|Leaderless Conservative Party drifts into oblivion
May 7, 2000
The putative leaders of the Canadian Alliance party are kidding themselves if they think the party can pander to Ontario Tories and keep faith with Alberta populists. The whole enterprise is not only preposterous, but the name “Canadian Alliance” is highly presumptuous—it describes something that doesn’t exist. The only “alliance” is Reform’s infatuation with its own reflection in Lake Ontario.
What’s really weird, though, is the copious amounts of press lavished on this one-sided courtship. You can’t open a newspaper without some pundit or editorialist waxing enthusiastic about Tom Long’s candidacy, thus giving respectability and plausibility to someone who has never held political office. The alliance leadership race is all hype and posturing, but we’re supposed to pay serious attention to it because of the daily tub-thumping for Long in organs like the National Post. No wonder the Liberals are on cruise control.
I suspect Long’s candidacy, though, has less to do with his leadership skills than with the near absence of leadership from Conservative leader Joe Clark. The man who once claimed to be the only one capable of returning the Conservatives to power, has no seat in the House of Commons, and watches impotently as party strategists and MPs defect to Long’s campaign. Meanwhile, Clark’s remaining supporters plead with him to stand up and fight like a politician.
Clark’s strategy so far has been to wait for the alliance to shoot itself in the proverbial foot by electing Preston Manning, after which he says the alliance will be dead in the water, and the Tory defectors will come crawling back. Reacting to Long, he says, would only encourage him and call attention to what he says.
Unfortunately the time for inaction has passed, and Clark’s tepid, diffident response to the alliance to date has called his leadership into question. His most recent blunder was deciding not to attend the recent Ontario Conservative party fundraiser. He said he didn’t think it would be appropriate.
Why the hell not? He’s the country’s head Conservative! If he doesn’t feel that he can show his face at a party fundraiser in the country’s key electoral province, what message does that send to his MPs? Granted, Premier Mike Harris is not a conservative in the traditional Canadian sense, but that’s no reason for Clark to abandon his Ontario MPs, who doubtless felt vulnerable to the hard-sell entreaties and blandishments of Liberal and Alliance partisans.
If the Conservative Party is smart it should replace Clark whatever happens. Even if by some miracle he managed to stanch the bleeding, he’s still nothing more than an uninspiring, recycled, Quebec-appeasing, middle-of-the-road mushmouth who has nothing inspiring or innovative to say.
The party could take note of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s frustrating experience with Gen. George McClellan, head of the Union Army near the outset of the U.S. Civil War.
McClellan, like Clark, was a good organizer and had a loyal following, but he lacked initiative. Despite repeated urgings from Lincoln to take the war to the Confederate Army, McClellan always found a reason to wait. Because of McClellan’s passivity, the Confederate Army under Gen. Robert E. Lee was allowed to take the initiative, and a war that could have been short was prolonged by years.
Frustrated by his do-nothing general, Lincoln sacked McClellan and replaced him with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union to victory. For its part, the Conservative party can no longer endure a McClellan as its leader.
The parlous state of the once-proud party of Sir John A. Macdonald is painful to behold. In fact, it might not survive in its present form. The alliance could successfully claim the bluest of the blue Tories, and the Liberals could claim some of the other blues and deep purples.
The Tories can still try to carve out a niche on the political right, but there’s little room, and voters are hungry for variety. If the Tory party wants to be relevant it could return to its nationalist, philosophical conservative principles.
Time was, the Conservative party opposed continentalism, and recognized that government had a legitimate role to play in the national economy. The simplistic, anti-statist laissez-faire populism that animates much political thinking is based on a survivalist vision of Canada that will ultimately lead to its impoverishment.
One can argue about the way that public goods like health and education are administered, but to suggest that they be given over bit by bit to the private sector is dangerously naive. Businessmen are parochial beings intent on maximizing profits; any public benefit that they create is merely a bonus.
Above all, traditional conservatism places politics ahead of economics, unfashionable though that may be now. A party that puts Canadian sovereignty ahead of American corporatism and believes in building a national consciousness instead of flogging multicultural divisiveness is sorely needed. There’s a constituency out there ready to support it, and it deserves to have its voice represented in the House of Commons.
For leader of this Conservative party, I nominate David Orchard, who finished second to Clark in the 1998 leadership race. He was the only candidate to espouse a genuine Canadian conservatism against the the other candidates’s American-inspired economic liberalism.
If you remember, Clark treated Orchard with the utmost disdain, saying he wasn’t a true conservative. Who’s laughing now Joe?