Some of our older readers will remember a song entitled ‘Those Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine.’
The cheerful dirge points out, in a rather plaintive way, how group relationships can change when a marriage takes place and the parties to the merger become committed to each other more than to previous friends.
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When the Alliance and Conservative parties merged a few years ago, with the co-operation of Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay, a tone of amazement broke out across the nation that such a fractious body as Canadian conservatism could ever come together.
One of the bodies that stood to lose the most as a result of the coming together was Canadian liberalism. Indeed, the most obvious result of the merger, to date, is the fact that the Conservatives are in power — albeit with a minority — instead of the Liberals. Further, the vote-splitting that helped keep the Liberals in government previously had, for the most part, come to an end.
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Today, I want to talk about three politicians — females as it happens — who are playing a range of differing roles in the care and feeding of Canada’s current political balance. They are Elizabeth May, Belinda Stronach and Diane Ablonczy.
But, before I do, let me mention two retiring male Liberal politicians, both people of faith who could well have fit into the social conservative wing of the now-governing party. They are Paul Steckle and Tom Wappel.
One, Steckle, is a serious Mennonite from a rural southwestern Ontario riding who may well eventually have become the agriculture minister if the Liberals had stayed in power. Wappel, for his part, represents an urban Toronto area riding. He is a serious Catholic (Abyssinian rite, I believe). Both have been well-noted as public defenders of socially-conservative life and family issues.
Both have now announced their intention of retiring from politics.
They are two who some might have thought would jump to the Conservatives once the merger had been accomplished. The theory behind such thinking was that those Liberals were the kind who were really conservatives, but would not identify with the Conservative party as long as the vote splitting was going on.
I wondered, for a while, if the Conservatives would get their majority by having people like Steckle and Wappel move to their “true home” politically.
But there were journalists older and wiser than I, who suggested that the shift would be more subtle, because party loyalty and service to the constituency plays an important role for party backbenchers.
What would happen, particularly in Ontario, these pundits suggested, was that socially-conservative Liberals would retire and that their ridings would arguably be open to the election of socially-conservative Conservatives.
In a sense, the first shoe has dropped. Whether the second one well and truly drops depends on the willingness of voters in ridings represented until now by conservative-type Liberals, to participate in the political realignment that is seemingly evolving in Canada.
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Now, about Elizabeth May.
My original assessment of her approach to politics was that it would be helpful to conservatives. And part of that assessment was based on her seemingly Christian — and conservative — approach to both environmental and family/life issues.
Let me explain my thinking with respect to a Christian environmentalism approach. I recognize that some sectors of the evangelical community are quite critical of evangelicals who take an interest in environmental issues, suggesting that such an approach is a capitulation to “earthism”. I think that there is a biblically-defensible argument that Christians should be good stewards of the earth and hope that, in due course, such Christians will get the hearing they deserve. Further, I believe that there are many Christians who can be pro-life, pro-family and pro-environment and that they, indeed, have a fair amount to contribute to a broadly conservative governance approach.
My first assessment of Elizabeth May was based on her supporting of the naming of Brian Mulroney as the “greenest prime minister ever,” a few months ago.
I figured she knew whereof she spoke. After all, she had, at the time Mulroney was in power, worked with the environment minister of the day, Tom MacMillan. My recollection of MacMillan was that he was one of what Mulroney affectionately described as his “God squad” — Conservative MPs who made their Christian faith a matter of public record. Their stances showed up often in life, family and environmental issues. For some, the bent was more one way than another; for others, there was a sustained balance.
The first indication I had that May might be striking out in another direction came when she ran in last fall’s London North Centre byelection. There, in effect, she split the conservative vote, enabling a Liberal to be re-elected. If the social conservative and environmental conservative candidates had been able to pool their votes, the member from LNC would be a Conservative today.
But here we come to another shoe drop.
After Stephane Dion and May jointly announced that their parties would not run candidates in each other’s ridings, May gave an interview to Allan Woods of the Toronto Star.
In it, she stated quite candidly that she was running against Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay, in Nova Scotia’s Central Nova riding, as part of a plan to build a political coalition that will punish MacKay for breaking a promise not to “sell out” the old PC party.
It would be safe to say, on the basis of that and other other statements — such as her endorsement of Dion as a better potential prime minister than Stephen Harper — that her intention is to try to stop any political realignment that would help the Conservatives.
And her argument, quite bluntly, is the claim that the Harper-MacKay Conservatives are not the party of Brian Mulroney that she knew and worked with.
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As for Belinda Stronach.
She has decided to leave politics and return to the corporate world being overseen by her now 75-year-old father.
But she could be back.
My particular take on Stronach is that she still might have a role to play in keeping the various parts of conservatism together in a few years.
But a few things will have to happen.
Some of these things I hinted at in the ‘Belinda factor’ chapter of my book, Stephen Harper: The Case for Collaborative Governance.
In short, Stronach’s difficulties related to what senior political analyst Doug Fisher referred to as:
She cannot think on her feet and has a relentless devotion to cliches and chamber of commerce platitudes.
This does not mean she is stupid or slow or short on energy. But she is unready — and probably never will be — for able, heavy, cabinet-level responsibility and leadership.
I referred in that chapter to what I had heard, particularly from female Christian leaders, about her “team-building” ability.
At that time and in that context, that ability was not able to be exercised. She was not getting along with the man who ran first to her second in the Conservative leadership race — Stephen Harper. She chose a Liberal place of privilege over the opportunity to build, among other things, a family with Peter MacKay.
But it remains that she could be a team builder.
My suggestion is that, given time, and a careful re-cultivation of some of her initial team-building capacity, she could be useful in bringing a fair number of Liberals into a politically-realigned Conservative camp.
There are many obstacles to that scenario and I am sure many readers will not hesitate to point them out to me. But please keep in mind that I come from British Columbia, where centre-right collaborative governance has been a way of life for most of the past seven decades.
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Which brings me to Diane Ablonczy.
I just spent lunch hour listening to her, as she spoke to a small number of Christian lawyers in a downtown Ottawa board room.
Ablonczy exhibits a gospel approach to politics, born out of a warm Christian faith. It keeps her conciliatory and on target. In talking to her fellow lawyers, she said that sometimes regretted that she did not have a strong questioning style or sharp wit that other members of her party’s front bench possessed.
Her confidence was really tested, when she was the human resources critic against the minister of the day, Jane Stewart, and she had to carry the file alone in what had been called the “billion dollar boondoggle” scandal.
But as she prayed about it, she came to a sense of peace that caused her to feel that “God gave me this opportunity to be effective where he placed me.”
Unexpectedly, she became the news item of the day for several weeks running. But the thing that she appreciates, as she looks back, was that she developed her own stride and style and it worked. Further, she avoided the temptation to carry out character assassination on Stewart who, she noted, had carried a lot of the scandal baggage from a predecessor.
She sensed an obligation to “handle things in a way that leaves room for redemption.”
Indeed, Stronach and May could learn something from Ablonczy, in terms of a redemptive, reconciling and collaborative approach to governance.
This piece has gone on longer than usual. But I hope that in a comparison-and-contrast look at these three politicians, I have been able to provide some insights to consider as the political realignment issue continues to percolate.
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I have not commented on the tragedy at Virginia Tech. But it is very much in mind this week around The Hill and I hope that as events unfold, there will be something to be learned in the faith-based community, about conflict and reconciliation.
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Lloyd Mackey is a member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa and author of Stephen Harper: The Case for Collaborative Governance (ECW, 2006). He can be reached at email@example.com.