Canada Tories steam into the deep blue water

Shattered party rebuilds with sharp swing to the right, Hugh Winsor writes from Ottawa
Canada's Conservatives, rebuilding themselves from their historic and catastrophic defeat four years ago, have taken a sharp right turn. In an effort to regain votes they have chosen what in British political terms might be called the "clear blue water" strategy.

As the country's undeclared election campaign moved into full swing this week, Jean Charest, leader of a revitalised Conservative Party, has taken a major gamble by targeting the right-wing populist Reform Party rather than the ruling Liberal government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien as the best route back to political contention and the rebuilding of his shattered party.

Politicians of every political stripe are taking advantage of the Easter parliamentary recess to pre-test the themes they plan to use in the formal campaign for an election that is widely expected to be announced next month for balloting in early June.

For Mr Charest this has meant a tour through vote-rich Ontario (which accounts for one third of the seats in the federal parliament) promising an immediate 10 per cent reduction in personal income taxes to be paid for by more cuts in social spending, the firing of 35,000 civil servants and the elimination of many business subsidies as well as selling off government assets.

Although some analysts have argued Mr Charest has picked the wrong enemy, the Tories seem to be preoccupied with the western-Canada based Reform Party which scooped up enough previously Conservative supporters to split the vote in 1993 and permit the Liberals to win a large majority.

Many of the new Conservative promises appear to be direct thefts from the Reform agenda, including tough rhetoric about law and order. Nevertheless, the Conservatives appear to be getting over their humiliating defeat in 1993 when they went from a comfortable majority of 165 seats in parliament to two.

That devastation was largely due to the electorate's desire for a change and a reaction against political sleaze and cronyism that surrounded the government of the former prime minister, Brian Mulroney. Reform and the Conservatives each won about 4 million votes in total but since the Reform vote was concentrated in the three western provinces, the party won 52 seats.

The political landscape has changed a lot since 1993, however. Memories of the Mulroney era have dimmed while Mr Charest, who is 39 and was only a junior minister in the Mulroney cabinet, has benefited from his youth, his ease in both English and French, his photogenic family and his strong performance on the federalist side during the Quebec referendum.

His personal popularity has shot up in the polls and even outpaces Mr Chretien's in Quebec, but until recently Mr Charest and his party offered a blank screen when it came to policy. Behind the scenes, party organisers and advisers were torn between attempting to out-reform Reform or to go after the more centrist Liberals.

In opting for the shift to the right, the Conservatives risk alienating areas where they have the best chance of winning back some of their traditional seats, especially in Atlantic Canada where there is unhappiness with Liberal initiatives to cut back on unemployment insurance and regional subsidies. The minimum goal is to win the 12 seats needed for official recognition as a party in parliament.

The Reform Party leader, Preston Manning, has predictably accused the Conservatives of stealing many of his policies while attacking the tax cut promise as fiscally irresponsible if the deficit is not eliminated first. The Reform Party is also in favour of reducing government, and cutting back social programmes.

But it is also promising tax cuts eventually and both parties attribute Ontario Premier Mike Harris's success at the provincial level to his pledge to cut taxes. The Reform Party has not been able to break out of its large rural Western Canadian base, however, because of the extreme views of some of its MPs and the unsympathetic perception of its leader, Mr Manning.

The party's hostility towards bilingualism and any recognition of Quebec's distinctiveness has precluded any support for it there. All of this provides an opportunity for the Conservatives to portray themselves as the only opposition party capable of winning support across the country and the only national alternative to the Liberals.

One of Canada's leading pollsters, Darryl Bricker, believes Mr Charest and the Conservatives have made a strategic error. "The people who moved from the Tories to Reform are unlikely to come back. But the Tories lost a lot more votes to the Liberals in the last election and it's the Liberals that should be their target," he said. None of this skirmishing appears to concern the Liberals who are cruising along with a 25 percentage point lead over their nearest rivals in the polls.