Statesmanship key to crucial goal of uniting the right

by Margret Kopala

Letter to the editor published in The Ottawa Citizen, May 21, 1998.

Thank goodness for Peter White. ("Time to merge with Reform: Tory", May 17). The debate about uniting the right has existed in the editorial pages of Canada’s newspapers for some time but partisan loyalties have proscribed engagement by aprty members. Now, a prominent Tory, Peter White, has opened a door through which others may follow, and not a minute too soon.

To be sure, there are many policies and principles around which Reformers and Tories might unite. Fsical prudcence, free enterprise, traditional values, and a strong defence system are the obvious examples. Even the much vaunted shcism between the parties on national unity and social conservatisdm is bridgeable if Reformers take their family values to heart and allow their New Canda to salute the Old. Reform populism, too, might be ready to accommodate deeper notions of responsible citizenship and the ability of the party system, rather than recal and referendums, to mediate between national and constituency interests.

Uniting the right may alienate a few supporters but his would be the temporary price of achieving the pragmatic benefits of a merger. For instance, a merger would bring Canada closer to its (essentially) two party system. Five parties in the House, each pandering to its regional biases, only encourages conflict and confrontation. Of course the argument about the need to stop splitting the right-wing vote is well known but few have considered how a merger neutralizes the two parties’ worst image problems - "extremism" and "Brian Mulroney". Issues of principle and pragmatism, then, are not th eprimary obstacles to a merger. Rather, one problem, as Mr.White starts to suggest, is process - the "how" of achieving it. The second is implied in Tory strategist Geoff Norquay’s observation about the "deafening silence" among Reformers about the merger option.

Both speak implicitly to the psychology of the two parties’ memberships. This, indeed, is no light matter. Many Tories stood by their party through its darkest hours while others are perceived to have deserted to join Reform. ...generosity of spirit will be rquired for steadfast Torey loaylists ro rise above their sens of betrayal and for Reformers to rise above their innate sense of competitiveness to appreciate that - from the time of the Liberal-Conservative Coalition government of 1845 - electoral success for Canadian conservatives has usually been achieved through unions, mergers, alliances of coalitions.

What to do? The first step is to take the subject out of the closet and, through debate and discussion, give it a thorough airing. From that, question, concerns, ideas and answers will flow. One such answer would allow negotiation between two equal parties with input from their fully informed membership and culminate in an openly contest race for the leadership of the newly merged party. This would require extraordinary statesmanship from Preston Manning and from the new PC leader. If each decided to run again, both could lose to another entrant.

But this kind of statesmanship and generosity of spirit from the two parties and their leadership isn’t impossible and it is clearly necessary. The argument that persuaded me of the need for a merger had little to do with the pragmatics of power acquisition or even ideological correctness. It was the realization that the biggest problem facing Canada today is the need for mediation between Quebec and Western Canada. A Reform/Tory merger, which will require its own brand of accommodation and compromise, immediately assembles the formidable forces of Atlantic, Maritime, Prairie and Pacific members of Parliament. This alone would create a political dynamic of historic and, possibly, momentous proportions.

The biggest benefit, however, would be the restoration of a conservative party to its nation-building role - a role that no other Canadian party has even begun to approximate and one that couldn’t be more needed than right now.

Margret Kopala

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