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Stephen Harper

Freedom Party
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Leader: Stephen Harper

Web Site:

Platform: Demand Better (html, pdf)


The Party: To understand the nature of the Conservative Party of Canada, one must know its history.

Until the election of the John Diefenbaker government in 1953, the Progressive Conservative ("PC") party had never done well in the province of Quebec. A young law student at Université Laval, Brian Mulroney, became a student advisor to Prime Minister Diefenbaker in or about 1961. When the PCs were ousted in 1963, the party's popularity in Quebec again waned.

PC members in western Canada were unhappy with what they perceived as an elitist, red-tory party leadership under Joe Clark. Clark was ousted and replaced with Brian Mulroney who, for a time, was able to quell the alienation western PC members felt within the party. From 1984 until 1993, PC MPs, then led by Quebec MP Brian Mulroney, governed Canada. Mulroney was able to bring the PCs to power by bringing together a loose coalition of somewhat mutually exclusive interest groups. The interests fell into three major camps:

  1. Westerners in favour of equality of the provinces, opposed to special recognition or powers for Quebec, and in favour of a greater say for the west in Ottawa;
  2. Quebecers in favour of greater autonomy or special recognition for Quebec;
  3. People who didn't want to vote Liberal for one reason or other.

The coalition arguably began to fracture on October 31, 1986, when the Mulroney government awarded a CF-18 fighter-jet maintenance to a Quebec-based company instead of a Manitoba-based one. That decision was seen as an instance of Quebec favouritism at the expense of the west. Relations within the party were further irritated when Mulroney spoke-out against capital punishment in a way that was perceived as an insult to western members who favoured capital punishment.

To add more fuel to the fire, Mulroney and the provincial Premiers' reached a Meech Lake Accord on April 30, 1987: a set of constitutional amendments proposed largely by then Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa that, among other things, would give Quebec recognition as a "distinct society"; commit Canada to bilingualism; give the provinces a greater say in matters of immigration (already, jurisdiction over immigration is shared by the federal Parliament and the provincial Legislatures); provide for provincial input in appointing supreme court judges; restrict federal spending power; and restore the provincial right to constitutional veto. The hope was that, with these changes, Quebec would ratify the Canada Act, 1982, which gave Canada the power to amend its own constitution and which added a number of provisions to the constitution of Canada, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (to date, Quebec has not ratified the Canada Act, 1982). A feeling that the west was not being heard, and that the Meech Lake Accord failed to address the west's concerns and was biased in favour of Quebec, was perhaps the final straw leading a group of western-based business persons and other persons to conclude that the west would need to form its own party if it's concerns were to be taken seriously. As a result, on October 30, 1987 - on the anniversary of the CF-18 decision - Reform Party has its first meeting and made Preston Manning (the son of long-time Social Credit Alberta Premier Ernest Manning) its leader.

Reform Party was treated as a fringe party in 1987 and won no seats. Reform made its break-through when Reform Party's Deborah Grey won a seat in the House of Commons with a federal by-election win in a north Edmonton riding in 1989.

The Meech Accord was not adopted: it failed on June 22, 1990, after Manitoba's and Newfoundland's provincial Legislatures decided against ratifying it. In Quebec, the failure of the Meech Lake Accord was taken by many in Quebec to be a rejection, by Canada, of Quebec. Secessionist sentiments began to grow in strength and, as a result, Quebec's place in the federation became an even more important issue for the federal government of Brian Mulroney's PCs. One of Mulroney's Quebec cabinet ministers, Lucienne Bouchard, resigned from the PC party and headed up a group of Quebec-based Liberal and PC MPs that came to form the Bloc Quebecois: a party in favour of the secession of Quebec from Canada.

Subsequent to the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, former PC Prime Minister Joe Clark (whose red-tory elitism had turned off many western members of the party) was made Minister of Constitutional Affairs to deal with the Quebec crisis. On August 28, 1992, the Premiers and Mulroney struck another blueprint for changing the Constitution and getting Quebec to ratify the Canada Act, 1982: the Charlottetown Accord. It too was seen as too pro-Quebec by many and, in the west, it was also seen as failing to address western concerns about provincial equality and autonomy. Reform Party was the only federal political party represented in the House of Commons that rejected the Charlottetown Accord. The Charlottetown Accord was put to a country-wide referendum. A majority of Canadians in the west (in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, BC, and the Northwest Territories), and in Quebec, rejected the Charlottetown Accord, and the Accord was defeated. It is important to note, however, that Ontario, the Yukon, and the eastern provinces said "yes" to the Charlottetown Accord: most people in those provinces did not share the grief felt in the west over matters of provincial equality and autonomy, and many were concerned about the possibility of Quebec secession should the Accord fail to be adopted.

For a variety of reasons - including two failed efforts to amend the constitution, the adoption of a then controversial "free trade" agreement with the USA, and the imposition of the Goods and Services Tax ("GST") - Mulroney's popularity , and the popularity of the PC party, plummetted. Mulroney resigned and was replaced with Canada's first female Prime Minister, Kim Campbell, on June 25, 1993. However, Campbell had been made the captain of a sinking ship which, the next election would prove, she was unable to keep afloat.

On October 25, 1993, Canada rejected the PC party. It was practically destroyed, winning only 2 seats in all of Canada: one to Elsie Wayne, the other to Jean Charest (who replaced Kim Campbell as PC party leader in 1995). To fill the vacuum the resulted from the PCs' defeat, Canadians in the west elected 52 Reform Party MPs, and Canadians in Quebec elected 54 BQ MPs. Most people not sharing the concerns addressed by the proposals of the western-based Reform Party, voters in Ontario (Canada's most seat-rich province) and in the east voted Liberal and, to a lesser extent PC. The Liberal Party, led by Jean Chretien, won 177 seats and formed the government.

In the election of 1997 the pattern of voting remained pretty much unchanged: Reform took 60 seats, mostly in the west, the BQ took 44 seats in Quebec, and the Liberals took 155 seats, mostly in Ontario. The biggest change occurred in the Eastern provinces that rejected the Liberals over spending cuts (e.g., Employment Insurance), and filled the vacuum with PC and NDP MPs: enough MPs to return each of the PCs and NDP to official party status within the House of Commons. Most importantly, to understand today's Conservative Party of Canada: most Canadians in Ontario, Quebec and the east still had no taste for the agenda of the Reform Party, and the PCs were still largely a non-factor with only 20 seats.

Discontent over the electoral outcomes of the 1993 and 1997 elections led most Reformers to conclude that the Reform Party would have won many more seats had all of the people who voted for the PCs voted Reform instead (there was a tendency to assume that PCs and Reformers had more in common than PCs and Liberals, though that assumption was arguably misguided: many PCs would rather have voted Liberal than Reform had those been the only two choices). Chalking Reform's electoral shortcomings up to "vote-splitting", Reform decided to launch a "United Alternative" campaign designed to merge the PC and Reform parties. The effort to merge the parties failed: a majority of attendees voted to merge the Reform Party into a third party called the "Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance" (the "Alliance"; actually, it was initially proposed that the party be named the "Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance" but that idea was quickly changed when it was discovered that the party's acronym would be CCRA Party or "CCRAP"), but the PC party did not merge with the Reform party into the Alliance. In effect, all that had happened was this: the Reform Party changed its name and watered-down or eliminated some of its policy positions so as to attract new members. The United Alternative conference also foreshadowed what was to come: the polling firm of Ipsos Reid issued a report indicating that, of the PC members who favoured the merger, 50% wanted then PC leader Joe Clark to be its leader, whereas 40% of those PCs wanted Preston Manning to be its leader. In the end, Alberta Treasurer Stockwell Day was elected the first leader of the Alliance on July 8, 2000.

The years spent on the United Alternative effort proved largely unfruitful in terms of electoral success. The Alliance won 66 seats in the November 28, 2000 election (only six more than Reform had won in 1997), including two in rural Ontario. The PCs lost seats, dropping to 12 from the 20 they had won in election 1997. The BQ again lost seats, falling to 38 from the 44 they had won in 1997.

Joe Clark, who had led the PC party since 1998, announced his resignation in 2002 and was replaced in 2003. At the PC leadership convention, Calgary lawyer Jim Prentice was arguably poised to win the leadership. However, in a last minute bid to win, Peter MacKay (whose backers included Mulroney and others of that clan) entered into a secret deal with the anti-free trade candidate, David Orchard. When the contents of the deal were finally made public, it appeared that MacKay had won the leadership in May of 2003 by agreeing that the North American Free Trade Agreement would be reviewed, and that there would be no merger with the Alliance. On October 16, 2003, the then leaders of the Alliance and PC parties - Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay - signed the Agreement in Principle to merge the Alliance and PC parties. After controversial votes were held within each party, the agreement was ratified in mid-December of 2003, and the parties were merged later that month into a single party called the Conservative Party of Canada.

The party came into being without a constitution or a set of policies: the merger was ratified with each party's members hoping that, after the merger, they would have enough power to determine the direction of the party. The first step in defining that agenda was to take the form of a leadership election. The Mulroney clan, representing the Canadian Establishment, tried to entice a number of high-profile candidates to run, including former Ontario Premier Mike Harris. In the end, the daughter of automobile industrialist Frank Stronach, Belinda, was chosen to carry that faction's flag. In the end, it was the former Alliance leader, Stephen Harper, who won the leadership by a considerable margin.

Several high-profile red-tory PC MPs have parted with the Conservatives and either joined the Liberal Party (e.g., Scott Brison) or decided not to run again (e.g., Andre Bachand). The successful leadership bid of Stephen Harper has also led many in the media to conclude that the Conservative Party is simply the Alliance with a new name. Former PC leader Joe Clark has been very negative about the party, saying that he would rather entrust Canada's governance to the Liberals than to the Conservative Party.

On June 5, 2004, the Conservative Party released its 2004 election platform, entitled "Demand Better". In respect of economic issues, it would appear that Joe Clark's fears have been misplaced. The total of promised spending in the Conservative platform is significantly greater than in either of the Liberal or NDP platforms: this is not a small government platform. Whereas it promises to cut subsidies to business, it promises to cut corporate taxes: from all appearances, businesses collectively will receive the same amount of government support in the form of tax breaks as they would in the form of subsidies, but the support will be distributed more thinly and to a greater number of recipients. The platform also diverts tax-based subsidies to parents ($2000 deduction per child). Overall, the platform could be one straight out of the Liberal stall: support is promised for farmers and fisheries, large infusions of cash for socialized medicine subject to federal dictates on how the money is spent, gas tax revenues are promised to be forwarded to municipalities (again, with strings attached) etc.

Arguably, the biggest differences between the Liberal and Conservative philosophies, at present, relate to social issues, not economic issues. The Conservatives promise to give Parliament the final say on things such as the definition of marriage: this would require invocation of the rarely-used "notwithstanding clause" (s. 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms), which exempts laws from the applicability of the Charter. Also, in the second week of the 2004 election period, the media pressed Stephen Harper to answer questions about social issues including abortion, the definition of marriage, and the death penalty. Harper's response in respect of each issue appears to be that although a Harper government would not introduce a bill on those issues, Harper would allow a free vote on a private members bill on each of those issues. Harper has also said that marijuana possession should remain "illegal", but that the penalty should be a fine, instead of imprisonment, for small quantities.

In a nutshell: the new Conservative appears to be going red-Tory on economic issues, and Reform Party on social issues.


Page Last updated: Monday, June 28, 2004  








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