The 125-year-old Manitoba Club may have loosened its restrictive membership code to keep pace with the times, but the red-brick building on Winnipeg’s Broadway Avenue is still where the city’s old money likes to go to sip scotch. The walls know how to keep a secret. It was the perfect place, in other words, for a clandestine meeting one night last May between senior capos of the Reform and Tory parties, in town for a selfcongratulatory dinner thrown for 2,600 conservatively inclined supporters to mark Premier Gary Filmon’s 10th anniversary in power. Curious to see if they could patch up the nasty quarrel that has split Canada’s conservative family, “we were like dogs sniffing each other out,” recalls Thompson Macdonald, an Alberta Tory organizer who sat on one side of the table. Among the mixed collection of Tories was Rod Love, the Albertan regarded as the tactical brains behind Premier Ralph Klein’s political intuition; Peter White, the for-
mer adviser to Brian Mulroney who is adept at shaking money from the corporate tree; and Taras Sokolyk, then Filmon’s chief of staff.
Across from the Tories sat two of Reform Leader Preston Manning’s most senior lieutenants: Cliff Fryers, a Calgary lawyer and Manning family friend who is now his chief of staff, and strategist Rick Anderson. Everyone agreed on what ailed them. As long as Reformers and Tories continued bashing away at one another for support from roughly the same conservative voting pool, the divided vote meant the Liberals could not be budged from power. Even if the crippled Tory party folded up operations, Reform had become so heavily identified as a western protest party that it could never hope to win the eastern seats needed to form a government. The point was so obvious that neither side even bothered bringing polling data. “It was really a rural Prairie kind of meeting, a ‘this is what the folks are telling us’ approach,” one participant recalls.
The solution, they all agreed, was to hit the Liberals with one com-
bined conservative force. It could be a merged version of the parties or a new entity altogether. But a united alternative had to be formed. There was some direct conversation about who might lead this new party, and some candid questions about whether Manning would leave the scene were Reform—his creation—to be subsumed into something larger. The participants agreed any such undertaking should not be seen as a Reform-led initiative (which gave the Tories a bit of a jolt a month later when Manning unveiled plans for a United Alternative convention at Reform’s Winds of Change conference), and they adjourned in agreement that the parties had to reconcile.
This week, the rest of the country will find out if they succeed. More than 1,400 delegates are expected to arrive in Ottawa for the three-day United Alternative convention in what may prove to be a historic turning point in Canadian political history. Or not: it has an equal shot at being an embarrassing bust. No one involved knows just what will emerge from this political mixture of Bible Belt social conservatives and fiscal restraint disciples, power-starved westerners and even some, like former Tory cabinet minister John Crosbie, who are coming just to tell them to forget the whole crazy idea. “My history in politics is that when I get involved, I know where a thing’s going before I get there,” laughs Alberta UA organizer Ray Speaker, 63, who has been close to Manning since the 1960s and has seen new parties come and go. “But this one’s got a loose end on it.”
The biggest obstacle to success comes from a man once believed to be already consigned to the history pages. Joe Clark recaptured the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives last
November, and has made it clear he sees the UA as nothing more than an attempt by Reform to re-brand itself to become more palatable to Ontarians. He has rebuffed every attempt to get him to come to the convention, stiffening the resolve of many other Tories to stay away. “Does Clark’s attitude make the mountain much steeper for us?” asks UA organizer Macdonald. “Sure it does. But Joe is missing a great chance.”
Privately, other senior UA organizers are even more despondent at the possibility they may miss a unique opportunity. Uniting Reformers and Tories under one banner had once been unthinkable, given the visceral dislike that existed between Manning and former Tory leader Jean Charest. When Charest quit to lead the Quebec Liberal party, many conservatives brightened overnight, believing one hurdle to a merger had fallen. But they never counted on Clark—who shares Charest’s passionate dislike for Manning’s politics—making a comeback. “If I had thought Joe Clark would
be back, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with all this,” says a frustrated senior UA organizer in Calgary. “Things were going OK when we were focused on fighting the liberals. Then Joe and the old gang come back and Reformers and Tories suddenly look at each other and go: ‘Oh yeah, I’d forgotten. I hate your guts.’ ” Clark, 59, and Manning, 56, have held opposing political visions since they clashed in model parliaments at the University of Alberta in Edmonton more than three decades ago. Their differences match the various shadings and fault lines that run through Alberta’s conservative community. Clark, a Roman Catholic from the southern Alberta town of High River, was raised in a family of journalists who “were not ground down by the Depression.” Manning, an evangelical Christian and premier’s son, sopped up the politics of the Social Credit movement—which had been forged from the grievance of Depression suffering.
Manning is a believer in the power of western populist movements to effect change from outside Central Canada’s warrens of power. Clark’s chosen path was to wheel and deal within them. He was, briefly, prime minister. “I didn’t grow up with the sense, ever, that the rest of the country was against me,” Clark said last week, trying to explain to Maclean’s what distinguished his politics from Manning’s. “I knew the rest of the country would be a challenge. But I didn’t think it existed to mug me.” The two men knew each other as ambitious young men in the 1960s, fought each other head-to-head in the 1988 federal election (Clark won), and saw their fortunes reversed when Manning’s upstart Reform pushed the venerable Tories to the precipice of extinction in 1993, humiliating them in their own western Canadian backyard.
Both men insist, for the record, their battle is not personal. “I’m not at all interested in settling old scores,” Clark said at a news conference in Calgary. “We’ve never been close, but there’s no great animosity,” Manning told Maclean’s last week. Others tell a different story. “Joe’s just not a real Albertan,” is the frequently heard Reform refrain. “Getting even is not part of Joe’s makeup, but he shares the view that Manning is dangerous,” says Clark’s longtime friend Harvie Andre.
Although the formation of a single conservative party may be all about how to take ridings from the Liberals in vote-rich Ontario, the crucible for its ideas and leading personalities is Alberta. The conservative movement in Canada is wracked and stunted, as one Calgary UA organizer put it, “by a fight in the Alberta kitchen.” The key cast members are all Albertans. Clark. Manning. Former Tory premier Peter Lougheed, 70, the conservative elder who still carries much clout and who has endorsed Clark’s decision to stay away from the convention. Alberta also features the most visibly ambitious members of the next conservative generation, like provincial treasurer Stockwell Day, 48. And it offers the most obvious current candidate to bridge the Reform-Tory gap: Ralph Klein, 56, who actually runs a government that is a coalition of Reformers and Tories. Just as the Canadian unity question has been driven by a family feud between separatists and federalists within Quebec’s political class, the explanation for why Reformers and Tories do not fit snugly together has a distinctly Alberta hue. And that feud’s grudges and betrayals run just as deep.
The University of Alberta was not a heavily politicized campus in the early 1960s, although it did have its own model parliament (at least until the “hippie period came along and killed it,” remembers Speaker, who led the model Socred party). But, as Clark puts it: “At any time, at any university, there are clusters of people sitting around with their plans for the world.” Many of the people at the university then would make a mark in politics Qim Courts, later to become principal secretary to Pierre Trudeau, led the model Liberals, for example). Clark says he and Manning lived in “quite different worlds on campus,” crossing only in the model parliament where Clark led the Tories and Manning was a Socred
An old feud
backbencher. Known in those days to sing irreverent songs mocking the Social Credit government of Manning’s father and inspired by John Diefenbaker’s Prairie power, Clark says he was already leery of Preston Manning’s crowd. “I wasn’t at ease with what seemed like their insipient social engineering,” he says. “Some of the people around Preston thought they knew better than the rest of us about how to live our lives.”
But the two men would find their paths continually crossing. In the late 1960s, with Social Credit a tiring force and a young Lougheed revitalizing the almost moribund provincial Conservatives,
Manning and Clark (who was then working as an assistant to Lougheed) met to discuss whether merging the two provincial parties was possible.
“It was a case of the young guys thinking there must be a better way of doing this,” Manning recalled last week. “We put together this plan to put things together, but there was a lot of skepticism on the part of the elders of both parties.” As Manning tells the story, he says the political differences between him and Clark were a matter of style as well as substance: he was the policy wonk even then, while “Joe was all organization—how it would work and what colours you’d have.”
But Manning argues that forces larger than either man propelled them towards different visions of national politics. “Joe got into federal politics at a time after the collapse of Diefenbaker, when people who had strong regional roots and expressed them were not particularly welcome out East,” Manning says. “After Dief botched it, you had to scrape the manure off your shoes before you’d be accepted in higher circles.” Manning, meanwhile, stayed out of elected politics, although when Clark would swing through Edmonton in the early 1970s as an MR Manning occasionally offered him advice to take back to federal Tory leader Robert Stanfield.
Speaker says Manning believed Clark was dismissive of his ideas even then. “Preston would say: ‘Here’s an idea, Joe,’ and then as soon as Clark would leave he’d turn to me and say: ‘Ah, Joe will just forget that stuff as soon as he gets back to Ottawa,’ ” Speaker recalls. When Clark and Andre—later a Mulroney cabinet minister—approached Manning to run as a Tory in the 1972 federal election (“Preston was a smart guy and the riding we had in mind included the Manning homestead,” explains Clark), the future Reform leader turned them down. “I had no faith in the federal Conservatives,” he says.
Clark may have been too enamoured with the mechanics of politics for Manning’s liking, but in 1976, at just 36, he parlayed those skills and a bit of luck into his stunning capture of the federal Tory leadership. Alberta delegates did not put him there—most Albertans chose to stick with provincial son Jack Horner, whose support was culled from the same rural populist base that later became the early backbone of Reform. To the Horner crowd, Clark’s appeal to Red Tories made him essentially a communist. In the 1983 Tory leadership race, most Alberta Tories were again against Clark, helping to push Brian Mulroney over the top.
By that time, Manning was out of active politics, running a consulting company with his father. “I decided to quite early on that rather than getting involved in one of the traditional parties, I was certain the West would produce another movement with even more energy and potential than any of its predecessors,” he says. By the mid-1980s, as the blush of the Mulroney Tory victory began to wear badly in the West with such pro-Quebec initiatives as the Meech Lake accord, Manning sensed his moment and went on to found Reform in 1987. “His early supporters were zealots, people like Montreal anglo-
phones who had fled Quebec and had a convert’s energy for the cause,” says Jim Hawkes, a longtime Clark friend and former Calgary MP Hawkes remains bitter at what he says was Manning’s use of anti-Quebec emotions to siphon Tories to his new party.
But even if Manning himself tried to curb the worst anti-Ottawa, anti-Quebec excesses, his message of “The West wants in” took hold. Alberta Tories began making pilgrimages to Ottawa, warning cabinet ministers like Clark and fellow Albertan Don Mazankowski of Manning’s growing popularity. They were told to butt out. Clark now acknowledges that “we assumed we could deal with that western sentiment with facts, figures and arguments. But it wasn’t about that. Reformers didn’t like us. They were persuaded that we were the East administering to the West.” And, he adds, “I knew we were in more serious trouble than my colleagues did. But I wasn’t in a position to do much about it.”
The first head-on test of that division came in the 1988 election when Manning ran against Clark in his Yellowhead riding. “I’ve got to take on the person that represents what is wrong with Canada,” the Reform leader told Speaker on the eve of the election. “Joe will never make a new Canada and I’ve got to expose that side of him.” Clark remembers the campaign for the way “people were polite to me but expressed disappointment in our government.” He still won Yellowhead by 6,695 votes, telling Manning on the phone when it was over that they should get together soon for a social chat.
They never did. Any remaining cordiality between the two evaporated with the 1992 national referendum on the Charlottetown constitutional accord, which had been cobbled together under Clark’s stewardship and offered a tempered recognition of Quebec’s distinctness while going part way to meeting western desire for Senate reform. After hesitating on whether to support the deal, Manning then launched a stinging attack on Charlottetown, deriding it as “the Mulroney deal.” Given Mulroney’s enormous unpopularity at the time, Tories interpreted that characterization as nothing less than an incendiary slur. “It was a very dishonest campaign,” says Clark, “the final demonstration to me that—now how do I say this diplomatically?—
Clark and Manning have held different political visions since university
Preston’s reputation as a man of principle was overrated.”
The political conflicts in Alberta run beyond Clark and Manning, of course. Lougheed’s endorsement of Clark this month at a national caucus meeting in Calgary was all the more significant, says one friend of both men, “because Peter doesn’t even like Joe.” But Clark won Lougheed’s grudging admiration last spring when, over a meal at Calgary’s Palliser Hotel, he outlined his willingness to slog his way through the backroads of Canadian politics one more time to try to save the Tory party.
Many of those trying to see their way past the Manning-Clark logjam keep coming back to Klein, who has agreed to address the UA convention on opening night. For some, he is the perfect leader to bridge the two sides (though Lougheed is not among them, uneasy with what he sees as Klein’s dogmatic obsession with fiscal prudence). Klein runs a government made up of equal parts Reform and Tory, and he is expected to tell the delegates he is living proof their dream can be realized.
That should provoke a big standing ovation at the convention, but whether Klein has the personal fire to enter federal politics remains a question even his closest friends can’t answer. “He has said ‘no’ so far because there is nothing to lead,” explains Macdonald, a friend of Klein. “And no one’s going to pressure Ralph into doing something if he doesn’t see the fun in it.” Klein’s friends say he likes Clark, though the premier’s laid-back style means he is not likely to socialize with either Clark or Manning. “Ralph doesn’t fear Preston,” says Stockwell Day, who knows both men well and says they have reached an accommodation to avoid making trouble for one another. “What Preston has accomplished is truly historic, but Ralph is the undisputed King of Alberta.”
But the danger for those conservatives who want someone other than Manning to lead a new, alternative party is that any attempt to push him aside could provoke a backlash from his Alberta base. Manning believes he has been slandered as an extremist by his enemies, and deserves one more crack at convincing Ontario voters he can be a national leader. Many in the UA believe they can only succeed if Manning is replaced. “But if people sense this United Alternative is just a way to push him out, it’ll be a disaster,” says Manning and Klein biographer Frank Dabbs. “Preston’s people are very loyal. Instead of a broader coalition, you might end up with yet another split.” And so any new conservative alignment will have to account for the burden of Alberta’s old wars, the separate streams of the province’s politics flowing alongside each other, seldom touching. Always, perhaps, just a little too close for comfort. □