Canada

'A credible effort'

BARRY CAME May 20 1996
Canada

'A credible effort'

BARRY CAME May 20 1996

The Reform party's days of discontent

Jan Brown’s departure opens fresh wounds

She had been considered one of Reform's brightest lights since the party's jump to national prominence in the 1993 election. With her outgoing

personality, Jan Brown, 48, charmed the Ottawa media—and presented a more moderate side to a party that has been trying to shake a reputation for right-wing extremism. But early last week, in a move that left many in Ottawa shaking their heads, Re-

form Leader Preston Manning suspended Brown from caucus because of her all-too-public criticisms of some of her colleagues. On Friday, the MP for suburban Calgary Southeast responded to Manning’s move by announcing that she was quitting the party to sit as an Independent. “Quite frankly, I do not see a way back,” Brown said, telling reporters that there was no room in Reform for her point of view. “I am like that round peg trying to fit into a square hole.”

Brown’s departure is the latest sign of serious divisions within Reform—which were exacerbated by the bitter fight over the Liberal government’s gay-rights legislation. An amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act, Bill C-33 outlaws discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In a free vote, it passed third reading in the House of Commons last Thursday by 153 to 76— but not before the issue inflict-

ed serious damage to Manning’s party. After two Reform MPs, Bob Ringma and Dave Chatters, provoked widespread criticism over their public suggestions that employers should be allowed to move homosexuals and black employees “to the back of the shop” or even fire them, Manning had no choice but to suspend them until a summer caucus meeting in July. And because of Brown’s public denunciation of her colleagues—and her previous criticisms of her party—Manning accused her of not being a team player. She had, he declared, “unfairly portrayed the Reform party as being rife with extremism.”

But while the furore over the gay-rights legislation opened up fresh wounds in the Reform caucus, the party was unified in its approach to the vote. All but one of the 52 Reformers in Parliament voted against the bill, as did Brown herself, many claiming that the legislation would be a step towards family benefits for homosexual couples. That unity could only be envied by the governing Liberals, among whom Bill C-33 exposed deep divisions. Fully 29 Liberal MPs voted against the bill. In fact, it was rum-

blings within his caucus that led Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to forsake his previous commitment to put the full power of the government behind the bill—and instead allow a free vote. That decision was applauded by Nova Scotia Liberal MP Roseanne Skoke, who denounced the gay lifestyle as a sin. “We’re asking Canadians to condone and accept homosexuality as natural and moral,” she said.

Chrétien refused to condemn the Liberal dissenters, saying that they had expressed their views in a “respectful” way. Other Liberals claimed that the vote was also a sign of the government’s ability to tolerate internal dissent. Both observations were aimed squarely at the well-publicized gaffes by Manning’s party members—which almost completely overshadowed the differences among Liberal MPs—as well as Manning’s tough, new line towards his caucus. Sensing political disaster, Manning last week warned his party that he would not tolerate misrepresentations of party policy, and said that he would quickly punish those who “damage the interest and reputation of the caucus and its capacity to render public service to Canada.”

Those were strong words from a man who once bragged that Reform MPs would always be free to express their views without fear of retribution. But with the party striving for mainstream acceptance, Manning clearly recognized that ill-conceived comments could no longer be excused as part of the party’s democratic dialogue. In fact, in spite of his suspension of Brown, Manning has now moved closer to the position first publicly articulated by her and fellow moderate Jim Silye, the MP for Calgary Centre, last March. At the time, the

two openly complained that extremists within the party were hampering efforts to get Reform’s message across to Canadians—and they warned of electoral disaster if the party did not moderate its image.

Now, as Reform prepares for an election that could come as early as next year, Manning faces a huge political challenge. Part of that is internal; at the party’s June policy convention, he will attempt a delicate balancing act, trying to moderate Reform’s public image while still appealing to the party’s right-wing grassroots. Many delegates, particularly from Western Canada, are expected to challenge his apparent abandonment of his ideals. In fact, University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan said that many Reformers believe that Manning punished Chatters and Ringma too severely. “I bet a majority would say those two MPs were on to

something, but had only cho-

sen their words poorly,” said Flanagan, a longtime member of Reform.

On the other side, though, are MPs like Silye—the only Reformer to vote for the government’s gay-rights legislation—and Dr. Keith Martin, who insist that the perception of the party as a hardline, rightwing organization must be softened. Last week, the 36-year-old Martin, a B.C. MP, angrily lashed out at Grant Hill—another medical doctor within the Reform caucus— who warned that the Liberals’ gay-rights legislation would promote an unhealthy homosexual lifestyle and possibly open the door to pedophilia. Martin, Reform’s youngest MP, said that the bill has “absolutely nothing to do with medicine—it’s a completely different issue.” And he added that outbursts like Hill’s are a sign of the political inexperience at the root of the party’s problems. “Our mouths have been running faster than our brains,” he said.

Whether Manning’s new directives can cure the party’s case of loose lips remains to be seen. For the moment, though, the damage may have already been done, especially in Ontario, where Liberals won all but one of the province’s 99 seats in the 1993 federal election. Reform had hoped to achieve a breakthrough in Ontario in the next election; in 1993, the party finished second in 58 Ontario ridings, including more than half of the 33 in the Toronto area. Now, future success will depend on convincing that region’s many ethnic voters that the party is not extremist. ‘We’re working against a steep grade,” observed Martin, “and that grade got steeper over the past two weeks.” Martin remains optimistic that the party will emerge from its June policy convention with a more moderate, tolerant image. But another Reform moderate, Stephen Harper, MP for Calgary West and the party’s intergovernmental affairs critic, is not so sure. We’ll see at the convention whether the party has learned from this experience,” he said.

Open conflict among Reformers in June would certainly please the struggling federal Tories, who have not been able to conceal their joy about Reform’s ongoing problems. Tory Leader Jean Charest has repeatedly—and loudly—condemned the controversial anti-homosexual remarks by Reformers as indicative of a reactionary mind-set. Manning’s suspension of Brown last week gave Charest further ammunition. “For Ms. Brown to be punished, for having spoken her mind and for actually having stood up for what is right, says a lot about Preston Manning and the Reform party,” he declared. And Brown’s departure from the Reform party raised the prospect of her joining the Tories—speculation that she did not dismiss outright, saying only that “right now” it was not an option. “Our doors are wide open,” responded Charest.

In fact, Conservative Senator Ron Ghitter did make overtures to Brown, and observers say that is only the beginning of an all-out effort. Brown, meanwhile, who says that her concerns about child prostitution and violence against women were never well received in caucus, hopes to now pursue those issues vigorously as an Independent. And while the question of her future political affiliation remains in the air, one thing, she said last week, is final: her decision to leave Reform. “I will not be going back,” she declared. And for the party she has left behind, the road ahead will likely be a rough one, with survival hinging on Manning’s ability to pull together his disparate—and divided—caucus.

LUKE FISHER

in Ottawa