CANADA

The threat in the West

The Reform Party mounts a challenge to the Tories

JOHN HOWSE February 5 1990
CANADA

The threat in the West

The Reform Party mounts a challenge to the Tories

JOHN HOWSE February 5 1990

The threat in the West

CANADA

The Reform Party mounts a challenge to the Tories

For many Albertans, it was a clear sign of their province’s political volatility. As Preston Manning, 47, leader of the Reform Party of Canada, spoke in Red Deer last week during a 22-community provincial tour, he demanded that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appoint party member Stanley Waters— who won Alberta’s unprecedented Oct. 16 Senate nomination election—to Parliament’s upper house. And Manning attacked both the federal government’s proposed seven-per-cent Goods and Services Tax (GST) and the Meech Lake accord, saying that a majority of Albertans oppose both. But underlying those criticisms was a deeper thrust. His voice rising with emotion, Manning asked his audience, “Whatever happened to the idea that MPs were supposed to represent the viewpoints of their constituents?” The widely held perception that politicians are not listening in Alberta has given a major boost to the Reform Party, transforming it into the leading challenge to Albertans’ long-standing loyalty to Conservatives in Ottawa and Edmonton alike.

Manning’s defiant words were strategically timed. In Edmonton, the Conservative government of Premier Donald Getty is slumping in opinion polls, and Getty himself is the target of mounting criticism from within his own party. At the same time, provincial NDP Leader Ray Martin and his Liberal counterpart, Laurence Decore—who recently underwent an operation to remove a cancerous tumor—have been largely unable to capitalize on Getty’s political doldrums. At the federal level, many of Alberta’s Conservative members of Parliament have been damaged by their defence of government policies. Last March, Reform candidate Deborah Grey became the party’s first MP, winning a byelection in Beaver River, a new rural riding in an area that had been solidly Tory since 1958. That was followed by Waters’s victory under the Reform banner seven months later. Since then, there have been signs that the erosion of Conservative support has continued apace. Noted Keith Archer, a political scientist at the University of Calgary: “People are turning away from the Tories very quickly and in record numbers.”

Indeed, there is growing evidence that the Tory grip on Alberta—the party holds 24 of Alberta’s 26 federal ridings and 59 of the 83 seats in the provincial legislature—is weakening. When Albertans were asked about their federal political preferences in a poll conducted in late December by the Winnipeg-based An-

gus Reid Group Inc. for the right-wing National Citizens’ Coalition, 25 per cent of respondents said that they supported the Reform Party, compared with 19 per cent for the NDP, 18 per cent for the Liberals and just 17 per cent for the Conservatives. Even given the poll’s margin of error of approximately 3.5 per cent, it was a clear signal to Tories that their preeminence is threatened.

In fact, many Albertans now say that even such high-profile Tory MPs as External Affairs Minister Joe Clark and Deputy Prime Minister Donald Mazankowski could face defeat in the next election. “Most of them are essentially dead in the water,” said Donald Petersen, a former Tory riding executive in Red Deer. “And they deserve to be. They do not represent their constituency viewpoints.” Indeed, when Manning ran against Clark in the minister’s Yellowhead riding during the 1988 federal election, he placed a surprisingly strong second with 11,136 votes, compared with Clark’s 17,847. For his part, Clark received a political warning in stark terms last week when he appeared on an open-line radio program in his riding and the overwhelming majority of callers attacked the government for ignoring the views of Alberta voters.

At the same time, the Tories are also experiencing difficulties in the provincial arena. Last March, Getty failed to hold his own EdmontonWhitemud riding in a general election—a loss that forced him to contest a rural byelection in the safe Tory riding of Stettier in order to regain a seat in the legislature. Since then, many provincial Tories say that dissatisfaction with Getty’s leadership has widened among party rank and file. Former provincial health minister Marvin Moore, for one, warned late last year that, without a leadership change, the party could lose the next provincial election. Said Moore: “Getty has got himself out of touch with our party.”

So far, though, Reform is not an option at the provincial level; it exists solely as a federal party. But while Manning has resisted pressure to enter provincial politics, the party is reviewing that policy in the light of its apparent support. Last week, in what he said was an attempt to “turn up the heat” on the Conservatives in Edmonton and Ottawa alike, Manning set out to gather support for three petitions directed at politicians in both cities. One calls on Ottawa to abandon the GST and, instead, reduce federal spending. A second demands that Mulroney name Waters to the Senate, claiming that failing to do so would defy the democratic will of Albertans. The third, addressed to provincial Conservatives, demands that the Alberta legislature rescind its support for Meech Lake because there have been no federal moves towards Senate reform. While neither Tory government had responded to those demands by the week’s end, the campaign-like atmosphere that surrounded last week’s Reform rallies across Alberta underlined the extent of the new party’s threat to what has long been considered an all but impregnable Tory stronghold.

JOHN HOWSE in Red Deer