As much as Preston Manning was happy to play “the outsider” when he first came to the nation’s capital as an MP in 1993, official Ottawa was just as pleased to pull the drapes and leave him out there on the porch. What, after all, was the political establishment to make of this yodel-voiced, history-spouting politician and his band of earnest westerners who questioned the very assumptions about the way Canada was governed? Most Reformers avoided socializing with the parliamentary press gallery or federal bureaucrats. They were seldom seen at the right restaurants. Manning would not even indulge in the offthe-record chatter that any good rumor mill relies upon. The Ottawa establishment had not been as mystified since John Diefenbaker brought his version of Prairie populism to power in 1957. “Everyone was saying, ‘Golly, who are these guys?’ ” one now-retired senior bureaucrat recalls of Reform’s arrival.
So Reformers were warily indulged, like those Stetsonwaving football fans who once rode horses through the lobbies of finer eastern hotels on Grey Cup weekend: an amusing diversion, which would soon enough pack up its act and go home. Instead, as the 36th Parliament prepares to open on Sept. 22, official Ottawa rubs its eyes to find Reform has very much moved in. The 60 seats Reform won in last June’s federal election were enough to make them the official Opposition in a balkanized House of Commons. And while Reformers are just getting accustomed to the trappings of their new status—Manning will now live in the official Stornoway residence he once sneered at—respectability has not dulled their anti-Establishment instincts.
Take party press aide Jim Armour, who greeted a reporter in the leader’s Parliament Hill office last week by wistfully reminiscing about Reform’s election campaign. “It was a pleasure to get up every morning, go into the war room in Calgary, and wonder how we were going to kick the national media’s butt today,” he said with a big smile. Purported indifference to Ottawa is worn like a badge. “Reform still has this fear of getting sucked into the vortex of the Establishment,” says former Reform MP Stephen Harper, who is now a lobbyist in Calgary. “We haven’t found a way to preserve our distinctive character
as outsiders while at least having an exchange of ideas or social relationships with people in Ottawa.”
Manning can still crack the anti-Ottawa whip in the best Reform tradition. But there also seemed to be a subtly softer Manning on display last week. In an interview with Maclean’s, he talked of the need for Canadians—he specifically noted Quebecers and westerners alike—to visit each other more, because “people who see more of the country can appreciate other perspectives.” More concretely, there was last week’s meeting between Manning and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to tentatively search for common ground on how Quebec’s distinctiveness might be recognized in legal language acceptable to Reformers. To many party members, mere discussions about rewording the old distinct society phrase are tantamount to supping with the devil. “No doubt it will create some tension with our original base which is quick to draw,” says rookie Reform MP Jason Kenney, a Calgarian who is considered one of the party’s bright new lights. “There will be those who regard these gestures as a sign that we are becoming Ottawashed.” The conventional thinking in political circles is that Manning will have to drag Reform into the mainstream, to prove that the party is a palatable governing alternative to the Liberals. So the mandarins sought comfort in the knowledge that Manning chose to hang a century-old etching of Sir John A Macdonald on the wall of his new Parliament Hill office—instead of, say, western rebel Louis Riel. “An appropriate symbol for a government-in-waiting,” asserts John DesBrisay Pope, the Torontoarea Reform activist who presented the Macdonald portrait to Manning two years ago. “He is trying to re-establish the dignity of the office of leader of the Opposition and to demonstrate comfort with power and the traditions of power,” says Kenney. “Manning even put up a portrait of the Queen in the Shadow Cabinet room—even though I think he is a closet republican.” Manning himself acknowledges that working in Ottawa has been instructive. “If you just sit here and look at Upper Canada on this side of the river and Lower Canada on that side, and you open the window and hear both French and English spoken, you could see how—from Ottawa’s perspective— the definition of the country as a partnership between English and French sort of makes sense,” he says. ‘You cannot sit in downtown Victoria, British Columbia, and say, this is the partnership. They’d lock you up if you say that. But you get a better understanding by being here as to why the central Canadian decisionmakers think the way they do.”
Just in case that kind of sympathetic talk makes hard-core Reformers reach for their recall handbooks, Manning adviser Rick Anderson stomps all over notions that Manning is softening positions. “Of course we’re shedding the outsider’s veil—we’re not outsiders in Ottawa anymore,” he says. “It would be schizophrenic to try to be on the outside throwing Molotov cocktails when you’re in the centre of the country.” But he argues that those who suggest the surest route to power is to take the edge off policies do not understand Reform’s strategy. “Our reading is that the public is looking for a real alternative,” Anderson says. “They are looking for more black and white, not more grey. We think they don’t like big debt and high taxes and a justice system that coddles criminals. So we think you should force others to debate on your turf. And if you’re right, you’re going to win.”
Last week, Manning’s office quickly shot down suggestions that Reform was softening its opposition to distinct society (it prefers to symbolically recognize Quebec’s “unique language, culture and civil law tradition,” twinned with an affirmation of the equality of citizens and provinces). ‘What we were asked was: is there some way to doctor up distinct society to take care of legal problems?” Anderson explains. “And we said: well, sure there is. But politically, we still say we don’t think it’s the answer.” In fact, it is the Liberal government whose position seems to have evolved closer to Reform’s long-standing tough line. Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion’s campaign to warn Quebecers that a declaration of independence would be legally dubious could have been borrowed from Reform’s playbook. Reformers point to Dion’s broadsides with the same we-were-there-first satisfaction that they exhibit in the face of the Liberals’ first-term spending cuts.
Keeping an accountant’s eye on any new government spending plans will be a large part of Reform’s task in the coming Parliament. The party will also call for a tax cut now that finances are in better shape, although Manning acknowledges that tax breaks have limited political appeal—at least for now. Reform will also push for the privatization of the Canada Pension Plan and for Ottawa to increase funding for health care if it wants to continue setting the rules on how provinces can spend health dollars. But Manning’s key political objective while in opposition will be to replace, forever, the Progressive Conservatives as the national party on the Canadian right. Fifth among five parties, the Tories’ survival seems to rest upon not much more than a wellspring of bitterness towards Reform and Manning himself. “Preston is clever at appearing interested in a merger, but the aim is annihilation of the Tories,” says one Reform strategist. And so Manning keeps up the pressure on Ottawa’s old ways, appropriating even its most cherished symbols like Sir John A., head deity in the Tory pantheon, who now provides inspiration to the insurrection that has rolled in from the West. □
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