Columns

Trading principles for popularity

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 13 1997
Columns

Trading principles for popularity

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 13 1997

Trading principles for popularity

Columns

Backstage

Anthony WilsonSmith

The history of Canadian politics is filled with people and parties who, to put it politely, often exercise their democratic right to change their minds. The best example is Lucien Bouchard, who has belonged to three of the five parties in the House of Commons (missing only Reform and the New Democrats). But as a general rule, political leaders know it is easier to change policies than parties. Jean Chrétien opposed key elements of the Meech Lake accord while running for the Liberal leadership—but as Prime Minister, endorsed almost all of them. Brian Mulroney was initially opposed to free trade and in favor of Pierre Trudeau’s unilateral patriation of the Constitution. In office, he did an about-face on trade, while patriation was history. Trudeau campaigned against wageand-price controls to combat inflation in 1974—and then reversed himself. No Liberal would criticize that: this is the party that bitterly fought free trade in 1988 and later railed just as vehemently against the Goods and Services Tax, before embracing both.

This leads to the country’s new official Opposition, Reform, and the question of whether it is bartering principles in return for increased popularity. For cynics, examples abound. There is Preston Manning’s image make-over since the 1993 election, including eye surgery, hair color touch-up, new wardrobe and voice training. There is Manning’s renunciation of his pledge never to live in Stornoway, the official residence of the Opposition leader. A Reform MP—Edmonton’s Ian McClelland—has accepted a nomination as deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, making him one of the ranking members of the Political Establishment to which Reform has been so opposed.

Perhaps most damning, some members are upset about Reform’s support of the Sept. 14 Calgary declaration of the country’s nine anglophone premiers. That included the need for, among other things, recognition of Quebec’s “unique” character. Since the declaration also cites the “equality of all provinces,” it allows Reform to claim that far from being influenced by others, it is doing the influencing. Still, any such recognition has traditionally been anathema to many Reformers.

Reform’s problem, to use an analogy aging hipsters understand, might be described as the Springsteen Factor. In 1976, Bruce Springsteen released Born to Run, a wildly popular rock album that thrust him into the mainstream. The only people who disliked it were many of his ferociously intense original followers. They, stung that their hero now had horizons that extended far beyond their own, insisted that nothing he did from that point on was ever as good as what had come before.

So it is with Reform. Manning’s challenge has been to expand par-

Manning’s challenge is to expand support beyond small-c conservative westerners— without losing their support

ty support beyond its core of alienated, small-c conservative westerners—without losing their support. With that in mind, for much of the past four years, MPs turned what should have been a virtue into a vice: they were so attentive to long-standing concerns that they failed to develop expertise in other important areas.

On the plus side, Reform sparked productive debates on law and order, immigration, debt reduction, aboriginal programs, the merits of tax cuts versus increased government spending, and the need to debate the consequences of a Yes vote to Quebec sovereignty. But Reformers performed dismally on the kind of complex issues that do not arouse interest at local coffee shops. That includes the environment, foreign affairs, and justice issues beyond crime and gun control. On some issues, the party cared deeply, but ignorance shone through: a promise to cut government spending by hacking 15 per cent from all departments sounds sexy, but is also unworkable.

In its first weeks in the new Parliament, Reform’s questions have been sharper, and the overall tone of MPs’ comments in the House suggests the party is thinking in more panCanadian terms. That is not always the case: British Columbia MP Val Meredith may have pleased some constituents when she spoke understandingly of western separatism last week, but she did Reform no favors east of Alberta. There are other signs of change. When Manning first came to Ottawa, he sat far away in the back benches. That made a nice, folksy statement, but diminished his effectiveness. Similarly, allowing all members of caucus to take a turn during Question Period was courteous, but made too little use of effective performers such as the quick-witted Deborah Grey, their star, or B.C. MP Randy White, whose acid tone makes the Liberals apoplectic.

Now, the caucus is making better use of its talent. Already, the party’s critic on constitutional issues, fluently bilingual 25-year-old rookie Edmonton MP Rahim Jaffir, is a darling of Quebec’s notoriously demanding media. Manning, not always a strong performer in the House, delivered a sharp, cogent response to the speech from the throne. And the Liberals present a fat, ripe target: witness the astonishing announcement last week that they have given $35 million to build ski hills in Quebec to a company that made $27 million in the last fiscal year—Intrawest Corp. of Vancouver. This, at a time when they are trying to persuade Canadians of the merits of increased government spending rather than tax cuts.

Has Reform changed? Probably not as much as opponents would like, or its original supporters fear. But most of the steps it has taken, both cosmetically and substantively, suggest it is now more interested in ruling official Ottawa than just riling it. Some might call that evolution: perhaps only in Canada could it be considered a sin.