Big tents work best in Canada

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION - John Roe

The birth of the United Con­ser­va­tive Party in Al­berta car­ries im­por­tant les­sons for ev­ery­one in Canada, but most of all the peo­ple who made it pos­si­ble.

It was the union of the prov­ince’s of­ten bick­er­ing Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive and Wil­drose par­ties that gave life to this new po­lit­i­cal force. The par­ties’ merger was ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary af­ter the bit­ter split in Al­berta con­ser­va­tive ranks en­abled Rachel Not­ley’s New Democrats to win the last pro­vin­cial elec­tion and end a 44-year-old Tory dy­nasty.

Dis­sat­is­fied with a PC party it con­sid­ered too prone to big gov­ern­ment and big gov­ern­ment spend­ing, staunch so­cial and fis­cal con­ser­va­tives had walked away years be­fore and started the Wil­drose party.

Yet if Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives and Wil­drose sup­port­ers are still not en­am­oured with each an­other, they dis­like the NDP far more and have set aside their dif­fer­ences, tem­po­rar­ily at least. The ques­tion now is: Will the mar­riage hold? Can mod­er­ate PC Tories co­habit with their more right-wing Wil­drose part­ners in one big happy fam­ily?

If they’re smart, they’ll learn how. Whether you love or hate it, Canada’s first-past-the-post elec­toral sys­tem re­wards par­ties that pitch a big tent with a wel­come sign at the en­trance. While crit­ics con­sider this elec­toral sys­tem in­her­ently un­fair, it en­cour­ages par­ties to be in­clu­sive, to ac­com­mo­date a broad range of po­lit­i­cal views while avoid­ing nar­row, rigid ide­olo­gies.

That’s de­sir­able. That’s also the way suc­cess­ful po­lit­i­cal par­ties eke out the ap­prox­i­mately 40 per cent of the pop­u­lar vote it takes to form ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ments. It’s the strat­egy that helped the fed­eral Lib­er­als gov­ern Canada for most of its his­tory.

More than 30 years ago, the now-de­funct fed­eral Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives fol­lowed the same path un­der the guid­ance of Brian Mul­roney, who won two ma­jori­ties by stak­ing out ground with room for both Que­bec na­tion­al­ists and West­ern pop­ulists.

His coali­tion held un­til dis­grun­tled Que­bec Tories formed the pro-sovereignty Bloc Québé­cois and the West­ern fac­tion cre­ated the Re­form Party. That splin­ter­ing of the right led to 13 years of Lib­eral gov­ern­ment and the death of the fed­eral Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives.

It was only af­ter Stephen Harper re­united the right un­der the Con­ser­va­tive Party of Canada ban­ner that con­ser­va­tives were able to gov­ern in Ot­tawa once again.

It re­mains an open ques­tion whether Al­berta’s United Con­ser­va­tive Party will en­joy sim­i­lar suc­cess.

Will the new party hon­our the “pro­gres­sive” part of its her­itage or move fur­ther to the right? Will it not only stress fis­cal con­ser­vatism, smaller gov­ern­ment and eco­nomic growth but also so­cial con­ser­vatism? And can it avoid fu­ture splits? Al­ready, a PC mem­ber of the Leg­isla­tive Assem­bly, Richard Stark, has re­fused to join the new party’s cau­cus af­ter vow­ing to “hold to val­ues and prin­ci­ples con­sis­tent with Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­vatism.”

On the week­end, with 95 per cent of those who voted favour­ing the cre­ation of the new party, Al­berta con­ser­va­tives re­al­ized the need to con­trol loose can­nons, dull sharp ide­o­log­i­cal edges and pitch that big tent.

It re­mains to be seen if the les­son is im­printed in the United Con­ser­va­tives’ DNA.

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