Canada

Rough waters on the right

Brian Bergman May 24 1999
Canada

Rough waters on the right

Brian Bergman May 24 1999

Rough waters on the right

Canada

Brian Bergman

We believe in the common sense of the common people.

—Preston Manning, in innumerable speeches promoting the Reform Party of Canada

Christine Whitaker recalls the first time she heard Preston Manning speak. It was in 1990, at a small local meeting in Fort Qu’Appelle, Sask., where Manning was trying to drum up support for his fledgling Alberta-based party. For Whitaker, a longtime Progressive Conservative who had become “thoroughly disgusted” with the government of Brian Mulroney, Manning’s words struck an immediate chord. End deficit financing.

Enshrine the equality of all provinces and all Canadians. Make politicians accountable to their constituents. “Everything he said made sense to me,” says the retired Saskatchewan high-school teacher. “He invoked the way we think about these kinds of things.”

Whitaker immediately became a Reformer and went on to serve three terms as a member of the party’s influential executive council. But ever since Manning launched his crusade to unite Reformers and Conservatives under one banner federally, Whitaker has been one of his most outspoken critics. “I fail to understand why he ever started this,” she says. “It doesn’t make political, philosophical or strategic sense and it’s not what I would have expected from Preston.”

Unhappily for Manning, there are many within his party—and his own caucus—who feel the same way. Some 70,000 Reformers are in the process of voting on whether or not the party should continue to pursue the so-called United Alternative movement. As judgment day rapidly approaches—the ballots must be cast by the end of May— the grassroots supporters Manning has so carefully tended over the past decade are threatening to trip him up. More than a dozen of his own MPs have spoken out against the United Alternative, and a loose network of Reform riding executives and officials are working frantically to get out the No vote. Most, though not all, of the resistance is coming from the party’s western heartland,

Some grassroots Reformers are rebelling against Preston Manning’s plan to unite his party with the Conservatives—putting the Reform leader’s political future on the line

where many longtime supporters fear that such cherished Reform policies and principles as the equality of provinces and democratic populism will be sacrificed to appease eastern Canadian voters. Myron Thompson, Reform MP for Alberta’s Wild Rose riding, puts it succinctly: “If the new party is going to keep Reform policies and principles, why do we need it? If they are not going to do so, why would we want it?”

Manning has an equally blunt response to those questions. For the past two federal elections, Reform has been virtually shut out in Ontario—the nation’s breadbasket of electoral seats— and points eastward. Manning says that for Reform to reverse that trend—and to form a government—it must shed its image as a regional party. “The way you achieve what we want to achieve is to get 150-plus members of Parliament,” Manning told Macleans. “At the end of the day, there are a large number of people who want to see something done— whatever it takes—to implement our policies.”

In fact, Manning’s determined drive towards a United Alternative began immediately after the 1997 federal election. In one respect, the results were a resounding success for Reform. The party consolidated its regional base, winning 60 of the 86 seats in the four western provinces—though none east of Manitoba—and became the official Opposition in Parliament. Manning quickly concluded that if he ever hopes to inhabit 24 Sussex Drive, Reformers must make a concerted effort to reach out to like-minded individuals from the very party they had helped drive to the brink of destruction. Manning’s overtures drew a hostile response from the top

ranks of the federal Conservative party—including its resurrected leader, Joe Clark—but he earned a kinder reception from many influential provincial Tories. The most notable sympathizer: Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, who gave a keynote address to the United Alternative’s inaugural convention in Ottawa in February.

In the end, though, the Ottawa meeting—which brought together 1,400 delegates, 60 per cent of whom were Reformers—gave lukewarm support to Manning’s preferred option, with only 54 per cent voting in favour of forming a new party. And there were already strong signs of discontent among hardcore Reformers. “I’m a Reformer and I’ll die a Reformer,” MP Thompson told a reporter as he watched the convention hoopla following the vote. “This won’t fly where I’m from.”

Thompson’s comment proved prescient. In recent weeks, a group of Edmonton-area Reform activists have launched what they call GUARD— Grassroots United Against Reform’s Demise. By phone, by fax, through speaking engagements and their own Web site, they are urging ordinary Reformers to stop Manning’s initiative in its tracks. Pressure from GUARD and others in the rank-and-file helped prod 14 Reform MPs into openly opposing their leader. “Reformers do not want to follow blindly,” says Ron Thornton, a past president of the Edmonton Southeast riding association and one of the founders of GUARD. “With us, politics is not a game, but a passion. And we don’t want the dream to die.”

The perceived threat to Reform’s core principles is not the only objection raised by the United Alternative’s foes. They worry that if the process drags on for another year or more, the Liberals will take advantage of it by calling a snap election (if this month’s vote is

positive, a series of task forces will be struck, followed by a second referendum on forming a new party, most likely in the first half of the year 2000). They also reject Manning’s argument that the only way Reform can form a government is to morph into a new political entity. “That’s just negative thinking,” says J. Alvin Speers, a retired Calgary insurance salesman and longtime Reformer. “The sale begins when the customer says no.’ You are not beaten until you give up.”

Manning, of course, still has plenty of supporters among the grassroots. Kelowna riding president Don Irwin oversaw a meeting of325 B.C. Reformers last month at which Manning spoke strongly in favour of the United Alternative. “I think most people left saying, ‘If this is how Preston and others in leadership feel we need to go, then we support that,’ ” says Irwin. The political betting as of last week was that the Reform leader will prevail in the referendum—although perhaps by a much slimmer margin than he would like. But according to some analysts, even if he wins, he loses. University of Lethbridge political scientist Harold Jansen points out that if the United Alternative comes into being, there could be three right-ofcentre parties vying for votes, with some die-hard Reformers likely to run under their own banner. On the other hand, if the UA is voted down, it will be seen by many as a clear repudiation of Manning’s leadership. “He’s damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t,” says Jansen. “He’s hurt either way.”

Manning points out that the party weathered similarly heated internal debates in the past before voting in favour of fielding federal candidates east of the Manitoba border and against contesting provincial elections. “Every time there are these stories that it’s going to blow apart,” he says. “But each time we have emerged stronger, rather than weaker.” What the Reform leader leaves unsaid is that, in each instance, the party has eventually rallied around his preferred option. For that to happen again, Manning can only hope he continues to have a firm grasp on what “the common people” consider sensible. ES