IT'S JOE'S TIME AGAIN
by Margret Kopala
November 29, 2000
So Joe's time has come again. Now that he's won his seat in Calgary Centre, he'll need to catch his breath and take some rest, but it mustn't be for long. Important work awaits. The right needs uniting and only he can do it now. The future of his party depends on it; the future of Canadian conservatism depends on it; indeed, the future of the country may depend on it.
Joe will be the first to appreciate that Canada needs something other than its current five party system, though not the two party system suggested by Liberal dominance in eastern Canada and Alliance dominance in western Canada. The ideological fault lines that remain after this election can only further destabilise a country already divided on linguistic, cultural and provincial lines. A return to traditional brokerage politics is clearly much more in the interests of national unity and Joe is an expert in this area.
In separate contexts, Roy Romanow and Bob Rae have suggested a merger between the NDP and the Liberals. And Preston Manning started the United Alternative process to consider options for achieving one conservative party. Lacking will and methodology, however, last January's UA convention rejected the most obvious option. A merger between PC and Reform would have enhanced each party's strengths (PC tradition and experience combining with Reform's energetic, fresh thinking) while neutralising each other's perceived weaknesses ("Mulroney" and "extremism").
Today, despite different leaders and more decisive movement towards change than either the Liberals or NDP, the Canadian Alliance and the Tories remain burdened by their "Mulroney" and "extremist" baggage and institutionally further apart than ever. And now, with its strong majority, the Liberals have bought enough time to regroup, renew, elect a new leader and perhaps merge with the NDP. A Liberal stranglehold on 21st century Canada seems assured. It's a prospect no democrat, and certainly not Joe Clark, can find acceptable.
The best hope for changing this dynamic now, as before, lies with a formal merger of Canada's conservative parties. With two setbacks in less than a decade, the PC party may not die but neither can it hope to achieve government for at least a generation. And, as the 1997/2000 elections demonstrate, the Alliance cannot hope to win government with a struggling PC party splitting crucial votes. Clearly, the UA process needs completion. That means coming to terms with what went wrong with it in the first place and figuring out how to correct it.
Suffice to say that inadequate diplomacy contributed to the failure to capitalise on even the small, early glimmers of hope for an entente cordiale between the Reform and PC parties that Joe.Clark offered. His Calgary symposium on institutional reform brought Tory and Reform MPs together but lacked resolve; his Ontario symposium on healthcare was cancelled, and no one seemed to hear when he offered the possibility of joint nominations in a few ridings. Attempts to convene meetings between him and Preston Manning, both policy specialists famously lacking interpersonal skills (at least with each other), were clearly misplaced. And at no time did anyone demonstrate to Tories or Reformers the high minded over the merely pragmatic potential in a merger. Among other ideals, brokering regional differences between Atlantic based Tory MPs and Western Canadian Reform MPs would have restored one conservative party to its nation building role and placed it on the high road to governance. Today, the same potential exists in a Tory/Alliance merger.
Despite earlier failures, diplomacy remains the best way forward. To explore this, Joe Clark should invite Stockwell Day to join him in appointing mediators (with no paid or other partisan interests - say, Hugh Segal and Ray Speaker? ) to negotiate an agreement for approval by their parties' memberships. Among important items Tories bring to the table is a leadership selection process that addresses dominance by single issue groups (an area in which the Alliance is unnecessarily exposed), a strong history and a strong name.
Winning in Calgary Centre secures Joe Clark's role as Canada's most enduring, endearing statesman. As leader of the PC party, it is within his purview to set an agenda for completing the United Alternative process and, in so doing, to create a party that is formidably competitive with any regrouped, newly led Liberal party going into the next election. The election experiences of the newly created Canadian Alliance demonstrate the importance of having generous lead time so the sooner Joe starts, the better.