Much has been made about new Conservative leader Peter MacKay's "deal with the devil", gaining him the support of second-place finisher David Orchard in the recent Conservative leadership campaign. Too much. This is quickly becoming the most overhyped story in Canadian politics this year. It is a picture-worthy definition of a mountain out of a molehill.
For those of you who don't follow Canadian politics that closely (a.k.a. normal people who have lives), this is what happened:
- The federal Progressive Conservative party were having a leadership race, after former party leader Joe Clark stepped down. Front runner is Peter MacKay, a 37-year-old Nova Scotia MP whose father served in the Mulroney cabinet back in the 1980s. He's youthful and vigorous, but he's slick and has the appearance of a neophyte. He's also very much a status-quo candidate.
- Although the Conservatives are bouyed by a recent by-election win, they still have just 15 seats in parliament, and are the fourth largest party... a far cry from the two-term majority government they formed a scant ten years ago. There is a drive for change, and a growing sense that MacKay doesn't represent that change.
- The field competing for the leadership position is large. You have a round of also-rans, and you also have Jim Prentice (a lawyer who advocates merger with the Canadian Alliance, and attracts idiots like Alliance MP Rob Anders, who refused to grant Nelson Mandella honourary Canadian citizenship and called him a "terrorist" -- Ironically, Prentice's campaign site warns Canadians not to vote for him: "Canada deserves better") and Scott Brison (another Nova Scotia MP, who sits slightly to the right of Peter MacKay, and is just as youthful and a little less slick. He's also the only openly homosexual candidate -- he probably would have been the Conservatives' boldest choice for the leadership). These other candidates start talking about an "anybody-but-MacKay" run for the leadership.
- Complicating the "anybody-but-MacKay" movement is the presence of David Orchard, a Saskatchewan farmer who joined the Conservative party five years ago and ran against Free Trade.
- Remember, it was the Mulroney Conservatives that introduced the Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the United States, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (with Mexico). His initial run for the leadership five years ago was widely considered a joke. He has, however, amassed 25% of the voting delegates, suggesting that he has his fingers on a vein of Conservative support, and thus a formidable voting bloc.
- Strong speeches by Brison and Orchard start to turn the convention against MacKay. MacKay gets only 41% of the vote on the first ballot, and this total drops to 37% on the second. Prentice and Brison surge from 8% to 18% each, while Orchard's strength remains at 25%. The consensus is that Orchard has no room to grow, and MacKay is in trouble from a Prentice/Brison onslaught.
- Then MacKay goes to Orchard and the two strike a deal: MacKay will get the support of Orchard's candidates, if MacKay agrees to review the Conservative's commitment to the Free Trade Agreement.
- Peter MacKay becomes the new leader of the Conservative party.
There was footage of outraged delegates on the floor of the convention, there was shock and outrage among the pundits, but Orchard's support was enough to put MacKay over the top, even though the media did its best to ensure that MacKay's leadership began under a cloud.
I say: so what?
If MacKay has a problem, it's that he's too young to be the leader of a political party. He doesn't have the charisma and no sign of the tenacity required to differentiate himself from the hapless Stephen Harper in the coming fight against Paul Martin. His party is not in a position to jump from fourth-place to the government side of the house in the span of a year (when another election will surely be called). MacKay has enough to allow the Conservatives to weather the Paul Martin storm, but the Conservatives' best hope for government hasn't arrived yet. His name is Bernard Lord, and he's still the premier of New Brunswick. He won't be taking up the reins for a few years time.
All this, of course, is conveniently forgotten in the National Post-manufactured tempest in a teapot.
David Orchard is far from the devil and the deal with him is far from Faustian. Orchard gained 25% of the delegates because he spoke to the Red Tory heart of the party: the party of Diefenbaker, MacDonald, Bill Davis and Larry Grossman. He spoke in favour of wheat boards, careful government regulation, and cautious and humane economic policies. Sure, to the untrained eye he might seem like he's on the left of the spectrum, but the Conservatives used to be comfortable governing from there. They were the ones that used the full force of government to build our national railway, our major crown corporations and even the subways of Toronto -- the same Conservatives that were consistently and brutally betrayed by the likes of Brian Mulroney and Mike Harris.
Reviewing the Free Trade Agreement doesn't strike me as an unreasonable request. The Conservatives themselves changed their way of thinking towards such a policy over time; they were the most ardent opponents to such an agreement when the Liberals proposed it back in 1911. An agreement as important as this should be reviewed regularly. While it is true that Canada has made gains under the accord, David Orchard is right to say that it hasn't been the bed of roses that Mulroney et al would have us believe. Whole working class neighbourhoods have been turned into de-industrialized ghettos because of this accord. We can't go back (these neighbourhoods are gone forever), but we can work to build on what works, and improve the portions of the accord that aren't working.
We can, for instance, try to get the United States to understand the "Free" in "Free Trade Agreement". That would be a good start. Hardly a dire betrayal of "principles".
That David Orchard is considered an outcast in the party he joined, a force to be derided rather than welcomed, shows how much the Conservative Party have turned their backs on their Red Tory roots. It would appear that Red Tories such as Bill Davis and David Crombie are no longer welcome. If this is the case, then the party that I've known and loved isn't dying: it's dead, killed by Mulroney in 1983.
There's your deal with the devil.