Reform's Time of Reckoning

John Geddes November 8 1999

Reform's Time of Reckoning

John Geddes November 8 1999

Reform's Time of Reckoning


Preston Manning wants a wider audience—but first he has to reassure the grassroots

John Geddes

It was one of those moments when notions of borders and distance dissolve. Sandra Manning was standing in line for lunch in Jonquière, Que., where she and her husband, Reform party Leader Preston Manning, were taking French lessons last summer, when her cellphone rang. Her daughter Mary Joy, 24, was calling from Kenya, where she was counting elephants as part of a wildlife conservation project. They chatted, hung up, and then the cell rang again. This time it was the Mannings’ son David, 19, calling from the Far North to report excitedly that he had just landed a 17-lb. arctic char with a fly rod. “When I think of myself at that age ...” Preston Manning says, his voice trailing off after recounting the anecdote. He credits his well-travelled children and their friends with being “broader, brighter, better educated and more in tune with stuflf” than he ever was at that age.

Manning’s critics have often dismissed him as a narrow, regional politician—a label that surely oversimplifies the outlook of arguably the most cerebral party leader on the federal scene. Still,

there is something to the caricature. He recently called his father, Ernest Manning, the late and legendary Alberta premier whose brand of political conservatism was so firmly rooted in prairie soil, his hero. But in an interview with Macleans last week, Manning also spoke about the growing influence on his thinking of his five adult children and their friends. While he does not shy away from being associated with the Alberta politics of his father, that broader perspective may be becoming just as important to Manning. And, at 57, his ambition to keep reaching out into the wider world they represent to him—to shuck off the regional image that limits him in the eyes of so many Canadian voters—seems stronger than ever.

The vehicle for that ambition is, of course, the so-called United Alternative. Officially launched by Manning at a Reform conference in May,

1998, the UA was widely described from the outset as a “unite-the-right” movement, designed to end vote-splitting between Reform and Tory candidates by the time of the next federal election. But Progressive Conservative party Leader Joe Clark never bought in, and his party unequivocally rejected any alliance with Reform at a convention in Toronto early last month. Many commentators declared the UA project stillborn. Yet Manning seems anything but demoralized. His .» reply to last month’s speech from the throne I prompted an outpouring of rave reviews from | pundits—attention rarely lavished these days on f any address in the House. Manning delivered a 2

challenging overview of his brand of conservatism. “I was both reiterating the Reform foundation,” he explained, “and staking out the ground for the UA.”

That dual objective about sums up Manning’s current challenge—and dilemma.

Some Reformers suspect his UA scheme betrays a willingness to water down Reform principles in a bid for acceptance in Ontario, where national elections are won and lost. Is it possible to both reassure those old loyalists and keep on appealing to potential UA members east of Manitoba? Manning tried to do both in his throne speech response, but it was his appeal to the social conservatism of Reforms old guard that attracted the most attention. He surprised many by raising the abortion issue, challenging the government to protect “the rights of the unborn,” and wading into the gay-rights debate, urging the Liberals to define marriage “as the union of a man and a woman.”

Reform elder statesman Ray Speaker, a former MP now retired from active politics to his farm north of Lethbridge, Alta., has no doubt about Manning’s purpose. “He was giving notice to small-c conservatives,”

Speaker says. “I’m sure he felt they had forgotten where he started from and where he still is.” Bob Richardson, senior vice-president of the Angus Reid Group polling firm, agrees that Manning must have felt the need to assert his social conservative credentials— especially to any Alberta and B.C. MPs who are worried about how the UA experiment might alter Reform ideals. But he adds that by doing so Manning proved that his potential for growth beyond his western stronghold is limited. “He’s got to be feeling caucus pressure at this point,” the pollster says. “So he is going to have to protect his right flank by focusing on red-meat Reform issues. The problem is, the more he does that to shore up his core vote, the less palatable he is in the areas where he is trying to expand.”

Manning winces at the all-too-familiar charge that his political roots and policy prescriptions impose limits on Reform’s—or the UA’s—electoral prospects. “We don’t accept this view that the Reform base is narrow,” he says. “Fiscal conservatism is certainly not

The tax-cutting issue remains crucial for Reform’s future prospects

narrow. And the social things we’re talking about are so fundamental— law and order, and the family as the basic unit—that we don’t consider them narrow.” Still, he concedes that the historic baggage Reform carries—with the persistent echo of the party’s early “the West wants in” slogan—has proven .» to be a barrier to eastward expansion.

Manning even admits that he views the

UA process not so much as a bid to | generate new ideas as to replicate, for 2

the benefit of voters from other

provinces, the party-building adventure that bonded many Albertans and British Columbians so tighdy to Reform. “We hope that, whatever happens with the UA, more people, particularly in Ontario, Quebec and Adantic Canada, will say, Well, we weren’t in on whatever that Reform thing was in the West, but we’re in on this,’ ” he says. “That’s why the UA was created.”

But critics doubt that Manning’s brand of conservatism, even repackaged with a new name, will ever get airborne in Central Canada. Richardson points to the positions Reform is taking this fall in the House—from opposing the Nisga’a native land-claim settlement, to urging that Chinese migrants whose refugee claims are rejected be sent home immediately—are sure to leave many Ontario voters uneasy. “People in Eastern Canada may be comfortable with economic conservatism—witness the re-election of the Harris government in Ontario—but they are not huge fans of social conservatism,” he says. And Richardson says that gap between western social conservatism and Ontario economic conservatism is reflected in Manning’s dismal personal approval ratings of just 37 per cent in Ontario. His more centrist rival, Clark, enjoys a healthy 45-per-cent approval rating in Ontario.

A key chance to highlight Reform’s economic conservatism—rather than its views on immigration, natives and the family—will come this week. Finance Minister Paul Martin is slated to deliver his annual fall economic update on Nov. 2. The state-of-the-economy speech, expected to set the tone for a federal budget next February, is likely to ignite a new round in the debate over income taxes. Martin will promise cuts. And Manning is just as certain to demand deeper ones. Whether his critique packs any emotional punch may depend on how convincingly he paints a picture of talented young Canadians—including some friends of his own children—migrating to greener, lower-tax pastures in

the United States. Manning says the issue was a hot topic of discussion among the younger crowd around his family’s table at Thanksgiving dinner. “That gives a real urgency to me on this tax issue,” he says. “I do think we’re driving some of our best and our brightest out of the country.”

One senior Reform strategist said that keeping the tax-cutting issue front and centre is crucial in the run-up to a United Alternative convention, set for late January in Ottawa. There, delegates must decide whether to plow ahead with the formation of a new party. But even with the tax debate offering a convenient common cause for binding right-of-centre political activists together under a new banner, the outcome of the convention is far from certain. “Nobody can feel any momentum in it,” says Speaker, who adds there is still time to generate enthusiasm. Policy meetings in cities across Canada began in October and continue this month to try to build interest. But even some UA recruiters are not brimming with confidence. “I’m not going to say Manitoba is a hotbed for the idea,” remarked Clayton Manness, a former Manitoba Tory cabinet minister and a UA steering committee member in the province.

If the convention fizzles and there is no new party, Manning says he will still be content. There is always Reform. “We’ll be utterly pragmatic about this thing,” he says. “We’ve not stopped for a minute in our Reform election readiness, our membership sales, our fund-raising, our policy development, our work as official Opposition.” Yet for a politician who seems primed for one more new start, it would be a humbling setback. His reply to the throne speech has been printed and bound by his party for distribution among the faithful under the tide Strong Roots, Bright Future. The sturdiness of Manning’s roots can hardly be questioned. But as for a bright political future, without the UA, Manning’s claim to one will surely be in doubt. E3