So here’s some news that comes to us straight out of the crazy-blip-on-the-radar-screen file: left-leaning organic farmer and anti-free trade activist David Orchard is running a close second to Peter MacKay in the race for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives.

Orchard ran a distant second to Joe Clark last time around, at which time Pokey Joe called him a “tourist” in the party. Similarly, MacKay’s supporters now accuse Orchard of being an imposter and are imploring true-blue right-wing conservatives to buy memberships so they can vote against the pinko. We suspect the true-blue right-wingers of the country might be more moved by this call to action if all of them hadn’t already bought memberships in this country’s true-blue right-wing party, the Canadian Alliance.

After all the talk about “uniting the right” in this country, maybe it’s time to recognize that the right is already united in the Canadian Alliance. What’s left of the Progressive Conservatives, other than Orchard’s newly signed-up carpetbaggers, it seems, are a bunch of centrists who can’t stomach the neo-liberalism of the Alliance and can’t swallow the arrogance of the Liberals.

We realize that it’s early in the race (15 delegate-selection meetings have been held so far, 290 are still to come) to be drawing any conclusions from Orchard’s strength, but we journalists love to play fantasy-league politics. So indulge us a moment while we play a game of What If.

What if the Tories realized that there aren’t any right-wing members left in their party? And what if they realized that historically, they have not been a right-wing party anyway?

It was, after all, the party of John A. MacDonald that historically opposed free trade. Even Brian Mulroney campaigned against it until, after being elected, he fell into the limpid pools of Ronnie Reagan’s Irish eyes.

The Conservatives have also been a party of large, interventionist government: under MacDonald, they built the Canadian Pacific Railroad and under Borden they nationalized five railroads to create the Canadian National Railway. Conservative prime minister R.B. Bennett created the CBC, the Canadian Wheat Board and the Bank of Canada. “Reform means government intervention,” Bennett said. “It means government control and regulation. It means the end of laissez-faire.” And John Diefenbaker, known to some as the “prairie Bolshevik,” won the 1957 election by moving his party to the left of St. Laurent’s Liberals by opposing continentalism and foreign ownership.

What if the Tories took a lesson from the Chief and realized that moving left might be the only way to win? As philosopher and vice-regal consort John Ralston Saul points out in Reflections of a Siamese Twin, “No Canadian government has ever been defeated in a general election by a party running to its right.” This principle, he emphasizes, is as true of Conservative governments as it is of Liberal ones. Besides, with Paul Martin poised to make the Liberals the party of the centre-right, and Stephen Harper already guiding the cuckoo-right, there isn’t much wiggle room left.

And here’s where we get to the really fun part. What if the Tories abandoned their opportunistic attempts to woo the Alliance and instead began courting the NDP? The NDP displayed a new hunger for success in electing the charismatic Jack Layton as its leader. Neither party is a legitimate government-in-waiting on its own. And they may occupy more common ground than it first appears, particularly if Orchard’s resurgent brand of conservatism is more rooted in popular sentiment than it gets credit for. His anti-globalization and environmentalism are natural matches with the NDP. Orchard and Layton are also the only two men in Canada still trying to make the moustache work.

But even the too-young-to-shave MacKay’s more obviously conservative proposals have some overlap with the New Democrats. Reforming parliamentary and election procedures could be a place for Layton and MacKay to begin talking. Add dedication to health care, national unity and education and voilà: we’re starting to hammer out a platform.

But even more intriguing is the fact that their merger would create party with a big enough tent to cover the spectrum of Canadian opinion, from the left to the centre-right. Just the type of pragmatic, broad-based party that wins elections.

Originally published as an unsigned editorial in Eye Weekly on March 20, 2003.

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