What this country needs is a political leader like Diefenbaker
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, July 19, 2003

When conservatives aren't fighting with each other, they are good at delivering truly national government. Their first leader, Sir John A. Macdonald, is a Canadian legend, but it was John Diefenbaker who in 1958 famously put western conservative populism on the national map. Winning 208 of 265 seats, he led the Progressive Conservatives to the biggest victory by a single party in Canada to that time. With little support in the regions, the Liberal party has since struggled to regain its status as a truly national party. But if recent reports are accurate, that may no longer be true.

Figures released by Ekos earlier this week predict a major victory in the next election for the Paul Martin Liberals, and not just because of winning in Ontario. In hegemonic proportions, major breakthroughs are possible in all regions. News that the Liberal party is achieving record membership sales -- especially in the West -- underscores the Ekos prediction.

Political commentator Gordon Gibson predicts the Tories will be wiped out in the next election while the Alliance will see its seats reduced by half. And in Alberta, the conservative heartland where even Trudeaumania couldn't budge the Tories from 15 of the province's then 19 seats, Ekos says the Liberals are in a three-way race with the PCs and the Alliance. The news couldn't be worse for the Alliance and PC parties. The West, ever seeking a conservative voice whether in protest or in government, is now clearly being wooed and possibly won by the Liberals. How could this be?

The answer may be found in another poll, this time by Compas, which places the PC and Alliance parties neck and neck and finds that most Tory and Alliance supporters want their parties to get together. Ekos contends that those same supporters are now so frustrated by their parties' failure in this regard they are moving their support to Paul Martin. Little wonder then that "common cause" talks between the PC and Alliance leaders are finally underway. Their best hope for electoral gains, not to mention survival, is clearly with each other.

The point doesn't escape William Stairs, PC leader Peter MacKay's newly appointed director of communications. "It is clear Canadians want a moderate, pragmatic conservatism and that they want to see conservatives back together again," he says. "Reform conservatism and progressive conservatism are not mutually exclusive."

Conditions for making progress aren't optimal. Little time remains before the next election and issues of process and substance are troublesome. MacKay wants co-operation in the House and on policy before electoral co-operation, while Alliance leader Stephen Harper wants a commitment to electoral co-operation first.

Then there are the critics. Whether ideological purists or simply nursing old grudges, these vocal minorities enjoy disproportionate influence, often intimidating more reasonable members. The parties also have single-issue groups. Though generally disengaged from day-to-day activities, they nonetheless appear at candidate and leadership-selection meetings to influence the outcome. Fearing a dilution of that influence, they too resist co-operation.

On the positive side and having learned at least one lesson from previous attempts at co-operation, MacKay and Harper are pursuing private, informal talks. Another lesson is the caution that negotiations are best left to skilled people with no political orother vested interest in the outcome. Exemplary individuals exist in both parties to do the job and, once they strike a deal, members can decide by private ballot.

The Alliance has a policy convention scheduled where outstanding issues can be revisited. With no such convention planned for the Tories, they must find some way to address their 301 resolution. (Failing to run 301 candidates in two previous elections suggests this constitutional requirement, the biggest impediment to joint candidacies, lacks credibility.)

Recalling the 1953 campaign slogan, "Not a partisan cry, but a national need," that gave Diefenbaker his Prince Albert seat may help MacKay and Harper frame their discussions. Indeed, communicating the high moral, democratic and political reasons for co-operation would simultaneously silence the critics and engage voters.

In the West, as elsewhere in Canada, there is an inspiration deficit which Paul Martin seems unlikely to fill. Irrespective of his origins, the leader who finally taps into this will not only restore Diefenbaker's legacy, but will one day also be prime minister of Canada.

Margret Kopala writes weekly on western perspectives.

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