From Alberta with ire

Populist protest fuels Reform, ambitions

JOHN HOWSE November 13 1989

From Alberta with ire

Populist protest fuels Reform, ambitions

JOHN HOWSE November 13 1989

From Alberta with ire

Populist protest fuels Reform, ambitions

The mood of victory was in the air. After two recent electoral successes at the federal level in Alberta, 1,000 members of the fledgling Reform Party of Canada gathered at the Edmonton Inn in the province’s capital on the weekend of Oct. 28 and 29 to celebrate. It was only the second annual convention for the party since its birth in 1987. But many delegates talked optimistically about the possibilities of a significant electoral breakthrough soon. And that is a prospect that clearly unsettles many members of the ruling federal Conservative party, which has dominated the West for decades. Much of the platform of the populist Reform Party, which is organized only at the federal level, is a direct attack on the federal Conservative government. And some critics detected an unsavory edge of intolerance in the Reform’s opposition to multiculturalism and the Meech Lake accord. But Reform Leader Preston Manning saw nothing to apologize for. Declared Manning last week: “The conventional wisdom is not to let people express their opinions for fear that they might embarrass a political party. Our policy is different.”

Indeed, the Reform Party has not shied away from blunt statements of its pro-western, antiOttawa philosophy. On the Meech Lake accord’s recognition of Quebec’s “distinct soci-

ety,” for example, Manning is uncompromising. “Either all Canadians make a clear commitment to Canada as one nation,” he told delegates in Edmonton, “or Quebec and the rest of Canada should explore whether there exists a better but more separate relationship.” The party’s confrontational style has attracted steadily increasing voter support, especially in Alberta. In its first-ever electoral outing, the party fielded 72 candidates across the West in last November’s federal election. It did not win any seats but it attracted considerable support in some areas, particularly in Alberta, where it ran candidates in all of the province’s 26 ridings and won 15 per cent of the popular vote.

Just four months later, voters in a federal byelection in Alberta’s traditionally Tory Beaver River riding elected schoolteacher Deborah Grey as the first Reform Party member of Parliament. Then, last month, the Reform Party’s candidate in Alberta’s Senate nomination election, retired general Stanley Waters, won easily,

out polling five opponents.

As a result, many western Tories, particularly in Alberta, now openly acknowledge that Manning’s party has eroded their support. Observed maverick backbencher David Kilgour of Edmonton, for one: “Every vote for the Reform Party is one less vote for the PCs.” Added Kilgour: “Some days I am deeply discouraged about it.” Other federal Tories have resorted to public attacks on the party. In early October, chief government whip and Calgary MP James Hawkes branded the Reformers as “separatists and bigots.”

In fact, much of the party’s grassroots appeal appears to he in its outspoken criticism of federal policies. The party opposes Canada’s multiculturalism policy, which encourages ethnic groups to maintain their distinct traditions. It is against federal bilingualism policies and the Meech Lake accord—especially the additional powers it appears to grant to Quebec. It is harshly critical of Ottawa’s proposed nine-per-cent Goods and Services Tax. And it is campaigning for fundamental parliamentary reform by changing the upper house into an effective, elected body with equal representation from each province—the so-called Triple E Senate.

In pursuit of those goals, the party has resisted calls from some followers for Reform to take advantage of its regional popularity and move into provincial politics. Instead, Manning, an Edmonton economic consultant and son of former Alberta Social Credit premier Ernest Manning, has insisted that the party’s goal must be to win a better deal for the West within the federal arena. “Some major things that need to be fixed can only be fixed in Ottawa,” said Manning. “I would prefer to be leader of a bloc of 24 seats holding the balance of power in Ottawa than to be premier of Alberta.”

The next test of Reform’s popularity may come in British Columbia. The party intends to contest a byelection in outgoing Liberal Leader John Turner’s Vancouver riding of Quadra, if one is called. Turner has not set a date for his retirement, although he is expected to step down before the Liberals’ June, 1990, leadership convention in Calgary. But the Reform Party is already preparing for the campaign. Said Grey: “If it looks like we are licking our chops, that is right.”

But some observers ques-

tion whether the party will be able to make much of a meal of Quadra. Its candidate drew only two per cent of the 54,654 votes cast in last November’s federal election, which Turner won with 44 per cent of the vote. And local Liberal Riding Association president John Kenny noted that the Reformers’ stand against multiculturalism is unlikely to be popular in the ethnically mixed riding. Said Kenny: “We haven’t had a major influx of white AngloSaxon men with 18th-century views. So I really can’t see them going anywhere in Quadra.”

At the same time, the Reform movement has been slow to take root in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The party contested only four of Saskatchewan’s 14 seats in the last election and drew less than three per cent of the popular vote in those ridings. In Manitoba it received only 3.7 per cent of the popular vote in the 12 of the province’s 14 ridings that it contested. But in some ridings, it had a strong showing—and in Lisgar-Marquette its candidate placed third. As well, party officials said that Manitoba membership has doubled in the past year, to 1,800. Said Manitoba-based party director Lloyd Kirkham: “If we keep going at this rate, we will be a party that will have to be reckoned with.”

In Ottawa, meanwhile, some western Tory MPs argue that the Reform Party’s success reflects such deep dissatisfaction with the Conservatives in Alberta that even prominent cabinet ministers like Deputy Prime Minister Donald Mazankowski and External Affairs Minister Joe Clark may be threatened. Declared Edmonton’s Kilgour: “As of now, there is not much doubt that Reform candidates would capture every federal riding in rural Alberta—including Mr. Mazankowski’s and possibly even Mr. Clark’s.” For their part, senior Tory strategists were hesitant to discuss the Reform Party threat. But privately, some of them acknowledged that the Conservatives must develop a strategy to ensure that Reform supporters— many of them disgruntled Tories—return to the Conservative fold in time for the next federal election.

Clearly, one crucial test will be Mulroney’s response to Waters’s Senate nomination election victory. Said Kilgour: “If Mr. Mulroney does not respect the clearly expressed wishes of Alberta voters, we will have a serious problem on our hands.” Last week, Reform MP Grey pressed Mulroney during Question Period in the House of Commons to appoint Waters without further delay. Mulroney, who has maintained throughout the Senate election process that he was not bound by its result, remained noncommittal. “This appointment is the prerogative of the Prime Minister,” he later told reporters, adding, “There is nothing automatic about it.” But as long as the vacant Alberta Senate seat remained unfilled, it was a powerful reminder of the newly confident Reform Party’s ambitions—and its repeated challenges to Mulroney government policies.

JOHN HOWSE in Edmonton with HAL QUINN in Vancouver, MAUREEN BROSNAHAN in Winnipeg and ROSS LAVER in Ottawa

HAL QUINN

MAUREEN BROSNAHAN

ROSS LAVER