By Thomas Walkom
NATIONAL AFFAIRS WRITER
When influential conservatives held a conference to unite the right two years ago, Craig Chandler couldn't even wangle an invitation.
"I called to get in but (organizer and journalist) David Frum wouldn't let me," the 27-year-old former Reform Party candidate recalled this week. "He said they were full. It was a kind of cliquey, elitist sort of thing."
So Chandler got his own back. Yesterday, he kicked off his own two-day, unite-the-right conference in Toronto.
And David Frum wasn't there.
Instead, Chandler's Roots of Change conference is attracting the kind of blood-and-guts rightists who sparked the reform party, but who - as Reform attempts to become more respectable - find themselves relegated to the sidelines.
Anti-abortionists such as Rev. Ken Campbell of Renaissance Canada mixed with opponents of bilingualism like Ron Leitch of the Association for the Preservation of English in Canada.
Dick Fields of the Voice of Canadians (opposition to multiculturalism and human rights commissions) was there yesterday as was Robert Metz of the more libertarian Freedom Party (legalization of marijuana, opposition to medicare).
They hears speakers slam workers' compensation and publicly funded abortion clinics. They shivered as John Thompson of the Mackenzie Institute warned of class war coming to Canada, led by a coalition of rural, gun-toting militias, downtown Trotskyists and animal liberation radicals.
Some seemed unconvinced when Tory MPP Bob Wood (London South) said that Mike Harris' Ontario government has not become indifferent to its hard-core supporters.
And others voiced agreement when Reform Leader Preston Manning was slammed for betraying his principles.
Frum's 1996 Winds of Change conference, although closed to reporters, featured as participants some of the country's tonier right-of-centre journalists, including himself and Southam columnist Andrew Coyne.
Chandler's Roots of Change conference, by comparison, was headlined by conservative pundits with a more downmarket flavour - Toronto Sun business writer Linda Leatherdale and CFRB talk show host Michael Coren.
Since Reform thundered out of the West to become a serious voice in Parliament, efforts to unite the right have become a cottage industry.
The recent fuss over whether Tory Leader Jean Charest will quit his party has merely added a new urgency to the debate.
Now even Manning himself is talking about some kind of formal coalition with the Tories.
But at Craig Chandler's conference, there were mutterings that the Reform party chief has already become yesterday's man.
"Manning did a good job getting Canadians back on track, but now the train is out of gas," Chandler said.
Instead, he said, rightists must forget personalities and concentrate on common principles.
But, as the left has discovered, this is not easy.
Journalist Coren pointed to the most fundamental divide within the right - that which separates social conservatives like himself (no abortion; women forbidden to go topless in public) from economic conservatives (no social programs; let the poor starve).
If conservativism means letting the market rule human affairs, Coren said, then "I am increasingly uncomfortable calling myself a conservative."
Freedom Party president Robert Metz echoed the dilemma from the other side. How, he asked, could anyone expect a libertarian like him to be in the same party as Michael Coren?
A real alliance of all right-wing forces, he said, would be "a metaphysical impossibility."
"If the right united, they'd want to get rid guys like us," added Freedom Party leader Lloyd Walker.
Still, Chandler is trying. He figures that maybe the best way to unite the right is to start a third party - which would attract both reformers and Tories.
Or even better, Ontario rightists could start a Bloc Ontario which - in concert with Reform in the West and the Tories in the East - could form a coalition government.
In any case, he is optimistic. True, only about 30 people registered for his conference. But he's sure more will come today. The right, he says, has just got to get together.
"We're going to fight it out once and for all, and see who's left standing."
last updated on April 28, 2002