CANADA

A calming presence

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 28 1994
CANADA

A calming presence

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 28 1994

A calming presence

Quick, name the federal political party that fits this description: often impressive in the House of Commons, sensitive to the public mood but lacking coherent policy in several major areas. Of course, that fits the Liberals, whose early surefootedness has been marred recently by stumbles and outright stalls in foreign affairs, social policy and a now apparently dubious commitment to deficit reduction.

BACKSTAGE

OTTAWA

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

But in a more positive sense, those qualities also describe the Reform party, which has lived up to its name since Parliament began last month. Many members of the Ottawa establishment—including other MPs, civil servants and members of the press gallery—still scornfully characterize Reformers as bumptious hicks who never met a piece of polyester they wouldn’t wear.

But the reality is that Reformers, with their studied politeness, have contributed significantly to lowering the decibel level in Parliament. Preston Manning’s willingness to let MPs express opinions contrary to his own has raised the quality of debate among all parties by encouraging them to do the same. Whether or not one agrees with their belief that immigration levels should be reduced, Reform’s insistence on debating the issue reflects the desire of most Canadians—and exposes the Liberals’ elitist tendencies by their reluctance to do so. Coupled with the strong performance of the Bloc Québécois, which also emphasizes grassroots issues, it can now be said that Parliament is no longer just a place where the chattering classes meet, greet and make accommodations among themselves.

Already, several Reform MPs have distinguished themselves. Calgary MP Stephen Harper, arguably Reform’s most lively thinker, has posed tough questions on the present system of transfer payments and the Bloc’s sovereignty plans. British Columbia’s Jack Frazer, a 36-year veteran

of the Canadian military, gave one of the best speeches of the new session, dealing with defence issues and cruise missile testing. Other impressive figures, along with Manning, include Deborah Grey, the party’s only holdover MP, fellow Albertan Myron Thompson, who drives the Liberals mad with his single-minded pursuit of government waste, and B.C. MP Chuck Strahl, potentially one of the best orators in the new house.

To be sure, the party still faces problems and some yawning credibility gaps. Reform has no policy in such key areas as foreign affairs, the environment and telecommunications. Internally, party members are seriously divided over how—or whether—to seek support in Quebec. And Reform still attracts some rightwing extremists—although Manning has moved with commendable haste to denounce them. The efforts of some critics to equate Reform’s small-c social and economic conservatism with fascism are as silly as suggesting adherence to the New Democratic Party leads inevitably to communism.

Reform still has 1 much to do to demon° strate that it is a credible governing alternative. But in the short term, the party’s near-obsession with deficit reduction will stand it in good stead. Paul Martin’s early tough talk about the need to cut government spending sharply will likely not be matched by equivalent action in this week’s budget. The Reformers, in the debate that follows, will ask their favorite questions: “Do we need this, how much did it cost and can we do it for less?” And when it comes to public frustration with political boondoggles, the Liberals—who on the eve of the budget last week announced a $4.5-million grant to build, of all things, a museum devoted to the history of local industry in Jean Chrétien’s riding—still require a wake-up call. Count on Reform to deliver it.