- The Washington Times - Friday, October 24, 2003

TORONTO — A 14-year effort to reunite Canada’s two conservative parties has reached the verge of success, but critics worry that whether one party or two, the political right could be devastated in the next election.

The religious conservatives and disaffected voters in western Canada and Quebec that former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney brought together to win two consecutive majority governments began to fracture in the late 1980s, leading to a crushing defeat in 1993 that left his Progressive Conservative Party (PC) with just two seats in Parliament.

The hard-liners, who blamed the defeat on abandoning ideological principles, set off on their own, forming a separatist party in Quebec and the anti-Quebec, religiously conservative Reform Party in the west.

In the last elections in November 2000, the Reformers, now known as the Canadian Alliance, emerged a distant second in Parliament with 60 seats to the Liberals’ 301. The Progressive Conservatives were left with 12 seats.

Unable to seriously challenge the ruling Liberals after three elections and three name changes, the Alliance and the PC have papered over their differences. The proposed new union — the Conservative Party of Canada — is widely seen as the right’s best hope to challenge incoming Liberal leader and former Finance Minister Paul Martin in an expected spring election.

But while PC leader Peter Mackay and Alliance chief Stephen Harper signed a deal Oct. 16, “The two groups remain uncomfortable with each other,” said University of Alberta political science professor Steve Patten.

The Canadian Alliance — with its strong base of religious conservatives — has twice as many members as the PC, whose business-oriented moderates fear a takeover by the religious right, he said.

Indeed, rumors abound that Alliance members — who have already approved the deal — are buying up PC memberships to ensure the necessary two-thirds of PC members vote in favor of the union at their convention in December.

But Mr. Mackay, elected only after winning the support of a rival candidate with a promise not to unite with the Alliance, could face legal challenges to the pact if it is approved.

For years, conservative critics have argued that only a united right could end the vote-splitting that gave the Liberals unchallenged victories. But whether the union is ratified or not, the sum of the two parties could end up in greater disarray than apart, Mr. Patten said.

“If the pact fails, the PC will be devastated because they will be blamed for the failure,” but joining the Alliance will be “suicidal” for the progressive side of the party, he said.

Indeed, a recent poll by Toronto-based Environics Research found the two parties are far apart on social issues like homosexual “marriage,” which was recently legalized in Ontario.

A vast majority of Alliance members, 72 percent, oppose same-sex “marriage,” while 57 percent of PC members — roughly the same as the national average — support it.

“There are huge areas of differences,” Environics Research Chairman Michael Adams said.

A “more centrist version” of the two parties could lose social conservative votes to fringe parties like the Christian fundamentalist Family Coalition and fiscal conservatives to Mr. Martin, who turned Canada’s deficit into ongoing surpluses, Mr. Adams said.


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