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Guest Column

Canada's Conservatives: Ready to Govern?

by Nick Nikopoulos Wednesday, april 6, 2005

Close to 3,000 registered delegates recently gathered in beautiful Montreal to attend the first ever political convention of Canada’s newest political party, the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC). The choice of Montreal was strategic since it will be in Quebec were the ruling Liberals could lose power in Canada’s tenuous minority Government in decades. From 1993, the Liberals who have governed Canada, finally face a real threat to be ousted by the united opposition of Canada’s other parties. While a number of issues like accountability, waste, national missile defense with the US, and same sex marriage, have dominated Canadian politics since last year’s Federal election, it is corruption and scandal in dealing with Quebec that could prove to be the final undoing of the Liberals.

The delegates came out in strong support of leader Stephen Harper and his platform designed to maintain Western conservative support, appease those social conservatives of the former Progressive Conservative Party mostly in Central Canada, and to increase its support in French Canada. For many observers, the convention was a rousing success for the new Party created in October 2003 when the former alliance and Conservative parties united. They reason for the unification was clear, remove the Liberals and then reverse their record of corruption, intrigue and lies, and offer Canadians a small-c conservative option that mainstream Canadian public opinion would support. .

a Conservative Rift?

Canadian media and Liberal Party supporters were quick to pick up on a perceived rift within the Conservative Party ranks. It was believed that Harper and former Progressive Conservative Party leader Peter MacKay, currently the CPC’s deputy leader were arguing over the level of power that ridings within the party could have. MacKay was initially concerned that small ridings especially east of Manitoba should have the same power as those in the more powerful west of the country — the traditional base of Harper’s old Canadian alliance Party.

While tension was high at the convention over this issue, it quickly faded away and was deemed a minor inconvenience. Leader Stephen Harper and Deputy Leader Peter MacKay denied there's any rift in their party, after the new Conservatives' first policy convention saw a shift to the centre of the political spectrum.

a rift between Harper and MacKay would have proven to be disastrous for the new Party, but they both came forward to deny anything was serious enough to let the party lose focus on their task at hand - the defeat of the Liberal Party of Canada. Certainly these tensions were nowhere near as pronounced as those between the former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin which had resulted in Martin being removed from his position of Finance Minister.

Martin obviously did enough to unite the party when Chrétien retired and, despite winning only a minority government in the 2004 election, the PM maintains support within the party and a decent amount of public approval. For the time being, this internal Conservative issue remains in the backroom. More pressing for the new party was its revised policy platform that was agreed to at the convention which managed to incorporate the views of both hard-line and social conservative supporters.

Untraditional Marriage and Traditional Response

Conservative politics in Canada like in the U.S. have always supported the traditional definition of marriage between a man and a woman. This is in stark contrast to Paul Martins’ position which has wavered from support of traditional marriage to one which invoked human rights to classify such marriages as minority issues. Justice Irwin Cotler recently challenged Harper during a news conference to question whether the CPC would or would not use Canada’s notwithstanding clause to maintain the traditional definition of marriage. The party agreed with its leader Stephen Harper and voted 74 per cent in favour of the traditional definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. They came out in favour of this historical position but maintained that like the other thorny issue of abortion, social conservatives will be more likely to support the CPC. On the latter point, the party agreed not to support abortion legislation.

On another wedge issue, the CPC chose to fully endorse official bilingualism. In Quebec, Martin’s Liberals lost an enormous number of seats as Quebec voters saw the Prime Minister as a culpable character in a mess. Instead of the CPC, however, the separatist Bloc Quebecois capitalised the most from the loss of confidence in the Province. This factor plus an increase in PCP fortunes in the province could spell disaster for the Liberals.

adscam and the Gomery Report — the final nail in the coffin?

The single issue that could overturn Liberal prospects in Quebec and the rest of Canada for that matter, remains the ongoing sponsorship scandal in Quebec. The investigation into the fraudulent waste of at least 200 million (U.S.) in a scam involving Quebec advertising firms has Quebec outraged that so much corruption and lack of accountability could occur in their province in order to ‘ensure’ their votes were secure and Quebec remained appeased. The issues remained central during last year’s Federal Election. Harper’s job was clear, he had to prove to Canadians that his party would investigate the wrong doings and assure them that a government led by him would not waste, misdirect, or in fact, steal Canadian taxpayer dollars.

The completion of the Gomery investigation remains the biggest challenge. Paul Martin has called it an obstacle. For his leadership, it certainly is, but for Harper its communication to Canadians remains central. More than any other scandal including the HRDC scandal, the Shawinigate Investigation of former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, or other broken lies and promises, this particular one could finally answer the question of what the Liberal Party’s legacy will be. If it is conclusively shown that the PM who was Finance Minister at the time had no idea where the missing funds had gone, he would be proven to be either incompetent or a liar. The same would be extended to his predecessor.

Conservative Prospects for Power

During the last Federal Election, the united Conservative Party won 99 seats election and the Liberals were reduced to minority government status. With a policy shift that, on the surface at least, seems to offer something for hard-line and centrist conservatives, the CPC is poised to battle the long-ruling Liberals. This cross-consensus and agreement may be just the exact formula that Canadians are looking for.

What may be the biggest weakness of the Party may be the very thing that many thought was the Party’s greatest strength — Paul Martin. The influential Economist Magazine of London recently classified the once tough and decisive deficit cutter who transformed the public finances to resurrect to Canadian economy was now "Mr. Dithers", the leader who proved himself to be an indecisive and weak leader that was easily distracted.

Since the convention in Montreal, Conservatives appear to be more bold and ready to take their message to Canadians in an election. What may trigger this are recent developments over the Liberal government’s budget implementation bill related to environment provision of the Kyoto deal. Harper, like the other opposition parties the Bloc and the socialist NDP deemed the passage to be dangerous. Their rejection could bring down the government and send Canadians back to the polls.

The coming prospects for the Conservative Party of Canada are certainly better following this convention. They were able to do what many Canadians wanted them to do which was to come clean on where they stand on a lot of the major issues. Paul Martin’s Liberals were able to capitalize on this lack of clarity to portray Harper as having a secret agenda when it came to many of the fundamental values that Canadians held so dear such as access to Universal Health Care. They were so effective with this weak and flawed strategy of fear that they were able to win the election — barely. What resulted was a near loss for the Liberals as a lot of Canadians were willing to give the new Party some of their votes but not quite ready to throw the Liberals out of power completely.

With a clearer message, Stephen Harper should be able to ensure that Canadians know fully well what happened to Canadian’s tax dollars and just how he and his new party would be better suited to take power.

Nick Nikopoulos is a freelance political commentator from Toronto, Canada.

Canada Free Press, CFP Editor Judi McLeod