In May of 1996, Ezra Levant and right-wing journalist David Frum; held a Winds of Change conference in Calgary, with the purpose of getting together Jean Charest, the new leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, and Preston Manning, leader of the Reform Party.
The goal, according to Frum, was to discuss the prospects of a merger between the two parties. He believed that a vigorous airing of views behind closed doors, would help to develop a common agenda, and create the momentum that was needed to unite the right.
The conference turned out to be both more and less than expected. In terms of bridging the differences between the parties of Preston Manning and Jean Charest, the conference made little headway. The conference did endorse a move that had been underway for some time to field a single Reform-Progressive Conservative candidate in the federal riding of Brant. But the chasm in terms of the egos and pride of the leaders; the different attitudes that the parties have towards populist initiatives; Reform's origins in western alienation, Social Credit, and religious fundamentalism; and the fact that Reform emerged in part as an angry protest against the policies of a Progressive Conservative government made a rapprochement unlikely. The conference also revealed deep divisions between so-called fiscal conservatives who wanted a smaller role for the state and a climate that would foster business growth and social conservatives who wanted greater state involvement in legislating morality whether on abortion, criminal justice, or "family" values. (1)Ernest Manning, former Social Credit premier of Alberta, and Preston Manning's father; had unsuccessfully attempted such a merger three decades before, but the neoconservative movement now had the media to manipulate public opinion, and an extremely weakened national PC Party.
The Winds of Change conference occurred at a time of both political crisis and rising influence for the right in Canada. On one hand, the Reform and Progressive Conservative parties continue to battle each other for supremacy on the right, splintering the vote. The conference did little if anything to alleviate the problem. On the other hand, the entire agenda of Canadian politics has been influenced by an intellectual climate that is shaped more and more by right-wing journalism. (1)The executive of the Progressive Conservative party suggested that their members stay away, preferring instead to try to rebuild. Charest attended but nixed any talks of a merger.
However, one speech made at the conference, paved the way for the creation of a party of the right, based on neoconservative principles, already being implemented South of the border. The speaker was Stephen Harper, then a Reform MP, and soon to be president of the right-wing advocacy group, the National Citizens Coalition.
He laid out a plan to build a party "around three main elements: populist reformers, strongest in the West but also present in rural Ontario; traditional Tories, strong in Ontario and Atlantic Canada; and francophone nationalists in Quebec." (2)
Harper detested Red Tories, whom he referred to as 'Pink Liberals', and called the term 'Progressive Conservatism', an oxymoron.
He needed to dig into the conservative base that had rejected the modernization of the party. Whose values fell in line with Reform Party values. And an alliance with the Bloc, was not out of the question.
The Bloc Quebecois is strongest in rural Quebec, among voters who would not be out of place in Red Deer, except that they speak French rather than English. They are nationalist for much the same reason that Albertans are populist -- they care about their local identity and the culture that nourishes it, and they see the federal government as a threat to their way of life. (3)And while it thought difficult to draw votes away from the Bloc, there was another way to assure cooperation:
...the "alliance" of centre-right parties might require — to finally surmount the Liberal seat count in the House of Commons — an arrangement to be negotiated with the Bloc Quebecois to secure that party's support in Parliament. (4)Quebec votes have proven to be more fluid than originally thought, as seen with the NDP surge this last election. But can it hold?
The Conservatives will now do everything necessary to take these seats away from the NDP without risking a return of Bloc Quebecois.
But this small book deals with history of the Alliance Party, it's impact on Canadian Conservatism, and the heavy influence of the American right, that contributed so much to it's success.
1. The Winds of Right-wing Change in Canadian Journalism, By David Taras (University of Calgary), Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 21, No 4, 1996
2. Mr. Harper's road map to power: The directions are in the Winds of Change speech he gave 10 years ago this week, By Tom Flanagan, Globe and Mail, May 23, 2006
3. Our Benign Dictatorship, By Tom Flanagan and Stephen Harper, Next Magazine, January 1997
4. Right-wing roadmap? Harper wrote of 'effective coalition' plan in 1996 article, By Randy Boswell, Postmedia News, April 24, 2011