JOHN HOWSE October 29 1990



JOHN HOWSE October 29 1990




The lineup to enter the packed, 94-year-old Opera House in Orillia, Ont., stretched beyond the front doors and out into the chill evening air. As about 70 latecomers milled about the tables of literature in the turn-of-the-century lobby, nearly 700 people seated inside the theatre greeted the bespectacled guest speaker with boisterous applause. There was little in Preston Manning’s insistent calls for more frugal and responsive government, or his earnest delivery, to elicit such an enthusiastic response. But, noted Wayne Hutchinson, a food broker in nearby Alliston, who helped organize Manning’s appearance, the leader of the Calgary-based Reform Party of Canada represents traditional political values. “The difference,” declared Hutchinson, “is credibility.” At a time when each new opinion poll seems to record a further decline of public confidence in more familiar political leaders, said Hutchinson, “Manning is not flamboyant and he does not have an aura. But people agree with what he says.”

In fact, the most recent poll indicates that, on a national scale, only seven per cent of Canadians would choose Manning’s small-c conservative platform over the program of one of the traditional national parties.

But in contrast to the Conservatives and the opposition Liberals and New Democrats, Manning’s Reform movement is enjoying a remarkable surge of popularity, particularly in the West. Reform zeal has spread from its birthplace in Alberta to British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Now, many disheartened Conservatives concede that if Manning maintains his momentum, he could win as many as three dozen Commons seats in the next general election, which must be called by November, 1993.

Potent: Meanwhile, the dapper and pious son of former Social Credit premier of Alberta Ernest Manning is crisscrossing the country, courting support and encountering plenty of it. In recent weeks, Manning’s pitch has received warmly positive reviews from such varied audiences as a private group of wealthy Toronto financiers and a public room full of off-duty Ottawa bureaucrats. So potent is Manning’s appeal, in fact, that some observers claim to sense the onset of a profound new force on the shifting Canadian political landscape. “Canadians are very angry at what seems to be a lack of leadership in the country,” said Winnipegbased pollster Angus Reid, for one. “Everyone is looking for a political messiah. Maybe Preston Manning can become that.”

Certainly, if effort alone can produce political success, Manning and his three-year-old party will earn theirs. Manning, 48, was elected as the fledgling Reform Party’s leader at its founding convention, in Winnipeg, in October, 1987. He had earlier played a key role in organizing a meeting of dissaffected westerners in Vancouver—where the plan to create a new, conservative political force based in the region was conceived. Since then, he has closed his Edmonton-based consulting business and dedicated most of his time to expanding the party’s membership (page 30).

The party saw its first MP, Deborah Grey, elected in a March, 1989, byelection in the Alberta riding of Beaver River. Six months later, Albertans voted in the first election ever held in Canada to select a nominee for the Senate—and chose the Reform Party’s Stanley Waters. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appointed Waters, a staunch opponent of the Conservatives’ proposed Goods and Services Tax (GST), to the upper chamber eight months later. And with their party’s buoyant standing in regional polls, Grey and Waters now see themselves as a vanguard for a larger contingent of Reform parliamentarians in the future (page 36).

They have good reason for their current confidence. According to an Angus Reid Group poll released last month, the party has the support of 36 per cent of decided voters in Alberta—compared with 31 for the Liberals, 18 for the Conservatives, and 16 for the NDP. Across the Prairies, according to Gallup Canada, the party is the choice of 23 per cent of voters—behind the NDP, with 37 per cent support, but tied with the Liberals ahead of the Tories, with 16. Manning’s membership drive has swollen its roll of dues-paying adherents to more than 52,000 people; since 1987, his fund-raising efforts have brought in $3.5 million in contributions. Change: While the party’s imembership remains largest I in the West—2,700 people ^ attended a Reform rally in £ Calgary earlier this month— 1 Manning’s two recent trips to Ontario attracted substantial interest in Canada’s populous heartland as well. In the Ottawa suburb of Nepean, party organizers expected an audience of about 250 for a Manning appearance last month. When 400 turned up, organizers hastily arranged to take over additional space at the Nepean Sportsplex.

Engineer and Transport Canada test pilot Richard Walker was one of about 100 people who turned up to meet Manning during an appearance at Ottawa’s Carleton University. Afterward, he put down $10 to join Manning’s movement. “I have never joined a political party before,” said Walker. But, he added, “This country needs a change. What he says is refreshing.” Said Manning: “Anytime we appear in the national media, half the calls to Calgary headquarters the next day are from Ontario.” In Orillia, Steven Woodman, 27, village treasurer of the small nearby community of Coldwater, told Maclean’s: “I am a Tory but I have nowhere to vote at the moment.”

The Reform Party shares some of its populist convictions with previous western-based protest movements. Those produced radical formations on both the left and right of the political spectrum—among them both the forerunners of the social democratic NDP and the separatist Western Canada Concept (WCC) (page 37). But, said University of Calgary historian David Bercuson, Manning’s proselytizing has paid off in new recruits from groups that have not supported protest movements in the past. Said Bercuson: “They are attracting a great deal of attention in the cities among professional people, middle-class people, smalland medium-sized businesses, even among some immigrant groups.”

Surge: And most analysts say that Reform’s recent surge in support is largely at the expense of former Conservatives, disenchanted with that party’s performance in power. For his part, Calgary financial planner Ronald Fowler, 51, acknowledged that he is preparing to abandon a lifelong affiliation with the Conservatives in order to join Manning’s gathering army. Declared Fowler: “It is a matter of leadership. Other parties seem to be self-destructive. Next time, I won’t vote Tory.”

A growing number of western Tories say that they are angry at Mulroney’s Conservative government because of its support of a wide range of issues that they find objectionable. Those include: the GST, official bilingualism, abortion, Quebec’s aspirations, low commodity prices, high interest rates and persistent government deficits. Even such powerful western figures in the Mulroney cabinet as deputy prime minister Donald Mazankowski and External Affairs Minister Joe Clark—both Albertans—have felt the chill of western antagonism. Mazankowski, for one, retreated from the podium at a party nomina„ tion meeting in Red Deer, Alta., earlier this year, in the face of determined heckling from 9 500 fellow Tories.

I Indeed, one senior Conservative organizer in I Ottawa last week assessed the Reform Party as « a bigger threat to the Tories than the Bloc £ Québécois—the fiery splinter group of dissident Quebec MPs led by Mulroney’s former environment minister, Lucien Bouchard. The organizer, who asked not to be named, told Maclean’s that private polls conducted for the Conservatives have indicated that Manning’s Reform Party could win as many as 40 of the 86 seats in Western Canada if an election were held now. The erosion of Tory support is most dramatic in Alberta, where polling indicates that the Reform Party could take as many as 20 of the province’s 26 Commons seats—24 of which are now held by Tories—if an election were held now. Among the most vulnerable ridings: Clark’s constituency of Yellowhead. Added one senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office: “We cannot afford to underestimate these guys. If we do, we will pay the price at the next election.”

Roll: Clearly, the political misfortunes of the federal Tories have created fertile ground for Manning’s efforts. Said pollster Reid: “He is on a real roll right now. But there are some tough decisions ahead.” In particular, Reid said that Manning’s movement remains susceptible to being hijacked by activists with more extreme views than his own. Declared Reid: “There is this far-right dimension that, if they don’t watch it, even has some racial overtones. As his popularity grows, Manning is going to have to decide if he wants to position himself mainly as a western Canadian politicial leader, or if he wants to position himself as the new leader of the ultra-right in Canada.”

So far, he has managed to skirt the most extreme views of some of his members. Ac-' knowledging that new movements often attract a fringe of radicals, Manning noted: “My father used to say: ‘A bright light attracts bugs.’ ” But he denies that extremists have turned his own party into a platform for right-wing intolerance. Added Manning: “They are often single-issue people who drop off when their issue is not accepted.” Indeed, the Reform platform is dominated by concerns about government’s size, cost and distance from voters.

The party has urged the rejection of the GST, slashing spending on government bureaucracy and business incentives in order to contain the deficit, and adoption of an elected and effective Senate with equal representation from all the provinces. It also favors making MPs subject to a form of impeachment by their constituents at any time during their elected terms. “Many of us like the idea of recalling MPs on issues like the GST and abortion,” said retired transport driver Robert Chapman, 62, who signed on to the Reform bandwagon in Orillia. Although Manning’s personal political perspective is deeply colored by his fundamentalist Christianity—he belongs to Calgary’s First Alliance Church—his party’s statement of principles declares its belief “in freedom of conscience and religion.”

The Reform Party firmly opposes official bilingualism. For his part, Manning calls the Official Languages Act describing Canada as a meeting of only two founding races “a mistake.” He says that Quebec should maintain French in that province, but that official bilingualism should be limited to Parliament and critical federal services where numbers war-

rant. “All Canadians must be treated equally,” said Manning. The Reform leader added that Quebec must decide on its own whether it will remain part of a reorganized Canada. But Manning swiftly rejects the charge that his party is intolerant of French—or secretly in support of dividing Canada along language lines. Declared Manning: “The Quebec press tends to recycle clichés about us. This party is not separatist. It rejects extremism. And you may not agree with us, but we are not crazy.”

Manning has also resisted pressure from his own Alberta membership to enter the provincial arena to challenge the Conservative government in the next provincial election, which

has to be called by March, 1994. Some analysts say that the lacklustre performance of Premier Donald Getty’s government may lead to the kind of political convulsions that sent the Social Credit (the party of Manning’s father, Ernest) into opposition in 1971 after 36 years in office. Then, it was the Tories led by Peter Lougheed who swept into power; now, many Reform activists say it is their turn to take office. But Manning has made it clear that he wants to press his reform agenda on the national stage, rather than follow in his father’s footsteps. A decision on the party’s direction—if not Manning’s personal one—will ultimately rest with the party membership, at an annual meeting

scheduled for next April in Saskatoon.

Delegates will likely vote on whether Reform should formally break out of its western base and contest future federal elections in constituencies across the country. Already, however, the party employs a 10-member staff in Calgary to support its organizing efforts. Volunteers have established provisional riding associations in several Ontario constituencies now held by the Conservatives—including Simcoe North, which includes Orillia. Among the 20 campuses where the party has established Reform Clubs directed at young members, several are in Ontario. And during one recent swing through the east, Manning had a receptive meeting with about 70 blue-chip guests assembled for a private dinner in Toronto by media and financial magnates Conrad Black and Hal Jackman. His sympathetic hearing in the East will likely weigh in favor of his party’s continued expansion campaign.

Some analysts now forecast that the next election may produce a parliament in which no party wins a majority—or even a large enough plurality of seats to form a minority government on its own. They point to the federal Conservatives’ unprecedentedly low standing in the polls, the presence in the Commons of the separatist Bloc Québécois, Liberal leader Jean Chrétien’s uncertain future and the rising strength of the Reformers as support for their analysis. It is a prospect that some of Mulroney’s advisers say that they find alarming. “Of course we are worried,” one senior Quebec strategist for the Prime Minister acknowledged in an interview last week with Maclean ’s. “Very damn worried.”

Splinter: But that Tory, at least, said that voters may pull back from the Reform Party when they weigh the implications of a splintered Parliament. “The challenge,” he said, “is to make people realize that if they are unhappy with the way things are now, they should start to think of the consequences of paralysing the whole parliamentary process by electing a whole group of parties with absolutely nothing in common with each other.”

Manning says that he is undisturbed by the prospect—and willing to form whatever alliances with other parties might be necessary to advance his own agenda. He added: “We would use that opportunity to push our goals and concerns in the most effective way possible.” In fact, the Reform Party’s soft-spoken leader is remarkably unruffled by most contentious issues. His pragmatic, low-key character is in contrast to the fire-breathing style of some earlier populists to emerge from the West. And his staid image and button-down personality often make his TV appearances uninspiring. Still, he has carried his party from regional obscurity to a new prominence on the national stage. His challenge now is to translate that prominence into power—or enough of it to begin to fulfil his desire for a radically different style of government.

JOHN HOWSE in Calgary with ANTHONY WILSONSMITH in Ottawa and BRIAN BERGMAN in Toronto