As the mayor of Wainwright, Alta., Roger Lehr spends many mornings in what he calls “the senate,” debating politics with some of the town’s 4,713 residents. Lehr’s senate is a coffee shop adjacent to a Husky gas station at the junction of Wain wright’s Main Street and Alberta Highway 14. The town is 200 km east of Edmonton—and, currently, light-years removed politically from the turbulence on Parliament Hill. But the discussions over its arborite counter tops have one thing in common with the debates that rage across the plush furnishings of Ottawa’s Red Chamber: the Tories are under fierce attack. And as the president of the Vegreville Tory riding association, Lehr finds himself deflecting complaints from friends and colleagues about the deeply unpopular federal Conservative government. “It is a lonely job lately,” the mayor acknowledged as he squeezed a plug of chewing tobacco between his lips. “There are a lot of times I get pretty
mad myself when I read in the papers some of the things this government is doing.” In fact, many rank-and-file Tories are making their displeasure with the government clear by defecting to Preston Manning’s Reform Party of Canada.
Lehr and other Tories have little difficulty reciting a series of measures that they consider unpalatable to western voters. They range from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s perceived pro-Quebec bias, especially during the Meech Lake constitutional debate, to the government’s decision to allow Sikhs in the RCMP to wear turbans instead of the uniform Stetson. Western Conservatives say that those policies are out of touch with the West’s blossoming populist sentiment. And the result has been an accumulation of evidence that the Conservatives’ long-standing electoral fortress in Western Canada is crumbling.
Certainly, Conservative MPs in the region are finding their diminishing bands of loyalists
to be increasingly angry and restive. And many analysts question if even such western stars of the federal cabinet as External Affairs Minister Joe Clark or Deputy Prime Minister Donald Mazankowski still retain enough political credibility in the region to reverse the situation—or even win their own seats in the next election. Said Manitoba-born Conservative party president Gerry St. Germain, who was a B.C. MP from 1983 to 1988: “You do not have to be a rocket scientist to see the deep cynicism and malaise in the electorate.” Added St. Germain: “The Reform movement is not just a passing phenomenon.”
Scramble: The Tories’ tailspin to fourthplace standing in public opinion polls throughout Western Canada has left them on the verge of panic. And while they scramble to find explanations for their fall from grace, they are floundering in the search for a strategy to stop the slide. In Ottawa, senior Tories continue to place their faith in being able to create a dominant national issue that would supersede regional grievances, as the free trade debate did in the 1988 election. Their search for just such a solution is concentrated on developing a new package of constitutional reforms that would include an appeal to the West in the form of new measures to reform the Senate. But there is no consensus among Conservative strategists on what shape the proposals should take.
For now, the Tories are relying on their traditional image as a pro-western party. In fact, the current government gives the region generous representation in the cabinet with 10 members, including Energy Minister Jake Epp from Manitoba and Defence Minister William McKnight from Saskatchewan. The Tories also acted early in their first mandate to soothe the regional grievances that festered during the 16 years of Liberal governments under Pierre Trudeau—interrupted only briefly by Joe Clark’s Conservatives in 1979. They fulfilled many of the pledges formulated during their years in opposition, including such western-driven measures as dismantling the regionally disliked National Energy Program (NEP).
As a result, many federal Tories dismiss their problems as a simple failure to communicate their accomplishments. That perception is as pertinent on the flat streets of Wainwright as it is on Parliament Hill. Acknowledging the waves from residents as he strolled past the town’s major landmark, a clock tower honoring First World War dead, Lehr revealed his frustration at trying to compete with the Reform Party. “We have just done a terrible job in selling people on the good things this government has done and is trying to do for Western Canada,” he said. “I tell the guys in Ottawa, ‘Give me the public relations ammunition so I can fight back.’ ”
But neither the Conservative record nor the presence of westerners in cabinet tempers western anger. “It is a terrible mistake to be always reminding people what we did for them six years ago,” said Edmonton businessman and Tory organizer John Chomiak. “We came to power with such high expectations that things like killing the NEP were expected—not something that westerners feel they should be grateful for.”
Clout: Still, the Tories are continuing to rely on strategies that proved successful in the past. Last summer, the government’s western ministers toured British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan in order, in the words of one Ottawa Tory, “to remind the West of just how much clout it actually has.” A similar tour of Manitoba is scheduled for next month. But increasingly, the issue is whether anyone is listening to the Conservatives anymore. Said Edmonton MP David Kilgour, who frequently criticized the Conservative government’s policies and was expelled from the Tory caucus this year: “This government has zero credibility in Western Canada.” Added Kil-
gour, who is considering joining the Liberals: “Mulroney behaves like a second premier from Quebec, and Mazankowski just carries out the Prime Minister’s orders.”
Indeed, some western Tories say privately that they worry that the western ministers are seen as “the Prime Minister’s patsies” as they continue to support such hugely unpopular initiatives as the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Added Colleen Francis, vice-president of the University of Alberta’s Reform Party Student Society: “These big ministers do not listen to their constituents. They just do what Mulroney tells them to do.”
Abandoned: Many Conservative strategists blame the western ministers themselves for the evaporation of the government’s credibility in the region. They claim that the ministers have abandoned the grassroots political activity that Conservative support was founded on. Said one western Tory senator: “The ministers just do not spend enough time tending to politics in their province anymore. No one ever sees Jake Epp on television in Manitoba or Bill McKnight in Saskatchewan.” Senior Tories in British Columbia had similar complaints until Justice Minister Kim Campbell assumed a more active political role in the province last February.
The Reform Party has appealed to that sense of betrayal in Conservative ranks by pledging that its MPs would consult with their constituents on how to vote on major issues. With that populist approach, Reform has siphoned members away from the Tories. “Those are our people on the Reform lists,” said Chomiak, whose calm demeanor does not
desert him even when discussing the fact that personal friends have taken out Reform Party memberships. And some analysts say that perhaps no Tory initiative can recapture the ground lost to Reform. Said Frank Calder, an Edmonton communications consultant: “The Alberta Tories have very few shrewd grassroots politicians, so the party has nothing happening at the visceral level. No Tory has a vocabulary that can match Manning for striking a chord in people. Joe Clark is no embodiment of Alberta—he does not walk or talk the way Albertans like to feel.”
The recently completed Consensus Saskatchewan consultation, a citizens commission appointed by the Tory provincial government to tour the province during the summer, found widespread support for cuts in public spending. That attitude could make it difficult for the Tories to buy their way out of trouble with new and costly programs. Said one senior Calgary Tory: “If the feds take the revenues from the GST and use them for big spending programs like national day care, we are dead in the West.”
As well, any Tory agenda that caters to western interests may collide with the other remaining pillar of the Conservatives’ formula for winning majority governments: Quebec. Any proposal for Senate reform aimed at giving the West greater influence in Ottawa runs counter to Quebec’s traditional opposition to any measure that would lessen its comparative power.
Trend: Perhaps most disconcerting for the Conservatives is the fact that the western dissatisfaction with Ottawa arises at a time when the economies of Alberta and British Columbia have been relatively buoyant. And in Alberta, at least, that trend is expected to continue. In fact, according to a recent Alberta government survey of economic projections by Canada’s four largest banks, that province’s economy is expected to grow by two per cent in 1990. That is twice the expected national average—at a time when much of the rest of Canada is showing signs of an emerging recession.
In their search for solutions to their party’s present predicament, some western Tories privately said that they actually hope the party will change leaders before the next election. But neutral observers like Calder maintain that there are no quick fixes. He added: “There is no Conservative from Western Canada who really captures the pulse of the West. Surprisingly, there is no deep attachment to the federal Tories, even among Conservative voters.” Lehr said that that lack of attachment is evident even at nonpolitical gatherings. “There is a real opposition mentality out here that has never gone away,” said Lehr between sips of black coffee. Even though higher oil prices are creating more jobs in the West, he added, “Everyone still complains when they go to the pump and it costs them more money to fill their gas tank.” That mentality, coupled 9 with already widespread dissatisfaction with ! Ottawa, may only spell further trouble for the I Tories in the months ahead, z
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.