With cries of “betrayal” hounding new Conservative Party Leader Peter MacKay all last week, you’d think he had just agreed to review the party’s stand against cannibalism.

Of course, MacKay is in trouble because he made a deal with rival David Orchard to review the party’s position on free trade, to run candidates in all ridings and to make the environment a priority.

To commentators in the conservative press, these seemingly reasonable positions were like a stake through the heart. “Unprincipled,” scoffed the National Post’s Andrew Coyne. “Naked ambition has no shame,” huffed The Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson. The Globe’s John Ibbitson echoed: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the leadership of a party and lose his own soul?”

Lose his own soul? How? By trying to save the environment? By functioning as a normal, national political party? By reviewing — that is, studying, assessing, thinking about — a key policy? (Is it better to support policies without thinking about them?)

The notion that Canada-U.S. free trade is some kind of untouchable icon for the Conservative party is particularly odd.

The party firmly rejected free trade until the election of Brian Mulroney in 1984. Mulroney himself had opposed free trade during that election campaign, but changed his tune once in office, presumably after some post-election “review.”

Did Mulroney lose his soul, then? Not according to the pundits. But then, all Mulroney did was betray the public. MacKay has betrayed Bay Street — a more politically dicey double-cross.

Of course, nobody believes the Conservative party is going to change its position on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Rather, all the hand-wringing seems to spring from fears of opening this Pandora’s Box again with the public, where attitudes about NAFTA and Canadian sovereignty are more mixed than among the business interests that dominate the Conservative party.

How else to explain the resistance to a review? The Liberals weren’t afraid, after all, to publicly review medicare. They knew where the public stood — solidly behind it.

And, since the Liberals were planning to endorse medicare (although not necessarily to defend it with the vigour and financial support needed), they weren’t afraid to engage the public on the issue.

But NAFTA is not medicare. David Orchard is a thorn in the side of the Conservative establishment precisely because many Canadians feel NAFTA has seriously compromised Canadian sovereignty.

Commentators were venomous last week about the “Orchard cult” with its “fanatical supporters.”

“Orchard is not going to go away,” lamented Coyne, as if he were talking about the difficulty of shaking the SARS virus.

But Orchard isn’t a virus or a cult, nor are his supporters fanatics. Rather, they’re ordinary people who feel their country has been taken over by a Bay Street crowd that answers to a foreign business elite. How is this view fanatical — or even inaccurate?

To many people, this view is in keeping with old-fashioned conservatism, which was about preserving traditional values like thrift and hard work, protecting the public good and keeping the country strong and independent — very different from the new conservatism, which is all about enhancing the power and wealth of the corporate elite.

NAFTA is the Bible of the new conservatism; it’s the Magna Carta of corporate rights.

Under NAFTA, the profit-making rights of foreign corporations are given precedence over the rights of democratically-elected governments, even to defend the health and environmental interests of their citizens. Under NAFTA, corporations rule, citizens drool.

Business types always suggest NAFTA is simply about trade, and portray NAFTA opponents as being anti-trade.

But NAFTA opponents aren’t against trade. They’re against the way NAFTA — under the guise of a trade deal — does so many other things.

For instance, it guarantees the U.S. sweeping access to our energy and water, and it prevents us from developing national industrial strategies — like the Auto Pact — to ensure jobs are located in Canada. (NAFTA actually bans deals like the Auto Pact in the future.)

All this was contentious back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and again briefly in the spring of 2001, when leaders from North and South America met in Quebec City to discuss extending “free trade” throughout the hemisphere.

Since 9/11, however, the downside of the trade deals has been largely off the agenda, as the Canadian business and political elite has tried to use the momentum of 9/11 to get Canadians to further submit to U.S. corporate control.

No wonder the elite is so furious with Peter MacKay. He’s risked letting the cat out again, just when the critter seemed firmly in the bag.

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Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...