CANADA

Rocky path to power

Reform’s discord imperils the united alternative

JOHN GEDDES August 31 1998
CANADA

Rocky path to power

Reform’s discord imperils the united alternative

JOHN GEDDES August 31 1998

Rocky path to power

CANADA

Reform’s discord imperils the united alternative

JOHN GEDDES

It was not much of a homecoming. After three weeks touring seven countries abroad, during which Preston Manning excoriated the Liberal government for letting the Canadian dollar slide, the Reform party leader returned on Aug. 17 to find his own caucus divided, his leadership questioned, and his political enemies snickering. The issue behind the uproar: some Reform members of Parliament want to break with the party’s long-standing refusal to participate in the MPs’ pension plan, which Manning has frequently criticized as far too lavish. But when Manning broke silence on the split at a news conference late in the week in Calgary, he sounded conciliatory towards the rebels. That even included British Columbia MP Jim Hart, who started the uproar by slamming Manning’s leadership, announcing his own intention to join the pension plan, and then quitting the caucus. Hart, Manning said, might be welcomed back because “I’m anxious to see the Reform family stay together.”

In fact, Manning has very specific reasons for his stance towards dissenters—and they revolve around his ambitious efforts to vastly expand the size of the party he leads. Reform elected 60 MPs in the 1997 election to form the official Opposition. These days, he is concentrating on finding a way to bring together Reformers, Progressive Conservatives and others into a new right-leaning movement capable of ousting the Liberals. Officially launched at a Reform convention in May in London, Ont., the so-called united alternative campaign is now at a delicate planning stage—a particularly bad time for the embarrassing distraction of a caucus revolt.

Maclean’s has learned that Reform strategists are trying to enhance the campaign’s credibility by courting an advisory group of blue-chip political figures from outside the party—including Calgary consultant Rod Love, a confidant of Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, and Peter White, a top executive in Conrad Black’s business empire and principal secretary to former prime minister Brian Mulroney. Drafting such heavy hitters would give the unite-the-right campaign a much higher profile, especially in Tory circles. “I think you’ll find there will be quite a few surprising faces,” said one Reform official, who asked not to be named.

Manning loyalists insist the messy caucus infighting can be put to rest before the announcement of the advisory group, tentatively planned for next month. A senior party official told Maclean’s that Hart is expected to retract his harsh criticisms of Manning within the next two weeks, and then return to the party. Some of the other Reformers who have also said they plan to break with their colleagues by joining the MPs’ pension plan apparently will not face party discipline. The aim is to ensure that a key caucus retreat in Banff, Alta., early next month is not dominated by internal dissent. “I can’t speak for the party,” Manning said. “But I don’t anticipate this being a big issue.” He issued a reminder that 81 per cent of Reformers at the London conference voted to have him carry on. “They gave me a strong mandate to continue,” he said. “And they gave me an even stronger mandate to pursue this united alternative idea.”

But Manning’s handling of the pension matter inevitably raises questions about his leadership style. In 1995, 51 Reform MPs, along with five Liberals and four Bloc Québécois members, opted out of the plan, arguing it was too generous. That stand was central to Manning’s bid to establish Reform’s reputation for refusing to get fat at the taxpayers’ expense. Under a new pension package passed in June, all MPs have until Sept. 18 to decide whether they want to rejoin the plan, which would guarantee a backbencher with eight years’ service about $21,000 a year, starting at age 55. Most Reformers are staying out—but some B.C. MPs are expected to opt back in, including Jim Gouk, John Duncan and Bill Gilmour, along with Hart. Critics charge that Manning set a precedent for their change of heart when he moved into Stornoway, the official residence of the Opposition leader, despite vowing, repeatedly, not to do so. “He set the example of reneging on a personal pledge,” said former Reform policy adviser Tom Flanagan, a University of Calgary political scientist.

Manning ‘set the example of reneging on a personal pledge’

Manning’s next moves will be as closely scrutinized as any in his career. Some MPs criticize the intense pressure that has been applied by party officials towards offenders on the pension issue. “We have moved to becoming like the other [parties],” complained B.C. MP Keith Martin, who, while not opting into the pension plan, has expressed sympathy for those doing so. “Force is used on MPs, through a system of reward, punishment and a culture of fear.” Some Reform insiders say Manning must now reach out to alienated MPs. But critics wonder if Manning, who usually stays aloof from such gestures, will do so. “Preston’s approach is basically a cerebral, intellectual one,” said Flanagan. “He just doesn’t network.”

If Manning can keep his MPs in line, the fall holds great promise. The weakness of the Canadian dollar leaves the Liberal government highly vulnerable to assault from the Opposition benches. With the budget now balanced, Reform’s long-standing call for tax cuts sounds more feasible than ever. And the prospect of a high-profile advisory committee, as planned, could put real muscle on the framework of Reform’s united alternative campaign—and even snatch attention away from the ongoing Tory leadership race. A united alternative assembly is planned for early in 1999. Nancy Branscombe, the Reform organizer heading the campaign, insists that the caucus split has not hindered her efforts to coax nonReformers into the process. “It is an MP or two who are a bit disgruntled,” she said. “The people we’re talking to are astute enough to know that.” Still, the cracks within the caucus pose the latest threat to the party’s plans to serve as host to a united right.

With LUKE FISHER in Ottawa

LUKE FISHER