under new leader Jack Layton, the NDP has risen from 10 percent to 18 percent in the polls, but that is still far from con- tending for government. If Canadians want another government in the wake of revelations about Liberal abuse of power, they will have to turn to the Conservative Party, which has a history of at least occa- sionally putting together electoral coalitions broad enough to govern Canada.
We can dismiss the Liberal attack line that this party has no policy. The new Conservative Party doesn’t begin life as a tabula rasa. It starts with the legacy of the two founding parties: their common commitment to free enterprise, free trade and fiscal responsibility. Those common causes also go beyond economic matters. In recent months, the two caucuses have largely been on the same side of major parliamentary battles over the gun reg- istry, the Kyoto Accord, the war against terrorism and the definition of marriage. In all these cases, large majorities of both caucuses found themselves on the same conservative side.
But conservatives don’t always agree, so Harper has argued that the Conservative Party can only succeed if it welcomes all kinds of conservatives under its banner. It must be a party of the broad right of centre, appealing to economic conservatives, to social con- servatives, to so-called Red Tories, and to democratic reformers.
First of all, the party must deal with what the Fraser Institute and others have demonstrated " Canada’s declining eco- nomic position in the world. It will stand for free trade, private enterprise, limited government and lower taxes. These are themes that appeal to all who call them- selves conservatives, and they will serve to unite the party. Yet, as Stephen Harper has often said, the party cannot be only about tax cuts, because citizens have many other concerns in politics.
Harper believes that the new party must also be a home for social conservatives. It will stand for the cen- tral importance of the family to our his- tory and to our future; for lower taxes for families; for protecting children, fighting sexual exploitation, and out- lawing child pornography. It will stand for a criminal justice system that puts victims and their property ahead of criminals. The Conservative Party will not ask the state to impose its values on others. But it will demand that govern- ments stop undermining those values.
”œRed Tories” must also have a home in the new party. It cannot relegate the poor and dispossessed to the trash bin of society or ignore the scandal of aborigi- nal policy in Canada. It must remember the needs of immigrants and those who struggle to make their mark in Canadian society. Even as it seeks more efficient solutions to welfare problems, it must recognize the importance of existing pro- grams such as pensions and health care.
Finally, the new party must embrace the democratic reformers. The Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance put democratic reform on the Canadian political agenda; and, in recent years, the Tory party adopted these ideas. The Conservative Party must continue to fight for democratic reforms such as an elected Senate, fixed election dates, and relaxation of party discipline in the House of Commons.
The challenge to any leader of the Conservative Party will be to find common ground among these four types of conservatives, to keep them working together in spite of their admit- ted differences over particular issues. No one can claim it will be easy, but it is cer- tainly necessary if the new party is to be a serious contender for government.
That said, and with the usual caveat that polls are always fleeting snapshots of public opinion at a particular time and place, it appears that the sponsor- ship scandal enveloping Paul Martin and the Liberal Party has opened an unex- pected opportunity for the Conservative Party. In the current situation, the Conservative Party leadership race is not just about who will make the best leader of conservative factions or the best leader of the Conservative Party. It is not just about who will make the best leader of the opposition, nor who will make the best debating partner for Paul Martin. The Conservative leadership race is now about who is ready to become prime minister. Canadians are looking for someone to clean up the Liberal scan- dals, to restore integrity and clean gov- ernment to Ottawa. There can, therefore, be no room in the new Conservative party for corruption or for crooks.
The Conservative Party needs a leader who has taken tough stands and tough decisions, who has built bridges, who has national political experience, and who is ready to lead because he is already leading. Presenting a viable governing alternative is more impor- tant than ever. The country needs a credible, experienced alternative. I believe that Stephen Harper is the can- didate ready and able to provide that leadership, so I am working in the campaign to put him at the fore of the new party. But win or lose, Harper has already earned honourable mention by future historians because he took the initiative to end division on the right and merge two existing parties into a broader force that can credibly aspire to form the government of Canada.