Cooperation. It could very well be the new buzzword for Tory leader Joe Clark as the small c’ coalition of the Conservative Party and former Alliance MPs prepares itself for the next federal election. It could also end up being one of the major things that separates them from the rest of the federal political herd.
Clark, prime minister from 1979 to 1980, and Prince George-Peace River MP Jay Hill held a joint press-conference Thursday in Prince George. The overriding theme, with Clark and Hill sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and speaking about the future of the Progressive Conservative-Democratic Representative Coalition, was cooperation. Whether that cooperation will take the form of the coalition metamorphosing into one, single party, or a joining with the Canadian Alliance, is something Clark says needs to be decided by the end of the calendar year in order to be ready when an election is called.
“There is no question in our view that we agree on the goal. People who come from the Reform/Alliance/DRC tradition and those who come from the Progressive Conservative tradition that it is better to have one entity. How we get to that one entity, what it is and what it’s called, is the challenge we face right now,” says Clark. “The idea of having one group run in some constituencies with one leader and one set of policies and another group run in other constituencies with another leader and set of policies and say to the voters you guess which policies will follow when we get there isn’t a good idea.”
And while many would pin any hopes of creating a credible opposition to the federal Liberals on a joining with the Alliance, Clark says the party will go ahead with their mission regardless of whether Stockwell Day or Stephen Harper both steadfastly against merging with the Tories or Diane Ablonczy or Grant Hill win this month’s Alliance leadership race. Some form of joining is both necessary, says Clark, and inevitable.
“We’d strongly prefer it , but can they stop it from happening if they refuse to cooperate? No, they can make it tougher but I think there is a desire to have this done, including amongst people who support the Canadian Alliance. I think if their leadership says no, I think a lot of their membership says yes. One of the question that will be answered when they chose the leader will be whether we have to do this indirectly with the membership of directly with the leadership.”
Clark adds he’s heartened by internal Alliance polls conducted last year that suggest the majority of Alliance members support a joining with the Tories.
Hill, who left the Alliance caucus and recently had his party membership revoked, is also still supportive of a merger with his former party in the interests of forming a stronger opposition. But Hill, coalition whip and a vocal supporter of Ablonczy’s leadership bid, also maintains the coalition won’t be derailed if Harper or Day is leader.
Clark is also quick to point out that even a complete merger between the PC-DRC coalition and the Alliance wouldn’t be enough to unseat the Liberals. The next phase would have to be efforts to attract Liberal and Bloc Quebecois voters to whatever joint party was created.
While the Alliance struggles to find leadership and the Liberals start to show cracks of their own with the verbal jousting between Paul Martin and Allan Rock, Clark says the coalition’s own successes speak for themselves, though he admits some of their policies and activities have been overshadowed since the party declared its formation one day before terrorist attacks in the U.S. He points to the coalition’s border security and management proposal in the wake of September 11; clean water proposals; the coalition’s democratic reform paper which Clark says is based on the original Reform principals and opposition to rifle registration. As well, he says the coalition has led debate on a number of topics in the House including Hill being a member of the committee investigating Defence Minister Art Eggleton’s conflicting statements in the House of Commons about Canadian soldiers taking prisoners in Afghanistan.
On the softwood lumber issue, Clark says Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s failure to put pressure on the American government at the highest level has allowed the dispute to drag on. If the president isn’t pressed, he says, then American lumber producers will be able to drag out the dispute and the duties on Canadian lumber exports stay in place.
“There should be a full-court press on this. The prime minister should have been involved a long time ago … it’s time for him to stop hanging back and intervene directly.”