RM Issue #030604
Timid Tories opt for the status quo
Toronto Star June 1, 2003
In electing Peter MacKay as their new leader, the federal Progressive Conservatives made a conscious decision last night to go with a cautious "establishment" candidate to lead them into the next general election.
The choice of MacKay, who ran a campaign that was noticeable only because of its lack of bold, new ideas for the struggling party, is in stark contrast to the dramatic selection by New Democrats just four months ago of Jack Layton as their national leader. Where Layton brimmed with energy and ideas ranging from the need for a new deal for cities to preserving our health-care system, MacKay spent most of his campaign attacking the ruling Liberals instead of trying to convince voters he has fresh ideas that are worthy of wider debate. At the same time, the dramatic last-minute decision by David Orchard, who wants to reopen the U.S. free-trade deal, to toss his support to MacKay on the fourth ballot and seal the victory for him is troubling. It means the price of victory will be steep for MacKay, who agreed to Orchard's demands for a blue-ribbon Tory panel to review the free-trade accord. That runs totally against party policy. Already, some Tory MPs are upset with MacKay's deal-making, which they believe gives the Canadian Alliance ammunition to label the new Tory leader as a man of few principles who flip-flops on policy when it suits his own purpose. While MacKay's strategy may have ensured his victory, he faces a much sterner test in trying to sell himself to average Canadians. For despite all the brave talk at this weekend's convention about the party gaining momentum and enjoying a rebirth, the truth is the Conservative Party is in disastrous shape. It has only 15 seats and recent polls show the debt-ridden party remains mired in the mid-teens in popularity. MacKay will also have a hard job explaining to Canadians how he and the Tories differ from the Canadian Alliance and its leader Stephen Harper. A quick glance at their platforms shows striking similarities — from demanding more tax cuts, to supporting a bigger private sector role in health care, to gun control and more defence spending. Harper is already planning to meet MacKay soon to outline a plan whereby either the Tories and Alliance would run a single candidate in ridings where they might have a chance of defeating Liberal incumbents. Sadly for Canadians looking for strong leadership on the right side of the political spectrum, that scenario might represent the last, best stand by the Tories, who have been plagued by rot for the last 10 years. Because the timid step the party took yesterday in opting for the status quo in this time of crisis is a recipe for self-destruction, not revitalization.