CANADA

Upset in the West

The Reform Party’s ‘message to Ottawa’

JOHN HOWSE March 27 1989
CANADA

Upset in the West

The Reform Party’s ‘message to Ottawa’

JOHN HOWSE March 27 1989

Upset in the West

CANADA

The Reform Party’s ‘message to Ottawa’

The strains of the gospel song There Is Coming a Day floated merrily from the brightly lit campaign office into the snow-flecked icy air of St. Paul, Alta., 208 km northeast of Edmonton. Inside the room, plastered with campaign posters, MP-elect Deborah Grey and her gospel singing group led the more than 150 people who noisily celebrated the first electoral success of the 16-month-old Reform Party of Canada, the West’s latest

political movement, and its upset federal byelection victory over the favored Conservative candidate in northeastern Alberta’s sprawling Beaver River riding. “Tonight we start blazing a trail for equal partnership for the West in Confederation,” Grey excitedly told her cheering supporters on March 13. Added the highschool teacher from Heinsburg, on the riding’s eastern fringe: “The first issue is for westerners to get a fair shake. This is the message to Ottawa.” Meanwhile, the Reform Party’s upset victory stunned Conservatives, who had been expecting that the momentum created by their federal election victory last November would see them win the riding. In fact, prior to the balloting Tory candidate David Broda, 44, had publicly billed his postelection celebration in

the agriculture complex of Radway, 130 km west of St. Paul, as a “victory party.” The byelection result was as much a political slap in the face for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney as it was for Broda, a realtor from Redwater. In the Nov. 21 federal election, Tory candidate John Dahmer won Beaver River, a resourcerich riding of 62,000 people north and east of Edmonton, with a plurality of more than 7,000 votes—and Grey was a distant fourth, behind

the New Democratic and Liberal candidates. But Dahmer died of cancer only five days later. And for the March 13 byelection—Mulroney’s first electoral test since winning his second consecutive majority last November—Grey, 36, who took an unpaid leave of absence to spend three weeks on the campaign trail, focused her campaign on such western irritants as official bilingualism, the slow progress of Senate reform and the lack of influence exerted by western MPs in the House of Commons.

In the end, 11,154 voters cast their ballots for Grey, compared with 6,902 for runner-up Broda. It was the first time since 1965—when Alberta sent two Social Credit members of Parliament to Ottawa—that the province has elected a member of a s regional party. But the Reg form Party, established in ^ November, 1987, to build “ pressure for a stronger voice in Ottawa for western inter-

ests, had already shown its strength last November when it captured, with candidates in all of the province’s 26 ridings, a surprising 15 per cent of Alberta’s popular vote. And nine Reform Party candidates finished second—among them party leader Preston Manning, 46, who ran a strong campaign against External Affairs Minister Joe Clark in the riding of Yellowhead. Manning, a former Edmonton management consultant and son of former Alberta Social Credit premier Ernest Manning, said that Beaver River was only the beginning of a western resurgence. “Six months ago, 90 per cent of the people in Beaver River had not even heard of the Reform Party,” said Manning, who spent 17 days in the riding campaigning for the byelection. “In just six months we beat a candidate of a party that is 112 years old. If we can do it here, we can do it across the West.” Despite Manning’s optimism, some observers said that the long-term political loyalty of Albertans still belongs to the Conservatives, who took 25 of the province’s 26 seats last November, while the New Democrats took the other. For one thing, Lee Richardson, Tory MP for Calgary Southeast and a former aide in the Prime Minister’s Office, noted that with the Mulroney government again firmly in control in Ottawa, Albertans could contemplate casting their votes for another party—without harming the Tories. Said Richardson: “Right after a general election in which we won a clear majority, voters didn’t have to worry about maintaining a Tory government in Ottawa.” But Grey said that Alberta’s solid Tory vote last November was not so much a result of general support for the Conservatives as of the

fact that Albertans wanted to ensure the passage of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. “This time people were behind me from the start,” said Grey. “The Tories had a majority so free trade was secure—after that, they promised to flirt with me. And they did.” At the same time, Broda found himself defending federal policies that are unpopular in the West—including high interest rates, a national sales tax and official bilingualism. Indeed, opposition to Ottawa’s bilingualism policy was a strong part of Grey’s platform. “The Reform language policy is simply that we want a fair one,” said the unilingual Grey, whose campaign literature included a full policy statement in English, Ukrainian, Cree and French—the riding’s four most common languages. “We seek recognition of French in

Quebec and English elsewhere as the predominant language of work and society—and an end to forced language legislation and policy.”

In fact, even the campaign appearances of high-profile western cabinet ministers such as Deputy Prime Minister Donald Mazankowski, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark and Defence Minister William McKnight failed to bolster Broda’s chances and stem the Reform Party tide. And Grey’s campaign message clearly fell on receptive ears in Beaver River. “I didn’t get to vote but I canvassed for Deborah,” said Chántale Everitt, a Grade 12 student in Bonnyville who is still a year away from the voting age of 18. “This is going to be a good party for my future. I am not bilingual— and this party is for fairer language rights.” But Grey, who sings in a local gospel group called HIS and says that she enjoys the poetry of

Robert Frost, clearly scored points with her sharp wit and forceful personality. Said one campaign worker: “She is a combination of Anne Murray and Margaret Thatcher.” During the campaign, Grey also spoke against abortion and in favor of capital punishment. But Canada’s newest MP, a University of Alberta graduate in English and sociology, was quick to deny assertions that the Reform Party of Canada is nothing more than a right-wing fringe party. She told Maclean’s, “I will be out to prove that the Reform Party is not radical— that it offers sensible policies for all of western Canada.”

For his part, Richardson said that the Reform Party’s victory in Beaver River may also have been due to Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s legislation last December restrict-

ing minority language rights—and Ottawa’s muted response. Said Richardson: “You can’t deny that there was concern over Bourassa’s recent actions. There are always people willing to fuel the backlash reflex.” And Stephen Clarkson, a University of Toronto political science professor, noted that the right-wing Reform message of western alienation may actually help western Tory MPS in Ottawa. Said Clarkson: “It will be interesting to see what impact this has on Mulroney’s behavior. This may strengthen the right wing of the party in that it makes them appear to be the centre when you compare them with the Reform Party.”

Grey said that she hopes to develop a higher profile for western interests in Ottawa—and reach out to western Conservative MPs. “Alberta already has more than its share of PCBs— Progressive Conservative backbenchers,” she said. “I hope to encourage other Alberta MPs to represent western interests more vigorously.” Indeed, with the Reform Party’s strong showing in the last federal election and Grey’s overwhelming victory last week, political observers say that the party may begin to look attractive to high-profile, disgruntled western Tory MPs, among them Edmonton’s David Kilgour, Calgary’s Alex Kindy and Manitoban Dan McKenzie—who last year strongly opposed the Mulroney government’s broadening of the Official Languages Act.

Meanwhile, Grey, who is single, is preparing to move to Ottawa and take her seat in the House of Commons— among 168 Tories, 83 Liberals and 43 New Democrats— for the new session beginning on April 3. As the only MP in the House not affiliated with one of the three major parthe start' ties, her immediate future

may be lonely. Still, Manning

said that Grey’s victory represents the tip of the iceberg, adding that other Reform Party members are sure to join her in the House. “People are saying yes to Senate reform, no to Meech Lake, yes to decreased spending and no to sales tax and higher interest rates,” he said. “They are saying yes to a fair language policy and no to forced bilingualism, yes to candidates responsible to their ridings, no to central Canadian parties that tell their MPS how to vote.” But unless there are more byelections, Manning will not have a chance to test his party’s appeal again until the next federal election—which may not be held before 1993.

JOHN HOWSE in St. Paul with LISA VAN DÜSEN in Ottawa

LISA VAN DUSEN