New party will be a nightmare

Thursday, December 11, 2003

  • Scott Piatkowski

    Scott Piatkowski

Written by Scott Piatkowski

According to Peter MacKay, leader of the party formerly known as the Progressive Conservatives, the newly united Conservative Party has "just become Paul Martin's worst nightmare". At least, that's his position today; it can't be really considered legally binding in the future.

Notwithstanding the fact that declaring oneself to be your opponent's worse nightmare is a pretty tired political device (e.g. Ernie Eves said he was "Dalton McGuinty's worst nightmare" and we know what happened to him), I'm prepared to grant that the new party will, in fact, be a nightmare. But, far from being a nightmare for Martin (or for the country), I would submit that the real nightmare will be for those who think that the Regressive Conservatives are poised to mount a serious challenge in the coming federal election campaign.

Since 1993, the various incarnations of Canada's political right have consistently blamed vote splitting for their failure to make a significant electoral breakthrough. The reality is that Canadians are simply unwilling to embrace extreme right-wing policies. To the extent that there is any appetite for less drastic conservative ideas, Canadians have been content to have those ideas implemented by the moderate conservative party known as the Liberals. Particularly now that Paul Martin, whose credentials as a fiscal conservative are well-established, is taking over as Prime Minister, there is no evidence that moderate right wingers will abandon the Liberal party for a more extreme alternative.

Moreover, the new party faces so many logistical hurdles on the path to the next election that it is likely to be left gasping for breath before it even gets close to the finish line. For starters, consider the fact that the party will continue to have two "principal spokespeople" during the transition. Both Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay are expected combine their new spokesperson role with that of leadership candidate. At the very least, the inevitable sniping and should be a salve those who are nostalgic for the days when the parties officially hated each other.

Meanwhile, Senator John Lynch-Staunton will hold the nominal leadership of the party, apparently so that someone could "have signing authority". Lynch-Staunton told reporters that he had not sought the position of interim leader, but had agreed to serve when asked. "It's more to fill in a blank," he said. Outside of the irony of a party that favours an elected Senate (or not, depending on what is eventually decided) having an appointed Senator as its leader, I hardly think that Paul Martin is losing any sleep over the prospect of facing a "fill in the blank" as an opponent.

Not only will the party be leaderless until March 19 or 20 - just weeks before an anticipated spring election - but it has no organizational structure, no money (outside of the combined party debts) and, as mentioned above, no policy. At least three, possibly more, members of the PC caucus will not be joining the new party. The party will try to work out these details over the next three months, but the results can be predicted: a hodgepodge of Reform and Tory policies that makes neither side happy. Bilingualism, gay rights, tax policy, health care, multiculturalism and capital punishment promise to be key areas of disagreement. As former Conservative cabinet minister Flora MacDonald charged in her anti-merger speech on Saturday, "You will not be able to wish away these contradictions, or gloss over them. You are trying to create a party with no policy and no higher purpose than opportunism." She's right, of course, about the party's overriding objective; but, the word opportunism presumes an opportunity that is not there.

Besides Martin's Liberals, the primary beneficiary of the collapse of the right will likely be the New Democrats. Four polls released in the last month have put the party in second place, and two of those four polls show that they will maintain that status even after the merger (proving that the idea that one can simply add the PC and Alliance votes together is a logical fallacy). Even former Prime Minister Joe Clark is predicting that "the party that's going to gain is the party of the left, the New Democrats. Because Layton has been able to hold them fairly close to the centre, and when those votes inevitably get shaken loose, they're going to look for someplace reliable to go. I think there'll be too much apprehension about this new party."

If voters want a fiscally conservative, socially moderate government, they'll vote for Paul Martin. But other voters will be looking for a credible alternative to Paul Martin, and they'll find it in the NDP. The new Conservative Party could well be relegated to third place or, depending on the strength of the Bloc Quebecois, possibly even to fourth place. And, those who thought they were preparing the way for an extreme right wing government in Canada will have to find a new excuse for losing.

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