When the Reform Party of Canada was founded in Winnipeg 2½ years ago, its objective was to strengthen Western Canada’s voice in Ottawa. After contesting 72 of the 89 seats west of Ontario in the 1988 federal election, the new party scored a breakthrough on March 13 last year when Reform candidate Deborah Grey won a House of Commons seat in a federal byelection in Beaver River, Alta. Seven months later, the party again demonstrated its strength in Alberta when Reformer Stanley Waters, a retired Canadian Armed Forces general, won a unique provincewide poll to choose a nominee for a vacant Senate seat in Ottawa. Now, buoyed by opinion polls that placed it strongly ahead of all other parties in provincial popularity, the Reform Party is actively debating whether it should form a provincial wing to challenge Alberta’s long-entrenched, but clearly unpopular, Progressive Conservative government.
Indeed, when the Reform Party instituted a series of local meetings to discuss that question, attention at the four sessions that, by the end of last week, had been held in
different Alberta centres quickly focused unfavorably on Alberta’s 19-year-old Tory government—and the leadership since 1985 of Premier Donald Getty. The series of meetings follow the publication last month of a poll conducted by the Winnipeg-based Angus Reid Group, which indicated that the Reform Party could have swept a provincial election held at the time. According to Reid, 43 per cent of decided voters would have opted for the Reform Party, 20 per cent for the Liberals and 19 for the NDP. The ruling Tories trailed with 18 per cent.
Despite that, many Reform members expressed reservations about forming a provincial wing. Reform Party Leader Preston Manning himself has reacted coolly to suggestions that his organization should take on the provin-
cial Tories. “The Reform Party was created to work for major changes in the federal system,” Manning told a meeting in the central Alberta town of Camrose. “My own preference is to remain a federal party. If we get fighting provincially, the chances of achieving our federal reforms are diminished.”
For his part, Getty earlier this month successfully fought off an attempt by grassroots Conservatives to submit his leadership of the party to a review by its membership. And only 13 months ago, one week after Reform’s federal byelection victory, the provincial Tories won 59 of the 83 Alberta legislature seats. A provincial election need not be held before 1994. For his part, the secretary of the Reform Party task force con“ ducting the meetings, Virgil I Anderson, declared last week £ in Calgary that “There is no 5 question that a political vacuum exists in the province.” But, Anderson also acknowledged, “It is a fallacy that the Progressive Conservative government is finished.”
Still, a successful Reform Party assault on the Edmonton legislature would follow historical patterns in Alberta politics. Protest-based movements—the United Farmers of Alberta
in 1921, Social Credit in 1935 and the Tories in 1971—all upset long-entrenched governments and began lengthy reigns of their own. And there is no question that Getty’s Conservatives are deeply unpopular among Alberta voters. Even Reformers, however, acknowledge that much of that unpopularity is a byproduct of dissatisfaction with the national Conservative government. Such federal programs as the proposed Goods and Services Tax, as well as the Meech Lake constitutional accord, are deeply unwelcome in Alberta and vocally opposed by the Reform Party. “Conservatives like me are dissatisfied,” said Joachim Dehner, 61, a retired Calgary businessman who attended last week’s Reform Party meeting in Calgary. “I voted for Brian Mulroney, and he is destroying the party,” he added. Much of Getty’s personal unpopularity, in turn, is based on a perception that he lacks influence in Ottawa. That includes having been unable to persuade Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to appoint Waters to the Senate.
Despite their unpopularity, Alberta’s Tories
appear determined to resist any major changes of direction. At the provincial party’s annual convention in Calgary from April 6 to 8, after listening to Getty deliver an impassioned speech in defence of national unity, 2,300 Tories defeated several motions calling on the legislature to rescind or amend its support for Meech Lake. Delegates also voted down a
resolution calling for leadership reviews every two years.
Still, many Reformers clearly perceive a political opening that they believe their party should seize. A recent party survey of 5,000 of Reform’s 15,000 Alberta members found 60 per cent favored establishing a provincial wing. But opponents of that step argue that the party should not divert scant party resources from the drive for federal influence. Reform Party strategists claim that the party could capture at least 24 federal seats across the West in the next national election—giving it a strong base from which to press for such key goals as Senate reform and dramatic cuts in federal spending.
The Reform Party’s debate is likely to preoccupy Alberta’s members for many months. The party task force conducting the present round of meetings on the issue plans to hold a total of 11 sessions before the consultations end in Fort McMurray on April 30. The 14member group then will make a recommendation to the party’s annual convention in Saskatoon next year. For his part, Manning, who was in Saskatchewan late last week to raise his party’s profile in that province, told Maclean ’s that he will abide by whatever his party decides. Plainly, whatever the decision, it will be watched closely in Edmonton and Ottawa alike.
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