On the eve of the Conservative Party's convention in Montreal, a highly placed party member joked: "If we have the happiest, most harmonious convention in Canadian political history, the press headlines will read: 'Harper Papers Over Cracks.' "
And sure enough, on Saturday morning, that was almost exactly the headline featured in Montreal's Gazette. (The Gazette substituted "rifts" for "cracks": A newspaper editor really should be able to quote a cliche accurately.)
The only fitting reply is another cliche: some cracks; some paper.
I've been attending federal Conservative party conventions since 1983, and not since then have Conservatives been as united in their determination to win the next election as they are today.
The stylistic, regional and ideological divides between Western Reformers and Eastern Tories can still be detected, of course. But the overarching mood was one of unity. From Stockwell Day to Belinda Stronach, the party was burying old grudges, swallowing disagreements and disciplining itself to win and govern.
It's a strange thing about human nature: When people decide to get along, they get along--and differences that once seemed insuperable suddenly become negotiable.
Leadership makes a difference, of course, and Stephen Harper's Friday evening speech certainly provided it. But perhaps even more important is the gathering disgust at 12 years of Liberal misrule and corruption.
Some context here: Almost exactly a decade ago, some friends and I invited about 150 right-of-centre opinion leaders to meet in Calgary to try to settle the differences that had split the Mulroney coalition in 1993. In 1995, the conservative movement's internecine wounds still pulsed red and raw. But maybe more to the point, both halves of the old coalition still felt more anger over the wrongs they had absorbed from the other half than either felt against the Liberal government of Jean Chretien.
Back then, the Chretien government was regarded as reasonably acceptable by many right-of-centre voters: It was controlling spending and balancing the budget. It had accepted the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA. It was getting on well with the United States. Its judges had only just opened their campaign against traditional marriage, and only a few alarmists could imagine that the courts would ever go all the way and overturn the institution altogether. In short, there seemed few reasons not to engage in an exciting bout of ideological fratricide.
Ten years later, it is a very different story. High taxes are squeezing the life out of the Canadian economy. Billions of surplus dollars are being hidden away through budgetary tricks to be spent as soon as the Liberals regain their majority--and can once again direct money to their pet causes and regions. Relations with the United States have been poisoned. Despite huge infusions of funds, the health care system is collapsing before Canadians' eyes. Sailors and airmen are dying in obsolete ships and planes. The judicial system has been transformed into a romper room for social engineers. And the Chretien/Martin government has been caught in scandal after scandal after scandal whose common theme is an arrogant sense of entitlement and utter contempt for the public.
All conservative-minded people can agree that ejecting these shameful characters from public office transcends any of the minor differences that once divided them.
For too long, Canadian conservatives have been talking to--and arguing with--each other. Over the past year, they have resumed the true work of politics: talking to the public. In Montreal, the Conservatives and their leader began to advance a coherent economic agenda, emphasizing tax relief and another round of trade liberalization with the United States. They began to develop a powerful new case on health care that highlights the deterioration of Canada's state monopoly system. Support for investment in the armed forces and for defences against missile attack was nearly unanimous.
They even found common ground on social issues like the protection of marriage and democratic reforms. The Liberals may call themselves the party of "Canadian values," but one important Canadian value is the right to elect your own government. Western and Eastern Conservatives may disagree about Senate reform. But they are at least open-eyed enough to recognize that, while both of Britain's big parties favour democratization of the House of Lords, Canada's Liberals adamantly oppose electing Senators. Very soon, Canada and the People's Republic of China will be the last two major industrial powers on earth with unelected upper chambers.
Is the job of building an alternative government quite finished? Not yet. There are still candidates to recruit, funds to raise, policy to complete. Canadians will want to know more about Conservative plans for tax relief, and they will need a closer knowledge of the values and vision of Stephen Harper the man and potential prime minister. But if unfinished, the job is well begun. After twelve years of the frozen selfishness of Chretien/Martin Liberal government, spring at last is in the air.
David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.