Ottawa’s political odd couple—known at home in Alberta as the Iron Snowbird and the General—meet for lunch in the parliamentary dining room at least once a week. Until Stanley Waters’s appointment as Canada’s first elected senator last June, Beaver River MP Deborah Grey spent 15 months as the sole representative of the Reform Party on Parliament Hill. The 38-year-old single schoolteacher acknowledges that she was lonely and homesick. Waters, a politically polished, 70-year-old retired Canadian Forces general, was a welcome dining companion and political ally.
Now, as their party’s standing in the polls has increased, their shared buffet on the sixth floor of Parliament’s Centre Block has also become a constant reminder to onlookers that the electoral ascendancy of the established political parties is under siege. “At first, we were mere curiosities, lost on the Hill,” said Grey. “But now, our lunches together seem to be a political statement. We have arrived.”
Still, Grey and Waters remain best known publicly for how they got to office—not what they are doing with it.
Under the shadow of Reform Leader Preston Manning, neither voice is heard clearly, or often, in the Senate or the House of Commons. Waters, one of six senators who does not belong to either the Liberal or Conservative parties, is struggling to make his voice heard in the battle over the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Declared Waters: “I can’t get a word in edgewise.” Grey, a rookie among 12 Independent members jostling for speaking time during the daily Question Period, made an early political impact. But since then, she has been absent for more than half of the recorded Commons votes. Said Calgary MP James Hawkes, the Tory government whip: “How can you say you represent people if you are never there when decisions are made?”
But Manning says that parliamentary partic-
ipation is not a priority in Reform’s short-term strategy. Budding party support in the West is the main objective. To that end, Grey and Waters crisscross the country at a breakneck pace, promoting the party’s conservative platform. They make extended visits to the western heartland of the Reform movement, and Grey spends a third of her time in the Beaver River riding that sprawls from northeast of Edmonton to the Saskatchewan border. Each
Wednesday, Manning holds a meeting with his parliamentary caucus of two, usually by telephone. “There’s no need for Deborah to yip-yip in the House of Commons,” Manning told Maclean’s. “Because she and Stan are under scrutiny, we have to choose our subjects carefully.”
Blunt: The party has clearly been effective in harnessing the western protest vote. And Grey, an English and drama teacher, was awarded a respectful all-party standing ovation when she took her seat in the back row of the Commons on April 3, 1989. In a byelection three weeks earlier—called after Tory MP John Dahmer died five days after defeating her in the 1988 election—the blunt-spoken Grey
won with 11,154 votes, as many as the other three candidates combined. Said Grey after her victory: “Alberta is now just like a popcorn machine. With the first Reform victory, it has started to pop.”
Beaver River’s new MP was tailor-made for the populist Reform Party. A singer in a gospel group, she extolled the virtues of simple living and hard work, characteristics that led friends to nickname her the Iron Songbird. She has a black-and-white TV; the telephone at her isolated farmhouse home is on a four-party line. As well, she is a foster parent whose hobbies include kayaking and ice fishing. Grey also has an extensive political pedigree. Her greatuncle Byron (Boss) Johnson-Anscomb was premier of British Columbia from 1947 to 1952, and her great-grandfather, Ted Applewhaite, was a Liberal MP from Skeena, B.C.
Grey is straightforward in outlining her political views. She opposes deficit spending by governments and enforced bilingualism unless there are enough French-speaking people in a region to justify the costs. She is also against abortion on demand, and she strongly opposes the GST as well. Said one senior western Tory MP: “Deborah’s down to earth, and at times makes some of my seatmates from the West wince. She says things we all know are popular back home.”
Effective: For his part, Waters was an established business executive, an Edmonton oilman who abandoned the Tories in 1988 to help draft the Reform Party’s economic policy. In Alberta’s unprecedented election for a senatorial candidate on Oct. 16, 1989, Waters won 259,293 votes, almost twice as many as his closest rival. During his campaign he championed the creation of an elected, effective and equal Senate—with or without the participation of s Quebec. Almost eight months I passed before Prime Minister I Brian Mulroney recognized 5 his campaign victory and appointed him, on June 11, to the upper chamber, amid the final negotiations for the ultimately rejected Meech Lake constitutional accord. Now, Waters says that he and Grey make an effective team. Said Waters: “Deborah and I may differ on some subjects, but we complement each other well.”
That camaraderie and growing sense of confidence was evident last week when Preston Manning dropped in on his party vanguard during a visit to Ottawa. The three held their weekly meeting in person, over breakfast at the West Block parliamentary cafeteria. After the next election, they clearly expect to need a bigger table.
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