Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Right ready to unite

Tory, Alliance leaders hammer out merger

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OTTAWA -- The Canadian Alliance and Tories are poised to announce a historic merger today to end a 16-year split among the country's right-wing vote.

Alliance Leader Stephen Harper cancelled events in Calgary yesterday to rush back to Ottawa to meet Tory Leader Peter MacKay, who flew in from Halifax to complete the agreement in time for a news conference scheduled for 8 a.m. Winnipeg time.

The tentative unite-the-right deal that's been hammered out calls for a ratification by party members in early December and paves the way for a leadership contest March 19-21 so that the new conservative party will be ready for a spring federal election.

"I do think that we are approaching something that's very historic," Harper said as he prepared to board a plane in Calgary.

"It's not often that the political landscape is altered in a big way so quickly."

MacKay -- elected Tory leader in May after signing a controversial deal with leadership contender David Orchard pledging no co-operation with the Alliance -- also lauded the deal.

"Clearly, negotiations have reached a point where we feel we may have something in principle," MacKay said upon arriving in Ottawa.

"This is an evolution, not a devolution of the Progressive Conservative party. This is something that, historically, I believe is very significant."

The tentative deal comes after weeks of on-again-off-again talks filled with no shortage of drama and bad feelings befitting a soap opera.

Meanwhile, the man likely to be Canada's next prime minister has shrugged off the effect a merger of the Tory and Alliance parties will have on his plans to govern.

"You can pick your friends but you can't pick your opponents," Martin said at a Liberal fundraiser in Edmonton last night. "They're going to do what they're going to do.

"I have been focused right from the very beginning on the priorities of Canadians, on the kinds of measures we have to bring to deal with very deep and fundamental change in the country. That's where my focus has been and it's going to continue to be that way regardless of what the adversaries do."

The catalyst forcing the bitter rivals to kiss and make up after 10 years of fighting each other -- and inadvertently helping elect three straight Liberal majority governments -- may have been pressure from party members worried that a fourth Grit win was just around the corner.

'Whole lot of pressure'

"I think it was not only the ordinary party members but also very influential party members in the PC party who wanted to see this happen," said Alliance MP Vic Toews (Provencher).

"(McKay) must have been under a whole lot of pressure to make this happen and I have been hearing on a daily basis from constituents 'that you guys have got to get together.'"

Lawyers yesterday were going over the potential merger document and the review Harper and MacKay were to provide was described as little more than cursory.

"An agreement was drafted," said one high-level Alliance source involved in the discussion, "and it will be made available to the leaders when they land on deck in Ottawa."

Said a senior Tory official: "Nothing has been signed yet but there is a new national conservative party on the horizon."

A key breakthrough in the ongoing talks that began in secret in late August but then exploded in public was an Alliance concession on the process for electing a new leader. The Alliance, which vastly outnumbers the Tories in both members and MPs, had wanted a one-member, one-vote selection method.

Firm in their demands

However, the Tories were firm in their demands for equity, so each riding association will be given 100 total points that will be portioned out to each leadership candidate based on the percentage of votes received. For instance, if a candidate took 40 per cent of the vote in one riding, they would earn 40 points.

However, the effort to marry the Alliance and Tories is not only facing tight timelines but a number of hurdles.

One of the biggest challenges may come from the ratification vote of Tory members, which requires a two-thirds majority to pass. Last year, the Tories voted down any effort to co-operate with the Alliance and Manitoba PC MP Rick Borotsik was likely speaking for many when he voiced his opposition to the political engagement about to be announced.

"I am not in favour of, nor do I support this," said the Brandon-Souris MP, who was quick to add that he is not part of the "wedding ceremony."

"I have lived through corporate mergers, and takeovers. This is more of a takeover than a merger."

Approval of the Alliance membership may be easier, as only a simple majority is required from what the party says will be a polling of its membership by mail Dec. 12.

Other potential obstacles could include an Elections Canada provision requiring a new party to submit its paperwork at least one month before an election writ is dropped.

Given the speculation that Martin will call an election in April, that gives a new party about five months to get its act together.

Add to all those hurdles the cultural differences between the parties -- for example the gulf between them over the same-sex marriage bill -- and there could very well be a weakened conservative movement, political scientist Heather MacIvor said.

"I think this could actually benefit the Liberals more than anybody else."

News of the breakthrough deal ending a rift that began with the birth of the Reform party in 1987 was welcomed by many of those who have long tried to break the Liberal lock on power.

"It is good news the two parties have finally got together," said Inky Mark, Tory MP from Dauphin-Swan River who was first elected in 1997 as a Reform party candidate.

'Risk and danger'

"With Paul Martin around the corner, there was always a risk and danger of both parties losing seats."

Don Orchard, the former Filmon cabinet minister who has been working hard to make Alliance MP Brian Pallister the sole conservative candidate for Provencher in the next election, was delighted.

"Anything that brings the two parties together so we quit annihilating each other at local riding levels and focus on a common conservative approach is where the people want us to be," said Orchard, who is a member of both the Tory and Alliance parties.

Toews said he thinks a united conservative party could easily win a minimum of 25 seats in Ontario in the next election.

paul.samyn@freepress.mb.ca
-- with files from Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 16, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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