A Straight Shooter from Way out West Preston Manning, Head of Canada's Reform Party, Could Shake Up That Country's Political Establishment

Article excerpt

PRESTON MANNING is just about the nicest old boy in boots and stetson you're likely to meet anywhere north of the 49th parallel.

Sure, his voice is a touch squeaky and his unfashionable wire-rim eyeglasses give him the look of a perpetually startled owl. But his smile is warm and genuine and just sings out honesty and steadfastness.

And that makes Mr. Manning, head of the Western-based Reform Party, the hottest political leader in Canada today. There is a crisis in English-French relations in Canada. There's a national-debt crisis, a financing crisis in the public health system, and maybe a public schools crisis brewing. But none of these mean anything compared to the leadership crisis that wracks Canada.

Canadians neither like nor trust the leaders of the three mainstream political parties: the governing Progressive Conservatives, the opposition Liberals, or the social democratic party, the New Democrats.

And as national confidence in the country's shopworn political leadership has fallen, Manning's star has soared. If an election were held today, Reformers would take virtually every seat in Manning's home province of Alberta - most probably including those now occupied by former Tory Prime Minister Joe Clark and the present Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Don Mazankowski - as well as a sprinkling of constituencies in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, and perhaps more in Manitoba and in rural and northern Ontario.

Given the hopelessly divided state of Canadian public opinion and the weakness of the mainstream parties, that might well mean that Manning and the Reformers would hold the balance of power in the next national parliament. Not a bad start for a party that will celebrate its fifth anniversary this month.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, whose winning electoral coalition of Western conservatives and pro-business, nationalist Quebecers is in peril, now pays Manning the compliment of his active dislike. The Conservatives have launched a negative advertising campaign against the Reform Party in the West, and the prime minister has accused Manning of threatening the country's future.

"The Reform Party stands for Canada without Quebec," says Mr. Mulroney.

Manning reacts to these attacks with a pained look and a sad shrug as if to say, "What can you expect from a politician?" But he does not deny that he and the Reform Party will use whatever leverage the voters accord them to change the way Canada is run. He is anxious to prove that Reform, unlike the other parties, really does stand for something.

Reform has vowed to defeat any governing coalition that refuses to slash government spending. It will demand that government programs supporting bilingualism and multicultural activities be abandoned. It will seek to end most foreign-aid spending, and, in an effort to balance the federal budget, it will insist on cuts to federal spending on health care, universities, and old-age security payments.

But Manning wants to alter the way all Canadians think of their country in an even more fundamental sense. He has said: "We'd ask voters to choose between the Old Canada and the New Canada. Old Canada is a Canada where government chronically overspends and where there's a constitutional preoccupation with French and English relations. In New Canada, governments would be fiscally responsible and we'd go beyond English-French relations as the centerpiece of constitutional discussions."

Manning is determined to take a sharp stick to the sorest spot on the body politic. For decades, Canadians have wrestled uncomfortably with their identity.

* Is Canada a country of two founding peoples where French Canadians should enjoy a large number of exceptional rights and privileges in their home province of Quebec that are not available to Canadians in other provinces? Most Quebecers would say yes. …