At last, the Canadian Alliance seems to have its act together
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, September 20, 2003

It has been a good week for the Canadian Alliance. Proposing its resolution on same-sex marriage, it demonstrated a clear understanding of the ambivalence Canadians and their elected representatives feel about this important issue. By forcing a vote in the Commons, it exposed divisions in the ruling Liberal party and a flailing Paul Martin. For the first time in a long time, the party appeared resolute, capable and connected -- a party ready to govern.

It's about time. Since 1993 when the Reform Party broke into Parliament with 52 seats, it has been 10 years of ups and downs for the western-based party. But this week it was all "up" when, on Parliament Hill, 250 party members celebrated Canadian Alliance achievements.

From the "Zero in Three" campaign calling for balanced budgets (that Liberals first ridiculed then implemented), and opposition to the Charlottetown Accord, the party also laid the groundwork for the Clarity Act and placed the question of Senate reform and judicial activism on the national agenda. On matters of government waste, whether through Diane Ablonczy's probing of HRDC or John William's "Waste Report," it has been unrelenting.

It exposed Liberal divisions on democratizing parliamentary committees, and Stephen Harper's "We're not neutral" speech on the Iraqi War was the best Parliament has heard in a while. Most recently, it gained an ally in the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which is seeking assurances that the best interests of children are the "leading criteria" in any policy for same-sex marriage.

Internally, the party is disciplined and in the black. In a clear sign from members that the bad old days of the party's leadership controversy are over, most of the dissident MPs have won their nominations (Deborah Grey didn't contest hers and Jim Pankiw is now an independent). This means Harper can put his best performers front and centre.

And if that wasn't enough for a week already packed with goodies, news arrived that the Progressive Conservative and Alliance parties are negotiating a proposal to merge under a "Conservative" banner.

There's reason for hope these talks will succeed. Polls uniformly place the Liberals leading in all regions. Without co-operation, both Tory and Alliance parties will incur significant losses in the next election. Facing these facts will, by themselves, give the talks impetus.

Equally important is the process. Harper and Conservative leader Peter MacKay have wisely stepped aside to let elder statesmen play key negotiating roles. People like Don Mazankowski, Bill Davis, Ray Speaker and Gerry St. Germain have no axes to grind or political points to score and are well positioned to fashion a workable deal. Of course, the timelines for reconciling constitutions, conventions and constituency associations are short, but with the kind of superior management and infrastructure each party commands, pulling it all together shouldn't be impossible. The buzz emanating from a well- orchestrated leadership convention should alone make the effort worthwhile.

To be sure, Peter MacKay's agreement with David Orchard is an impediment. But by referring the Tory/Alliance deal to the Tory membership for ratification or by resigning his leadership, MacKay should find himself off the hook.

As a former NASA official once said, failure is not an option. Disunited and fighting a war of attrition in the next election, Tories and Alliance could in the best-case scenario finally learn their lesson and try all over again.

Deeper estrangement, however, is the more likely outcome. This would mean neither party could hope to achieve government for another 10 years, thus activating the historical 20-year cycle of Liberal rule followed by a one- or two-term conservative government which, making the inevitable mistakes of a government lacking corporate memory or hands-on experience, would soon be exiled into the political wilderness for another 20 years.

The new-found political maturity and economic independence of Canada's western provinces makes a third scenario possible. Failing to see its aspirations reflected yet again on the national stage would undoubtedly fuel western alienation and perhaps ignite its nascent separatist movement. In this eventuality, the Canadian Alliance could indeed find itself forming a government -- this time in a new country that was once Canada's West.

Margret Kopala's column on western perspectives appears here weekly.

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