Stephen Harper’s rise to power
by Tom Flanagan
May 26, 2006, was the tenth anniversary of Stephen Harper’s speech to the Winds of Change conference, held in Calgary to discuss a possible merger of the Reform and Progressive Conservative parties. That speech turned out to be Harper’s roadmap to power.
What Harper said that day now seems like common sense, but it was novel at a time when political analysts were still struggling to make sense of the 1993 election. In that election two new parties, Reform and the Bloc Québécois, had taken over most of the formerly Conservative ridings, and the PCs had been reduced from a working majority to a mere two seats in the House of Commons.
Winds of Change, organized by David Frum and Ezra Levant, was a failure in the short term. It was well attended by Reformers and provincial PCs from Ontario and Alberta, but senior PCs from the federal party stayed away. At that time, they were still hopeful that their new leader, Jean Charest, could restore their party’s fortunes. Charest’s veto of a proposal to try a joint Reform-PC candidacy in the Ontario riding of Brant was an indication of their lack of interest in cooperation.
In the medium term, Winds of Change was a partial success inasmuch as it began the discussion leading to formation of the Canadian Alliance in 2000. It was a step toward unity on the right, but only a tentative step. The federal PC Party, now led by Joe Clark, again refused to cooperate. In the long term, however, the strategic ideas Harper set forth in his Winds of Change speech led to the unification of the political right and a change of government in Canada.
Harper marshalled historical evidence to show that all winning Conservative coalitions in 20th-century Canadian history had consisted of three factions: a populist element, strongest in the West but also present in rural Ontario; traditional Tories, strong in Ontario and Atlantic Canada; and francophone nationalists in Quebec. The electoral disaster of 1993 was not a random event: it represented the splintering of Brian Mulroney’s grand coalition along ancient fault lines. Conservatives, Harper said, would never win another national government until they brought these factions back together.