October 11 1993



October 11 1993




Sometimes in politics, a little attention can be a very good thing—but a lot is not nearly as welcome. Consider the case of Reform party Leader Preston Manning. At the Sept. 8 launch of the election campaign, his party was at eight per cent in the polls, written off as a spent political force and largely ignored by the media. Since then, buoyed by public anger towards traditional parties and a smart, well-run campaign focusing on the leader, Reform has been resurrected. A poll released last weekend by The Financial Post put Reform’s national support at 14 per cent—enough to place it third nationally behind the Liberals and Conservatives. The survey, conducted by Ottawa-based COMPAS Inc., suggested that the party now has enough support to win seats in every province west of Quebec. But Reform’s rising popularity has drawn new attention—not all of it admiring—to the party’s key policies. One result: by week’s end, Reformers faced a fire storm of criticism over Manning’s desire to reduce Ottawa’s role in health care. That policy, said NDP

Leader Audrey McLaughlin, would leave Canada with an “Americanized” health-care system. Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien added that if Manning’s ideas catch on, “Eventually the rich will have a very good system, and the poor will have nothing.”

Such criticism was either undeserved or overdue: Reform has been voicing similar views throughout the party’s six-year history. But the fuss was enough to stall, at least temporarily, a campaign that has put Reform on top of the polls in British Columbia and Alberta, and made its candidates solid contenders in parts of Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The attacks on Manning came on the eve of the crucial Oct. 3 and Oct. 4 televised leaders’ debates and, for the first time in the campaign, succeeded in placing him on the defensive. Said an annoyed Manning: “My opponents are engaging in their usual hyperbole.”

Reform campaign director Rick Anderson professed surprise about the health-care flap. “We are not saying anything that we have not said for a long time,” he noted. The party, he said, starts from the proposition that “no one should be denied health care for financial reasons—but we also say that the system as it exists is collapsing.” The furor, which began with an interview that Manning gave to The Globe and Mail, is “a classic example of people choosing to misinterpret what we have said,” he added.

In fact, Reform’s position on health care has been consistent—and for believers in a strong nationwide care system, consistently disturbing. Manning’s father, Ernest, a legendary former premier of Alberta, was a bitter opponent of medicare before its introduction in 1968. Said Manning Sr. in 1965: ‘To those who want to see a free soci-

ety preserved in Canada, the proposed [medicare] program is a direct challenge to individual liberty and responsibility.” Authors Sydney Sharpe and Don Braid, in their 1992 book Storming Babylon: Preston Manning and the Rise of the Reform Party, noted that “at the time Ernest Manning fought those battles, his son was already deeply involved in shaping his tactics and goals.” Perhaps more to the point, Reform’s official platform at the time of the party’s founding in 1987 was notably lukewarm on the issue of universal health care. It said only that governments should ensure that “adequate health insurances are available to every Canadian”—wording that could apply equally well to privately run plans.

The party’s recent attempts to soothe worries over its position have provided little reassurance. Reform, according to a policy statement issued by party officials, would like to change the Canada Health Act to give the provinces more power over how money is spent. That could mean, the statement acknowledged, that some provinces might “choose to experiment with user fees, balanced billing or deductible payments.” At the same time, the party’s official policy book says only that health-care spending “should be maintained at current levels”—an opaque assertion that would not even require spending in the area to keep pace with inflation.

In their defence, Reform supporters could argue that Manning was only confronting a reality that other federal party leaders refuse to acknowledge: the fact that Ottawa, by continuing to reduce its financial stake in provincial health-care programs, is forfeiting its right to exercise control over how they are run (page 20). And some of the most ferocious critics of Reform’s policy have uncertain credentials of their own as defenders of the status quo. On the same day that Saskatchewan NDP Premier Roy Romanow launched an impassioned defence of the existing medicare system, he announced that his own government is closing 52 rural hospitals across the province.

The attacks from Manning’s rivals bore witness to the grudging respect and attention that Reform’s campaign now commands from other parties. In the beginning, only the Tories had to fear Reform, since most of the fledgling party’s support came at their expense. But Tory supporters are not the only ones cynical about traditional political parties, and recent polls have suggested that Reform is now drawing support away from other parties as well. Says Anderson: “If you took a poll now of an average group of 10 Reform supporters, you’d probably find six ex-Tories, one or two ex-Liberals and the rest former NDP.” The most notable example is in British Columbia, where disenchanted traditional New Democrats are moving straight to Reform. In the last election, of the province’s 32 seats, the NDP won 19, the Tories 12 and the Liberals one. By contrast, a CBC poll released last week indicated that Reform has 29 per cent of decided B.C. voters. The Tories were at 26 per cent, the Liberals 25 per cent and the NDP 14 per cent.

There are also signs that Reform is expanding beyond its base of largely white middleaged and middle-class supporters and attracting a broader mix—including some young voters. One of those is Renata

Rzepczyk, a 19-year-old community college student in Vancouver who says that her first-ever vote will be for Reform because “Reform means change, and that’s what we’ve been waiting for.” In particular, Reform strategists in the province have targeted eight ridings where, they say,

they hold clear leads over the other parties. One of those is former Liberal prime minister John Turner’s riding of Vancouver Quadra.

Still, there is no doubt that the Tories are the party most deeply wounded by Reform’s rise. In Ontario, where Manning campaigned last week, the Tories took 46 of 99 seats in 1988. But 26 of those seats were won by fewer than 5,000 votes—and 15 by fewer than 2,500. With the collapse of NDP support in Ontario, the Tories’ worst nightmare is reflected in the political drift towards Reform by previously staunch Tories, such as Michael and Edna Johnson. The couple, who are in their late 40s, operate a bookstore selling Christian literature in the central Ontario city of Peterborough. Prim, polite and socially conservative, the Johnsons were— until recently—lifelong Tories. Edna Johnson’s allegiance dates back to the first

time she heard John Diefenbaker speak in 1957. But in this election, the two are giving their time and money to Reform. They are doing so, Edna Johnson says, because they think Manning would run the federal government “like a household or small business.” Although Reform appears poised to make a political breakthrough in Ontario, the

‘My opponents are engaging in their usual hyperbole’

party’s rise and the NDP’s collapse will mainly help the Liberals. But in Alberta, where the Tories now hold 22 of 26 seats, Reform is taking dead aim at all main parties. An informal Maclean’s canvass of the middleclass riding of Calgary North last week showed that Reform is winning over many lifelong Tories, largely because of Manning’s image as a populist with a penny-pinching edge. Said retired engineer Ed Brushett,

who previously supported the Tories: “My sense is that Preston is telling it closer to the way things really are.”

Far from trying to duck the issue of cuts to government programs, Manning seems to revel in it. His typical small-town campaign speech runs about 45 minutes, filled with a never-ending array of charts and cornball

jokes delivered in his trademark flat nasal speaking style. But with that style comes substance: Reform’s greatest success stems from Manning’s willingness to discuss measures and issues that other leaders are loath to address. Among the major par-

ties, Reform has arguably tabled the most detailed proposal to cut the federal budget, with steps that would include the elimination of grants to businesses and interest groups, and the dismantling of federal multicultural programs.

Reform’s rise in the polls appears even more impressive considering that it has done so while concentrating on deficit reduction— the same issue that has proved so trouble-

some for Campbell. The difference between the two is that Manning has been far more precise in outlining what government programs he would cut. Campbell, on the other hand, has been dogged by the perception that the Tories, during nine years in power, largely failed to address the problem. One Reform television ad tells viewers to “Pull out your credit cards”— and then lists government expenditures such as grants to businesses, the parliamentary pension plan and the mountain of interest on the national debt.

Manning’s pitch resembles the approach used by another party—the Bloc Québécois—in the one province where Reform is not fielding candidates. Both parties are headed by unconventionally charismatic leaders who denounce traditional politicians while offering a clever mix of populist protest and judicious silence on certain key issues. Bloc Leader Lucien Bouchard, for his part, soft-pedals sovereignty. Manning, whose party was created largely to push for constitutional reform and the creation of a Triple-E—equal, elected and effective— Senate, has, until recently, seldom mentioned either issue in the campaign. Both men focus publicly on economic issues, such as government waste and the need to reduce the deficit. And both men exercise extraordinary discipline over the parties they created.

Perhaps more to the point, Reform and the Bloc appear tied in a mutually profitable relationship. Many of the Bloc’s most prominent supporters argue that it is necessary to support the pro-sovereigntist party in order to send a message to the rest of Canada that Quebecers are serious about seeking increased autonomy. In turn, Reform supporters say that it is necessary to tell Quebecers what the rest of the country is— and is not—prepared to negotiate with them. Manning, in a recent interview with Maclean’s, said that Reform is the only party that will tell Quebecers that “their choice is either separation or a new Canada, not the soft mushy ground of sovereignty-association in between. There is absolutely no support for that outside Quebec.” He repeated that assertion in a speech late last week in Toronto that was devoted almost entirely to explaining how his self-described “new federalism” would affect Quebec. The answer, he said, would be to tell sovereigntists that any federal government negotiating Quebec independence “would have only one objective—to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs for the rest of Canada.”

As blunt as that statement sounds, it is a relatively easy one for Manning to deliver. After all, his party is not even trying to win seats in Quebec. Like Bouchard, his aim is to convince voters that their interests lie in electing opposition MPs rather than representatives of a party with a realistic chance of forming a government. In previous general elections, that message might have been difficult to sell. But at a time when many voters express righteous indignation towards the mainstream parties, it is an increasingly attractive alternative.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH with LUKE FISHER in Ottawa, BRIAN BERGMAN in Toronto, CHRIS WOOD in Vancouver and JOHN HOWSE in Calgary