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 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
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
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.
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
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. …