Captive Three Times Over: Preston Manning and the Dilemmas of the Reform Party

By Cody, Howard | American Review of Canadian Studies, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Captive Three Times Over: Preston Manning and the Dilemmas of the Reform Party


Cody, Howard, American Review of Canadian Studies


Canadians have been obliged to wrestle with their vastly richer and more powerful neighbour, so much so that they have come to define themselves not as they were and are, but in contradistinction from that great and grasping neighbour.... The Canadian [is] a kinder, gentler American, a different American, in other words.(1)

Introduction

Canada's three-party political consensus at the federal level, which had coupled a welfare state under relatively activist government with an accommodation of Quebec's desire for constitutional recognition of its specificity, was shaken in 1987 with the founding of the Calgary-based Reform party. Reform was created expressly to break this consensus by introducing western and free-market interests into federal policymaking. With the slogan "The West Wants In," under its leader Preston Manning, Reform advanced a right-wing populist, yet thoroughly middle-class, platform proposing popular democracy, limited government, and institutional reforms. A Pat Buchanan-style working-class appeal attacking corporations, banks, and international trade deals was not considered as the party was created and first shaped.

Reform's populism involves the "common sense of the common people," setting policy through national referenda on moral issues--abortion and capital punishment--as well as popular initiatives on other matters such as the recall of elected officeholders and ensuring that Members of Parliament vote constituency opinion when their own conflicts with the party line. The party proposes a smaller federal government with balanced budgets, low taxes, and an end to federal involvement in provincial energy resources and social services jurisdictions. Also, Reform endorses a Triple-E Senate (elected, effective, equal representation per province) to uphold its belief in equality of the provinces and to protect western interests from initiatives advanced by Ontario- and Quebec-dominated federal cabinets. Unlike the traditional parties, Reform rejects national bilingualism and multiculturalism, and opposes constitutional entrenchment of a distinct status for Quebec.(2)

In the early 1990s, Reform dropped its explicit western orientation in an effort to secure support elsewhere in English Canada, particularly in Ontario, since Reformers recognize that an Ontario breakthrough will prove essential for Reform to qualify as a national party. Still, Albertans have continued to dominate the party and, as Reform Members of Parliament indicated in interviews for this essay, the party's 1988 western-oriented "Blue Book" essentially remains its platform. Reform still has made no attempt to appeal specifically to Quebeckers. In the 1993 federal election, Reform elected fifty-two M.P.'s, two fewer than the official opposition, the sovereigntist Bloc Quebecois. However, only one of these M.P.'s, an Ontarian, was returned from east of Manitoba. In 1997, Reform elected sixty M.P.'s, every one a westerner, enough to form the official opposition.(3) Despite a campaign geared to Ontario and a 19 percent share of the Ontario vote, Reform won no seats in that province.

This essay addresses Reform's policies and dilemmas with the assistance of interviews with ten Reform M.P.'s elected from urban and rural Alberta, suburban British Columbia, and rural Saskatchewan, and five western Liberal and New Democrat M.P.'s with long experience in Parliament. All fifteen were interviewed in their Ottawa offices in May and June 1996. Among the Reformers interviewed were three of the most important members of their party at the time, namely the ideological populist Deborah Grey, business conservative Stephen Harper, and pragmatic populist Ray Speaker. (These categories are defined and discussed below.) The interviews were designed to assess Reform's role in Parliament to date, and to appreciate where the party may be headed in the future in respect to its policies and its electoral fate. Overall, this paper takes a position on Reform contrary to most of the literature on the party--which presents a misleadingly unidimensional portrait. …

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