United right offers little to a liberal electorate
James Travers
OTTAWA - IT'S ONE THING to chase a dream and quite another to pursue a fallacy. Canada's feuding conservatives are hot on the trail of the latter.

Fathered by misconception and raised by false hopes, the unite-the-right movement is facing a premature, if merciful, death. From its ashes can now only rise something that looks very much like the party Preston Manning's Reform was created to replace.

Call it the new Progressive Conservative party or the Conservative Alliance, but the party that eventually fills the vacuum created by the implosion of the official opposition will represent the political centre, not the radical right. The forces that make that outcome inevitable are as obvious as they are irresistible.

Among those is a political dynamic that has been around as long as the movement itself. Instead of undermining federal Liberals, a union that includes the Alliance and Tories will only strengthen the ruling party by making it a magnet for Canada's middle-of-the-road voters.

This week, The Star published an Ekos Research poll that drives a spike through the soft mathematics of those selling the idea that a united right would equal the sum of its parts. Instead of flocking to what remains of the once proud Tories, disillusioned conservatives are increasingly finding a home among the one-size-fits-all Liberals.

That phenomenon is particularly evident in Ontario, the cornerstone of Liberal hegemony. In the province that gave Prime Minister Jean Chrétien his three consecutive majority victories, the combined support for the Alliance and Tories trails the Liberals by 27 percentage points.

Time, leadership and fickle fortune will alter those numbers but not the underlying political reality. As a series of Ekos surveys suggest, traditional Tory voters are twice as likely to turn to the Liberals as to a new conservative party embracing the Alliance's social values.

The surveys tell another, more important, story. In the current federal context, success depends on attracting those moderate voters who now support a Liberal party that sprawls across most of the political spectrum.

Those voters are part of a much deeper pool than the one Reformers hoped to drain by attracting Tories to the Alliance. And they will only flow away from Canada's party of perpetual power when that power so corrupts the Liberals that they drive voters into the arms of a waiting alternative.

What conservative ideologues consistently miss is that their purpose is doomed by their terminology. In this country, even a united right is weak.

In sharp contrast to the U.S. - where most Alliance policies germinated - Canadians lean a little to the left. That liberalism manifests itself in values that include greater tolerance for minority views, multiculturalism and secularism. The converse is that Canadians are more willing to limit individual aspirations, including gun ownership and private medicine, in the search for social cohesion.

Once again, the numbers tell a convincing story. In Canada, 33 per cent identify themselves as liberals compared to only 24 per cent who say they are conservative. In the U.S., the prevailing winds are reversed with 24 per cent associating themselves with liberal values compared to 45 per cent who see themselves as conservative.

Changing trends exacerbate that fundamental difference, as well as the inherent weakness of the unite-the-right movement.

After being carried to unprecedented heights by the longest economic expansion in history, laissez-faire capitalism and, particularly, its social cost, is getting new scrutiny.

In Ontario, that scrutiny includes the business plan mentality that may have contributed to the Walkerton tainted water tragedy, as well as to the deterioration of schools and health care.

Here in Ottawa, it extends to a government so downsized that it often can't meet public expectations and is forced to download programs and costs on lower levels of government.

Conservative dogma, at least that preached by the radical right, offers few attractions to a fundamentally liberal electorate struggling to find a new equilibrium between economic opportunity and social values.

As Tory Leader Joe Clark knows, that fulcrum is much closer to the fiscally conservative, socially progressive traditions of his party than it is to the views of those clinging to Stockwell Day and an Alliance party that is too true to its Reform roots.

For conservatives, the enduring, if distant dream, is to create a government-in-waiting. The fallacy is to believe the far right and the near right can be united in a party that can credibly plant its flag in the political centre.

James Travers is a national affairs writer. His column appears in The Star on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

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