CANADA

The Reform party's days of discontent

Caucus members question the party’s direction

BRIAN BERGMAN March 25 1996
CANADA

The Reform party's days of discontent

Caucus members question the party’s direction

BRIAN BERGMAN March 25 1996

The Reform party's days of discontent

CANADA

Caucus members question the party’s direction

They make a striking pair of crusaders. He is a dashing former Calgary Stampeders defensive back, golden-haired and firm of jaw. She is a vibrant former teacher who last year was rated by The Hill Times newspaper as the sexiest female member of Parliament. But as Reform MPs Jim Silye and Jan Brown made the media rounds in Ottawa last week, their undeniable star qualities were something that party leader Preston Manning could easily have done without. Upset by reports that fellow Reform MP Art Hanger intended to travel to Singapore to assess the merits of caning criminals, Silye and Brown lashed out at the “extremism” of some Reformers who, they said, threaten to forever relegate the party to the political margins. “I don’t want to come back as a member of the third party in a fractured parliament on the opposition side,” said Silye. “I don’t want to repeat this.” Added Brown, who is her party’s social affairs critic: “Pm about as far right now as I want to go.”

Following a midweek meeting of the 52member Reform caucus—at which Silye and Brown received a tongue-lashing from their colleagues for going public with their complaints—the outspoken MPs softened the stance they had taken just a day earlier. It was, they took pains to explain, the perception that Reform was extremist, more than any real policy differences with the party, that led to their outbursts. But while apparently chastened, both Silye and Brown continued to insist that Reform must present a more moderate, mainstream image if it ever hopes to form the next government. Brown, in particular, said that before the party’s national policy convention set for June in Vancouver she will press her fellow Reformers to present a more “compassionate and hopeful message” to the Canadian electorate, and to put more emphasis on social issues such as domestic violence, criminal rehabilitation and child poverty. “These are very real issues and so I talk about them freely,” Brown told Maclean’s after the caucus meeting. “It makes people uncomfortable sometimes, but that is who I am and I will not change.”

In part, the rifts that surfaced last week reflect the kind of ideological cleavages that exist within any political movement. Despite its popular image as a party of the hard right, Reformers also sometimes divide along urban and rural lines, and between conservative and progressive wings.

But the fact that these divisions are becoming public reflects another political reality: Reform is doing abysmally in opinion polls. And with the federal Liberal government at the midpoint of its first mandate, a time when opposition parties traditionally enjoy a surge in public support, the opposite is in fact happening.

According to the latest Angus Reid Group poll, conducted in late February, only 13 per cent of decided Canadian voters supported the Reform party. By comparison, the Liberals had 58 per cent; the Conservatives, 12 per cent; the Bloc Québécois, nine per cent; and the NDP, seven per cent. In re-

gions where Reform must do well to have any hope of forming a government, the news was just as bad. The Liberals led Reform by a 2-to-l margin in British Columbia and by nearly a 7-to-l margin in Ontario—a province where Reformers hoped to make a breakthrough in the March 25 byelection in the Toronto-area riding of

Etobicoke North. Even in the Reform stronghold of Alberta, the Liberals enjoyed a slight edge (40 per cent to 36 per cent).

There is considerable debate in Reform ranks about what those numbers really mean—and what, if anything, can be done to turn them around. Most MPs, including Manning and caucus chairman Deborah Grey, maintain that the polls are largely irrelevant. They argue that Reform is a party that “rides the waves” of public opinion and tends to do well when voters are focused on issues at election time. “In July, 1993, we were at seven per cent in the polls and a few months later we won 52 seats,” says Grey. “So I don’t lie awake at nights worrying about the polls.” But Reform MP Keith Martin, who represents the B.C. riding of Esquimalt/Juan de Fuca, says that his party colleagues are deluded if they are counting on a repeat of the 1993 election phenomenon. “At that time, we had a Conservative government that was almost universally despised by the people,” says Martin. “But today, the Liberals are liked almost as much as the Conservatives were reviled.”

A 36-year-old physician and another Reform moderate, Martin fears that the party is destined to remain a parliamentary rump of “between 40 and 60 seats” unless it dramatically changes course. And like many Reformers, progressives and conservatives alike, he is particularly galled at the way that the Liberals have co-opted Reform policies—including reducing the deficit, cracking down on crime and talking tough on Quebec—while at the same time telling Canadians how lucky they are not to be living under a Reform regime. Observes Martin: “They can paint us as a bunch of rightwing extremists through our views on

homosexual rights and gun laws and such— and they look like the kind, compassionate government that wants to care for the Canadian people. We have done an appalling job of turning that around.”

As Martin’s comments suggest, though, Liberal craftiness is just part of the Reform dilemma. Provocative positions like the one take by Hanger, who personally supports using corporal punishment to discipline some serious criminals, return time and time again to haunt the party. But there, too, Reform faces a unique set of internal tensions. As a self-avowedly populist, grassroots party, it has enjoyed the success that it has in large part by tilting at the sacred cows of an earlier Canadian political generation, including multiculturalism, official bilingualism and a liberal immigration policy. Last week, Reformers were at it again, as Parliament debated a party motion that suggested Bloc Québécois MP Jean-Marc Jacob committed sedition by sending a news release to all military installations in Quebec last October.

In the release, Jacob appealed to soldiers to switch their loyalty to a Quebec military the “day after” a Yes vote in Quebec’s sovereignty referendum. It was a debate that the other parties did not want to have (the Liberals watered down the motion, removing the word “sedition”). But it is one that Reform MPs such as Jim Hart, who introduced the resolution in Parliament, claim has strong grassroots support across the country. “I don’t think this is an extreme motion at all,” says Hart. “What I’m doing is following what many Canadians feel is the rule of law.”

Because of the nature of his party, Manning often performs a tightrope act. Last week, for example, he carefully avoided any open censure of either Hanger’s position or of the caucus moderates who spoke out against it. The strategy worked on at least one level: none of the critics had an unkind word to say about Manning’s leadership.

But political observers such as Angus Reid say that Manning will have to do much more than that if he hopes to become prime minister. The Vancouver-based pollster maintains that Reform is languishing in public opinion polls because the party seems to have little to say about the issues of greatest concern to Canadians, namely job creation and protecting the country’s social safety net. But Reid adds that all that could quickly change if, as seems likely, the next federal election is fought over national unity. “If that happens, watch out,” says Reid. “Manning has the potential to galvanize a growing frustration in English Canada with Quebec.” It could, in fact, be just the “wave” that Reformers need to ride out the rifts that last week were so apparent in their ranks.

BRIAN BERGMAN

LUKE FISHER

in Ottawa