How federal Tories betray the West
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, December 3, 2005

The West's highest hope and biggest fear in this federal election is that the Conservative party will win. A Conservative win could bring meaningful reform to federal institutions and offices and address western concerns about trade and the economy. On the other hand, it could mean yet another chapter in the cycle of betrayal of the West by a conservative party.

A superficial glance suggests the West would be fully included in a Conservative government that would then address western issues. But the danger is it would be deja vu all over again, says Faron Ellis, a political scientist at the University of Lethbridge. "Diefenbaker, Clark, Mulroney ... our team gets in, the West gets its due, then it doesn't address western issues."

Instead, Quebec and Ontario get all the attention. The West then feels betrayed and revolts, says the pollster who determined earlier this year that another Liberal win would give westerners serious pause to consider separation. The classic example is the CF-18 contract. Despite a Conservative cabinet full of prominent westerners such as Harvie Andre, Pat Carney, Joe Clark, Don Mazankowski and Ray Hnatyshyn, Mulroney awarded the contract to Quebec instead of the more deserving Winnipeg. "It became a flashpoint," says Ellis, "and a visible symbol of betrayal." It also created an opening for Preston Manning's Reform party.

And that, more or less, has been the cycle under three Conservative prime ministers. "We've even tried sending in our premiers. Lougheed. Klein. We've tried new parties. Now the western and eastern premiers seem to be achieving rapprochement on equalization. It's a new dynamic at play. But every conventional option has been tried and failed." The political imperative of Canadian federalism is to gravitate to where the votes are, says Ellis, and that's Quebec and Ontario.

If Ellis sees problems ahead for the Conservatives, University of Alberta political theorist and professor emeritus Leon Craig sees no hope at all. The man who this summer penned the rallying cry for an independent Alberta disparages its ability to reform federal institutions. Tainted and sustained by patronage, affirmative action, vote buying and outright pilfering, these, he believes, are beyond recovery. Easterners, he says, are raised in this culture. "Once the Conservatives are in government, they'll want to stay there." And, by implication, become tainted.

For the West in general, but Alberta in particular, this kind of sellout would provide fuel if not for separatism then for movements like "refederationism." According to Alberta senator-elect Link Byfield, chairman of the Citizens Centre for Democracy and Freedom, alienated westerners should "fix it, not break it." The federal Clarity Act supplies the mechanism, he argues. Better a handful of provinces do the job together, but a single province could do it too. The idea is to separate with a view to refederating under a new model, say, Swiss cantons.

A Conservative loss, on the other hand, could give Alberta legislature member Ted Morton a big boost. Positioning for a run at the leadership of the provincial Progressive Conservative party, Morton's initial objective would be the firewall agenda: powers for Alberta similar to those Quebec enjoys. And if Ralph Klein retires in 2007, the same year in which a referendum on separation could follow the Quebec provincial election, a Yes vote could produce the domino effect that pushes Morton right into power.

For now, there are two strikes against any kind of western independence. The first, says Craig, is habitual patriotism. The second is flush times, though a federal government raid on Alberta's resource revenues could change that.

If Alberta separation is on the back burner, other factors, too, weigh against it. "Harper has more substance and depth than Mulroney," says Ellis. "His brains trust should understand the pitfalls of governing and be smart enough to avoid the Mulroney mistakes."

Not that we have seen much of the deep-thinking Harper of bygone Reform and National Citizens Coalition days. Now, following a strong if bumpy opening to this election campaign, the delivery of a comprehensive agenda by the Conservative party finally appears imminent. Even so, for Leon Craig, it is only a matter of time before the inevitable sets in. "C'mon home," he says to western Conservatives eyeing power in a doomed federal system. "And help build a new country here."

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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