CANADA

Reform’s rough road

BACKSTAGE OTTAWA

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 10 1994
CANADA

Reform’s rough road

BACKSTAGE OTTAWA

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 10 1994

Reform’s rough road

BACKSTAGE OTTAWA

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Not that long ago, the federal Liberals believed in Big Government, Bigger Spending Programs and Even Bigger Deficits as

the best way to keep Canadians happy. Then, their ideological soul mates were the New Democrats, who were often described as Liberals in a Hurry. The two parties shared many ideals: the NDP just wanted them faster. Today, the Liberals under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien preach the right-wing economic gospel of Less Government, Much Less Spending and Lower Deficits. They smile when they do so, and promise to move slowly towards those goals. The new Liberals,

then, might best be described as Tories on Prozac. They are now a perfect fit for political satirist Mort Sahl’s definition of a conservative as “someone who believes in reform—but not now.”

So where does that leave the one federal party committed to achieving those economic aims almost immediately? These should be good days for the Reform party—Canada’s one unadulterated right-wing political par-

ty—-since the country’s political debate has shifted so dramatically in their direction. Instead, Reform is in a bruised and delicate state. Since electing 52 MPs last year, the party has slumped in the polls and its performance in the House of Commons has been ragged. Leader Preston Manning—the rock upon which Reform was built—spends his time dragracing on the information highway, careering from electronic town-hall meetings to announcements of 1-900 telephone numbers with barely a pit stop to check his voice mail.

Some problems are unavoidable. Inexperience hurts: only Deborah Grey had previous Commons experience and, not coincidentally, she is one of the party’s star performers. (Other fast-improving, impressive MPs include Alberta’s Jim Silye, Ian McClelland and Stephen Harper, and British Columbia’s Bob Ringma.) The fact that Reform is not the official opposition means that it receives much less funding and opportunities in the Commons than the Bloc Québécois. That

could change if Reform wooed and won such ideological soul mates as Liberal MPs Roseanne Skoke and Tom Wappel. That would give the par-

ty more MPs than the Bloc, and a strong claim to supplant it as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

Then there is the often hostile media. One example: last week, there was an apocalyptic tone to television reports revealing that Reform, at its policy convention set for Oct 14 to 16, will debate some draconian resolutions proposing, among other things, the abolition of the Young Offenders Act and a life sentence without parole for anyone committing three serious

crimes. But a Liberal policy convention last May also contained provocative resolutions—such as making parole board members responsible for violent acts committed by someone they released from jail. The reports on Reform led the TV news; the Liberals’ proposals provoked little reaction. Why?

But that obscures more fundamental questions that Reform supporters should ask themselves. Arguably, Reform’s popularity last

year was based as much on what it was not—-which is to say, any of the unpopular long-established parties—as on what it was. Its proposals to shift many powers from Ottawa to the provinces and gut many existing federally funded social programs appeal only to rich provinces such as Alberta and British Columbia. For now, Reform—with only one MP outside those provinces—remains, despite its claims to the contrary, a regional party trying to decide what it wants to be when it grows up.

Successful parties transform themselves to meet changes in the public mood: look no further than the Liberals. Some Reformers acknowledge that. But any attempt to water down core policies will provoke suggestions that the party is sacrificing principles for power. (Think here of the NDP.) In short, many Reform strategists and MPs believe, the party should either stand for something, or not stand at all. It will all make for a lively, crucial policy convention. Small wonder that some of the sessions will be closed to crabby, persnickety reporters.