During his teenage years, Preston Manning spent many early daylight hours milking cows and performing other chores at the dairy farm near Edmonton owned by his father, Ernest, then the Social Credit premier of Alberta. So, as the Reform party leader stood one sunny afternoon last week amid bales of hay in a barn near Orangeville, Ont., fielding questions from local high-school students, the scene was not quite as incongruous as it at first appeared. In the course of the half-hour session—one of several carefully staged events during a four-day pre-election bus tour of southern Ontario—Manning touched on most of Reform’s key themes, including cracking down on young offenders and tackling the $600-billion federal debt, which he said placed an unfair burden on younger Canadians. His message struck a chord among some members of his adolescent audience. “I think it’s true what he said about passing on the debt,” said Ashley Hurson, 15, later as she crouched on the grass outside the barn. “We’re the ones who are going to have to pay for it.”
The pity for Manning is that Hurson will be too young to cast a ballot in the next election, expected as early as next spring. The purpose of last week’s whirlwind tour, after all, was to troll for potential votes in a province that is crucial to Reform’s long-term survival—but one where recent polls show the party trailing far behind the Liberals and even well back of the once-moribund federal Conservative party. In an attempt to turn those fortunes around, Manning opted to unveil his party’s selfstyled “fresh start” election platform at a campaign-style rally in London, Ont., last Thursday.
The glossy 23-page document sets out the kind of Canada that Reform envisions for the 21st century. It is a Canada that, among other things, would forgo public funding for such 20th-century institutions as the CBC, Via Rail and Canada Post, in favor of pouring more money into health care and education—not to mention bankrolling a proposed $2,000 tax cut for the average family of four. It is also a Canada where Ottawa would stop funding welfare programs and eliminate or drastically curtail its role in a number of other areas, including regional development, the Office of Official Languages and Indian Affairs. As Manning put it in his address to about 1,000 party faithful in London: ‘What we are offering is a revolutionary departure from the old politics of the status quo.”
In many ways, though, it was also a remarkable—and according to Reform’s critics, hypocritical—departure from policies previously advocated by the party. Until recently, Reform had shied away from proposing tax cuts, focusing instead on the need to eliminate the deficit. But the Liberals’ success in co-opting that issue—all the while portraying the party’s 51-member caucus as heartless—has deeply frustrated Reformers. As a result, the election platform, fashioned in part through private polling and focus groups, strives to put a positive spin on Reform’s economic agenda.
To be sure, the fiscal knife is still being wielded, carving some $15 billion a year out of federal spending, including the $3.5 billion that currently goes towards provincial welfare programs. But with the pain comes the promised relief: in addition to the tax cut, Reform proposes to increase provincial transfer payments for health and education by $4 billion a year. It also claims that the economic stimulus provided by reduced spending and taxes would spark the
creation of a million jobs over four years—90,000 more than would be the case under the Liberal program.
The kinder, gentler Reform message was much in evidence last week as Manning whisked through southern Ontario. He spoke of the sense of job insecurity felt by millions of Canadians, and of the stress on parents who must work longer and harder to provide for their families. In a crafty bit of role reversal, he even lambasted the Liberals for cutting too far, too fast on health care, suggesting that “if people knew the truth about Liberal slashing of health care transfers, there would be a sign in front of many a closed hospital saying, This hospital closed by the Liberal Party of Canada.’ ”
The chief targets of his attack responded in kind. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, engaged in his own pre-election tour of Western Canada, accused the Reform leader of waging an ideological war against national institutions. “Government,” Chrétien told reporters in Burnaby, B.C., “can be a force for good in society.” Finance Minister Paul Martin was even more blunt. He dismissed the Reform election platform as “a divisive and very mean document” that would pit “region against region and Canadian against Canadian.”
Those reactions were perhaps predictable. Far more surprising was the anxious response among some of Manning’s own MPs. Keith Martin, a 36-year-old physician who represents the B.C. riding of Esquimalt/Juan de Fuca, told Maclean’s he was dismayed by the election platform’s lack of detail on how the spending cuts would be achieved. Martin also said he feared that Reform was simply offloading Ottawa’s fiscal burden. “I will not accept tax cuts federally that are going to be broken on the backs of the provinces,” he said. And while he welcomed the promise of improved funding for health care and education, Martin said that the platform did not do enough to dispel the public image of Reform that “we are bigoted, rednecked, homophobic and religious zealots.”
Such remarks underscore the fact that, for Manning, the “fresh start” theme he touted last week has a double meaning. The Reform leader is trying to put behind him a particularly dismal period in the life of his nine-year-old party. In recent months, he has temporarily suspended two Reform MPs for remarks offensive to gays and visible minorities. He also lost one high-profile Calgary MP, Jan Brown, who resigned over what she called the “extremist views” of some of her colleagues, while another, Stephen Harper—an early and influential supporter of Manning’s who has repeatedly feuded with the leader—announced that he would not seek re-election.
Through it all, Reform has languished in the polls. An Angus Reid Group survey released on Oct. 7 showed Reform at only 11-per-cent support nationally, compared with 51 per cent for the $ Liberals, 17 per cent for the Con£ servatives and nine per cent for 1 the NDP. In the crucial battle| ground of Ontario, where Reform g ran second in 1993 in 56 of the 1 province’s 99 ridings but elected I only one MP, the party’s position ° is even weaker—reflected in the fact that fully 59 per cent of Ontarians say they disapprove of Manning as a leader. Private Liberal polling reinforces those findings, leading some to suggest that the Tories, not Reform, stand to make the most gains at election time. Said one Liberal strategist: “The Tories will be the only other dealers in Ontario.”
Manning acknowledges that he has some personal image problems, which he relates in part to the recent altercations in his party. “I was either blamed for letting them happen—or blamed for doing some things to fix them,” he said in an interview aboard his tour bus, as it whisked its way pass the brilliant orange-and-yellow foliage of mid-October Ontario. He is also well aware of the huge gap between his performance in intimate settings—like the ones last week, where he handled audience queries with aplomb and wit—and the stern image he so often projects in Question Period and parliamentary scrums. “One of the the most frequent things that’s said to me in these personal appearances,” he noted, “is that Tou are not at all like you are on TV.’ ”
For all of that, Manning insists that Reform’s fortunes will fly or founder not on personality, but policy—which is one reason he wanted to unveil his party’s election platform so early in the game. He fully expects the Liberals and Tories to bring forward their own tax cut promises, but maintains that as the parties of “high taxes and big government,” they will have little credibility with voters. Certainly that was the view expressed by Allan Borrett, the 52-yearold manufacturing sales director who offered up his hobby farm near Orangeville to Reform for last week’s photo-op. ‘To see the economic malaise that Canada’s in, I put the blame squarely on the federal government,” says Borrett. “Whether it’s Liberals or Conservatives, it hasn’t changed in 30 years. So I’m certainly willing to give Preston Manning a kick at the can.” The crucial question now for Reform is how many other Canadians are willing to do the same.
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