A symbol of defiance or history, the Progressive Conservative flag flies, or hangs at least, from an upright pole, down a quiet corridor of the Centre Block, just outside the office of Sen. Elaine McCoy.
From 1942—when John Bracken, Progressive premier of Manitoba, assumed leadership of the federal Conservative party, creating a party that would come to stand for moderate centrism—through 2003, some 675 individuals sat in the House of Commons under the PC banner. More than 100 PCs have, at one time or another, served in the Senate. But seven years after the Canadian Alliance and PC party merged, only two people formally identify as Progressive Conservatives on Parliament Hill: senators McCoy and Lowell Murray. When Murray retires next year, the party of John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney will be down to an Internet-savvy, sixtysomething policy wonk, who was appointed by Paul Martin and has little time for the agenda of Stephen Harper.
A protege of former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed, McCoy won Lougheed’s seat in the legislature when he stepped down in 1986. As a minister in Don Getty’s government, she spoke openly about gay rights and favoured a 50-cent hike in the minimum wage. But when she ran unsuccessfully for the provincial PC leadership in 1992, she pledged to cut spending and debt. (When a report circulated that half of cabinet might resign if a woman won the race, McCoy suggested that was a good opportunity to shrink government.) “When I was a cabinet minister, I was approached to cross the floor to the Liberals,” she recalls. “It was when Getty was really down in the polls and things weren’t getting done quite as well as they might. It was very tempting, but I just couldn’t. In the end, my stomach clenched and I just couldn’t do it. There’s something about sticking with who you say you are.”
After leaving provincial politics in 1993, she was approached in 2005 about accepting an appointment to the Senate. Her gut insisted she was not a Harper Conservative, but a Progressive Conservative. Tactically, her addition to the Senate was seen as an attempt by Martin to make trouble for unified Conservatives. Harper, opposition leader at the time, called the appointments of McCoy and Nancy Ruth “intellectually dishonest.” But while Ruth eventually joined the Conservative caucus, McCoy remains a PC: one who recently used her blog to compare the Prime Minister to Prince Giorgio I, the elected prince of Seborga, a self-proclaimed principality in Italy.
She defines herself as socially progressive and fiscally conservative. And by her estimation, the Harper government has been neither. Tied by partisan affiliation to the past, working within an institution many consider antiquated, McCoy seems rather contemporary. She uses Twitter, has created an elaborate website (albertasenator.ca) dedicated to “meaningful, informed, open discussion” and regularly blogs about matters of policy and legislation. Last fall, with statistics and graphs, she doubted whether legislation on cigarillos would result in fewer children smoking. She speaks now of early childhood learning as a Progressive Conservative ideal: both socially and economically sound.
She says, “I’m very fond, privately, of decrying the messaging, the narrative, that comes from our leaders these days of being positional instead of visionary and pragmatic.”
That the divide between the Conservative government of the day and the last Progressive Conservatives on Parliament Hill persists may have something to do with old rifts (Murray was opposed to a merger from the outset; McCoy says Peter MacKay’s reneging on a promise not to merge was a “betrayal”). But there are differences too of policy (Murray cites the scrapping of the Liberal child care plan, both are unimpressed with the government’s fiscal management) and political temperament. The Senate itself is greatly contested, too: split of late between a government side that would rather the red chamber act as a compliant formality, and the idea of an independent deliberative body that some, like McCoy, obviously prize.
Weirdly, opposing forces may now be poised to meet on the Senate floor. Five new senators give the Conservative a 51-49 edge over Liberals, but the government caucus remains two short of a majority in the 105-member chamber. Two Liberals are scheduled to retire this year, but not until November and December respectively, meaning, in the short term, the votes of McCoy, Murray and the three unaffiliated senators (Anne Cools, Jean-Claude Rivest and Michael Pitfield) are in play and demanding of courtship.
“I have voted on every issue as it came along, according to what I thought about that particular bill or that particular report,” says McCoy, now 63 and not due for mandatory retirement until 2021. “And I’m just going to continue doing that.”