BUSINESS WATCH

Is a Liberal-Tory pact in the works?

With no majority in sight, only a national coalition government could stabilize the economy after the Oct. 25 election

Peter C. Newman October 11 1993
BUSINESS WATCH

Is a Liberal-Tory pact in the works?

With no majority in sight, only a national coalition government could stabilize the economy after the Oct. 25 election

Peter C. Newman October 11 1993

Is a Liberal-Tory pact in the works?

BUSINESS WATCH

With no majority in sight, only a national coalition government could stabilize the economy after the Oct. 25 election

PETER C. NEWMAN

Describing the Pasta Parliament we’re about to elect, the Toronto literary wit Eve Drobot put it best: “Canada will end up like Italy—but without the climate or the food.”

While Lucien Bouchard is consolidating his support in Quebec and preparing to seize ridings currently held by the Tories, at the other end of the country, Kim Campbell’s other power base is being devastated by the Reform party. Bouchard seems to be on the verge of sweeping Quebec, with something like 50 seats a definite possibility. At the same time, members of Preston Manning’s inside circle now expect they’ll win at least 42 seats. That total would include 16 ridings in Alberta, 12 in British Columbia, 2 each in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and another dozen or so outside the suburban fringes of Toronto. The party pashas dream of even larger gains, but don’t expect any smaller ones.

This breakthrough, accompanied by the similarly massive support for the Bloc Québécois, would consign about 90 of the Commons’ 295 seats to regional protest movements. Their combined total would be enough to rob the old-line parties of the possibility of winning the 148 out of the remaining 200 or so seats needed for a majority. With the NDP fading to a rump not large enough to prop up a Grit minority, a more probable alliance might appear to be some form of loose coalition between the two right-wing parties, led by Campbell and Manning. It has generally been forgotten that Manning tried to bring about precisely such an alliance in the late 1960s, when he was still running as a federal Social Credit candidate. At the time he was turned down flat—and he probably would be again.

Manning looks as harmless and old-fashioned as the host of a Lawrence Welk revival hour. But his politics are neither benign nor dated. He has shrewdly caught the current wave of western populism that has in the past propelled other protest movements to

Ottawa, such as the United Farmers, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and the Progressives. (In the 1921 election the Progressive party sent 65 MPs to Ottawa, only to find its members co-opted by the Liberals within the next four years.)

Even though Manning’s policies are ideologically to the right of the Conservatives, the two parties’ approaches to deficit reduction and decreasing government intrusion in the economy differ in degree rather than substance. The policy that deeply divides them— and the issue that would prevent any lasting coalition—is their incompatible attitude towards Quebec. While the Tories have catered to Quebec nationalism and recognized the province as a different place, the Reformers hold a much more simplistic view.

Unlike the Conservatives, who have managed to keep a lid on French-English relations, Manning’s vision of a “New Canada” is blunt and brutal: either Quebec should stay in Confederation on the same terms as any other province, or leave. To tell Quebecers, even the most ardent federalists, that the province’s powers, sanctions and relationships with the central government should be the same as those of Prince Edward Island is

to tell them they’re not wanted in Canada. Manning is neither stupid nor ill-informed; he knows that his position amounts to an invitation to split up the country. He has always welcomed the role of Quebec nationalists in “cracking the Canadian Constitution wide open.”

It’s one of the many ironies of this strange election campaign that both Reform and the Bloc are dedicated to the same cause. Voting for one is as disruptive as voting for the other. When Jean Lapierre was the Bloc’s house leader in the summer of 1991, he certainly recognized that phenomenon. ‘Together, we are going to eradicate the traditional parties,” he told The Globe and Mail. “If we have an Italian parliament after the next election, the presence of the Reform party will enhance our own role.”

Although there unquestionably exist strong tinges of anti-Quebec, anti-French and anti-Catholic sentiment within the Reform party that Manning exploits to widen his support, his remarkable upsurge is also based on other factors. The most potent of these is his call for direct democracy. Neither of the old-line parties seem to be aware of the dramatic shift that took place in Canada during and after last year’s referendum on the Charlottetown accord. As a result of that experience, voters rejected the notion of purely representational politics. They are no longer satisfied with voting for a local MP once every four or five years, who then moves away to Ottawa where he or she obeys caucus dictates, ignoring the wishes of home constituents.

Reformers advocate a much more activist relationship between the governors and the governed, a delegated theory of representation so that the people, not parliament, are supreme. Manning’s style of government would involve endless referendums on vital issues, canvassing of constituents by MPs, and recall of members of the Commons who don’t live up to their riding’s aspirations. That’s a rare form of populism that has no place in the thought patterns of existing Tory, Liberal or even NDP hierarchies. Yet, that grassroots approach is catching fire in the West and is rapidly spreading into Central Canada. “We believe,” says Manning, “in the common sense of the common people. We believe in their right to be consulted on public policy matters before major decisions are made and their right to directly initiate legislation for which substantial public support is demonstrated.”

With Reform and the Bloc on the rampage and no majority in sight, the only possible coalition to stabilize Canada’s economy after Oct. 25 would be a national government that would include both Liberals and Tories. This would involve a loose, temporary voting coalition between the Grits and Conservatives based solely on preserving a parliamentary majority free of regional vetoes. The fact that thoughtful senior operatives on both sides are quietly examining precisely such a possibility shows how desperate our politics have become.