Sunday, November 11, 2007

Trouble in the Conservative sandbox

In comments I was asked what my views were Harper's appointment of an independent review of L'Affair Mulroney. I pretty much share Dana's view that it will be a whitewash. In mulling that over however, I came across this new piece by Jennifer Ditchburn at CP. She has some interesting points, not the least of which is a reminder that the Conservative Party of Canada is actually a coalition of former Progressive Conservatives and Reformers.
Brian Mulroney's stint in reputation rehab could be at an end in Canada's conservative circles.

He deftly shed the label of one of the most unpopular outgoing prime ministers in Canadian history, adopting instead the mantle of the wise, elder statesman. In the process, he caught a second wind in Tory politics.

But Mulroney's past just refused to stay in the old Tory closet, and ultimately Harper couldn't afford the liability. As he announced Friday that he would commission an independent probe into allegations of Mulroney's business dealings with controversial businessman Karlheinz Schreiber, Harper also severed ties with his former mentor.

That can't bode well with a lot of Mulroney sycophants. Harper is considered "junior" by many of them and they were more than happy to have Mulroney tossing hints in from the sidelines.

The new Conservative party is an intricate mixture of Canadian Alliance members and Progressive Conservatives, perhaps not completely cohesive after only four years of co-habitation.

Late Friday, some Conservatives were privately wondering what the reaction would be from Tory Senate Leader Marjory LeBreton, who has been a passionate defender of Mulroney's as a former aide and as a friend. Defence Minister Peter MacKay is another Mulroney booster. Other senior Conservatives, including Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon's Chief of Staff, Paul Therrien, also hailed from the Mulroney era.

Harper's pointman on his transition to power in January 2006 was led by Derek Burney, a former Mulroney chief of staff.

The decision to cut Mulroney loose could not have been an easy one for Harper, said some insiders, who said Harper owes much to the elder Tory.

It's that "owing" that creates the problem. Harper, while in opposition and while campaigning made loud noises about cleaning up government despite the fact that his actions have fallen considerably short of his promises.

In one sense, it is a reprise of Mulroney's campaign attack on John Turner when he chewed him up (quite justifiably) for making an unashamed string of political patronage appointments just before an election. Mulroney also campaigned on cleaning up government only to be accused of dirt being hidden in every corner. When it came to government postings, instead of cleaning up the process, Mulroney engaged in an orgy of patronage appointments.

Not that any of that matters much. Mulroney lied, Harper lied and that is standard political fare. But the "owing" part creates a problem for Harper. Mulroney and his brand of conservatives will expect to collect a few markers on this issue and that means a level of protection which they will expect Harper to provide.

Mulroney was instrumental in helping smooth the way for a merger between the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance, and in the process became a confidante of Harper's. This was no small feat for a man whose negative image split small c-conservatives in the first place, giving rise to both the Reform Party and the Bloc Quebecois.

Stephen Harper alluded to the rehabilitation of Mulroney in a glowing public speech last April.

"I am delighted to be here with you this evening to pay tribute to a man who is increasingly recognized for all his achievement as prime minister," Harper said, later mentioning Mulroney in the same breath as Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan for his efforts to end communism.

Which is an indication the Mulroney conservatives were hard at work in an attempt to change the persona of one of the most hated prime ministers in Canadian history. The cost to Harpers reformers for conservative loyalty was to have Harper reupholster Brian Mulroney.

"There will be no love lost for most Reformers, and most of them would even say it serves to remind our new brothers and sisters in arms what kind of trouble Mulroney was," said [Faron] Ellis, of Alberta's Lethbridge College. "You people were with him, so watch your step."
The Reformers can say what they want. They went into this coalition with their eyes wide open. They simply weren't electable in their Reform/Alliance mode. The "merger" between them and the Progressive Conservatives provided cover and gave them an air of respectability. The taking of the name "Conservative" was camouflage. It was essential to present a picture that the new Conservative Party of Canada was pretty much the same thing as the old Progressive Conservative Party with a sprinkle of Reform added for increased flavour.

The fact is, the inverse was true. To hide that fact, besides the name, sidling up to Mulroney while making an effort to power polish off the oxidized paint Mulroney left behind was a way to portray the new Conservative Party as "safe". The public closeness was a deliberate move to gather in all those former PC supporters and swing voters who wouldn't have voted Reform/Alliance if you held a gun to their heads.

Now the Harperites are paying for that little performance. Suspicion has always surrounded Mulroney. They were willing to hide it to get the benefit of appearing to be more PC than Reform. The result is that they are now directly associated with a former prime minister who was almost universally loathed and is now suspected of having committed a possible breach of trust.

Harper's insistence that all communications with Mulroney be severed is going to be difficult, and it won't change that there was a buddy-buddy relationship of which the Harper took full advantage. Now it looks like Harper may well have manipulated himself into a position of wearing Mulroney's stain.

"The Conservative Party that Mr. Harper has built with former Progressive Conservatives like Peter MacKay and (Industry Minister) Jim Prentice is very, very strong and very respectful of the strengths that both sides bring to the table. That won't be at all at risk," said Geoff Norquay, a former Mulroney staffer and ex-communications director for Harper.
Just the fact that Norquay had to come out and say it suggests things aren't all that rosy. And look at what Norquay said: "... that both sides bring to the table."

This is not cohesive union.

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