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Sunday, September 1, 1996

The Reform Party is not part of Canada's Conservative Future

September 1, 1996,  GRAVITAS

Which will be the conservative party in Canada after the next general election: the Progressive Conservative Party or the Reform Party? Merger is out of the question. But an answer can be given now. It will not be the Reform Party; for the Reform Party is not and will not be a conservative party. It cannot be a question simply of political strategy, of how best to exploit a given mass of conservative supporters for electoral success. The history, leadership, structure and active supporters of the two parties have shaped and will shape the nature of conservatism in Canada. The choice between the parties in not one of instruments but of philosophies.

The Reform Party's reputation is that of an rudely conservative movement. It arose in part as a reaction to a perceived failure of the Progressive Conservative Party to keep faith with is more right wing supporters. By far the greater part of its voters in the 1993 general election were Progressive Conservative voters in previous elections. But the Reform Party is not a breakaway conservative party. It is the creation of one man and its basic doctrines concern party and government structures and processes and have nothing conservative about them. Reform is a populist party inherently incapable of advancing conservative or any other consistent principles beyond the short term. In the classic paradox of populist parties, despite its claim to be the voice of the people, it is the tool of its leader.

Preston Manning is a square old fashioned sort of man. He heads a conventional traditional family. He practices a fundamentalist Christianity. His father was for twenty-five years a conservative premier of Alberta. He assisted his father in the research for, even ghostwrote, Political Realignment, the 1967 tract in which Ernest Manning called for two national parties offering clear right and left wing alternatives. Political Realignment espoused what Manning senior called "social conservatism" and his preferred choice for the national right wing party was the Progressive Conservative Party. As an alternative "if the cause of conservatism continues to suffer and decline" because of the failure of existing parties Manning senior warned that the formation of a new party was a prospect.

It is natural then to think that the party Preston Manning founded in 1987 is the new conservative party his father had foreseen. The right wing political culture of the Reform Party's home base in Alberta and the maverick right wing tradition of British Columbia, where it found its next strongest support, shaped the party's character and reputation at the outset. Alarmist reactions by liberals and leftist reinforced the party's crude right wing image. Some of this was just a cynical smear. Some if it was just stupidity, a plentiful resource among left wing academics particularly.

Preston Manning is a peculiar man and a peculiar politician. Before he became a politician he was a management consultant and as he presents himself in The New Canada he wants to extend his management consulting to the governance of Canada. He is an evangelist of systems analysis, a now dated American ideology developed in the 1950's and applied most notably to the management of the Vietnam war. The business of Manning Consultants, which he started when he was 26 with his father, immediately upon the latter's retirement as premier, grew from Manning senior's political contacts. Much of its work seems to have been in the fields where government and business meet in a mixed economy.

When Manning's policy pronouncements are most specific they are technocratic. His first contribution to public life was in jointly drafting The White Paper on Human Resources Development in 1967 for his father's Alberta government. Manning's description of it in New Canada gives a good taste of his policy making:

Our concept of human resources development focused on achieving certain levels of physical and mental health by requiring public and private sectors to perform specific functions: development/prevention, rehabilitation/adjustment, maintenance. The White Paper was accompanied by case studies analyzing poverty and underdevelopment problems..., and an inventory of public and private resources available to cope with these problems. It provided for the establishment of a Human Resources Development Authority to bring the resources of the big social-service departments...to bear on particular needs... It also provided for the creation of a Human Resources Council.
Happily nothing came of the report.

Manning's technocratic tendency fits naturally with the Reform Party's populism. Politics is reduced to the people's will and technical questions. Conflicts of interests and ideas, the real stuff of politics, disappear.

Manning is famously shy of confrontation and his personality, his religion and his management consulting lead him to want to be a conciliator. He seems never to have engaged in serious argument and, beyond his religious faith, not to have any convictions, which can only be developed in argument. He has reportedly read a lot but does not seem well read. His most famous reading was the Revised Statutes of Alberta, a testimony to his adolescent earnestness and interest in government, but it does not seem to have occurred to him that the work would be better if shorter. A more troubling literary interest has been the life of Lincoln and the secession crisis in the United States.

Manning's fundamentalist Christianity has alarmed many, who suspect that he may want to impose his religious principles through politics. But he has carefully explained that he does not seek to impose his religion on anyone and there is no reason not to take him at his word. The significance of his religion is different and twofold. Even in this secular age, perhaps particularly in this secular age, there is a tendency to think that the devout are people of principle and more likely honest. This has helped him sell himself as a new breed of honest politician even though his record is no better than that of the rattier sort of Liberal. His religion also seems to have given him a sort of moral complacency reflected in his manner and the confidence with which he has lead the Reform Party as he pleased never doubting that he spoke for the people. The one explicit connection he makes between his religion and his politics he also makes with management consulting: "How do God and man get reconciled? I studied that from a theological standpoint. I tried to see if there's any application of these principles that are in the Christian Gospel to conflict resolution in other areas." Manning sees himself as a conciliator rather than the champion of any particular political philosophy.

Manning's conception of Reform is so broad that it amounts to nothing more than a resentment of established parties. He claims for the Reform tradition in Canada Louis Riel and John Diefenbaker, Social Credit and the CCF, the Bloc Populaire Canadien and the Parti Q├ębecois. The fall of communism in Europe he writes in the preface to The New Canada came "under the banner of Reform." Writing in the early twenties he would perhaps have claimed Lenin and Mussolini for the Reform tradition. All that the various movements Manning claims for the Reform tradition have in common is that they were, for a time, popular protests. While he carefully avoids calling himself a conservative Manning does invoke populism, claiming to speak for "the common sense of the common people." This, as far as it goes, has been the foundation of the Reform Party's doctrines.

Many Reform Party activists are disenchanted Tories. But Manning was never a Tory and despite excellent political contacts ( he worked with Joe Clark thirty years ago on a study of the possibility of a merger between the aging Socreds and Peter Lougheed's rising Alberta Progressive Conservatives) he stood completely aloof from politics until the prospect of founding his own party emerged in 1986. His egotism largely explains this. But had he been a conservative he might have tested his father's hopes for a clearly right wing Progressive Conservative Party on the fringes of politics. Instead he waited to exploit the wave of disenchantment with the Progressive Conservatives as a base for his own party, with which he undertook the destruction of the Progressive Conservative Party while firmly refusing to make the Reform Party a new conservative party.

From before the founding of the Reform Party, at the Western Canada Assembly in May 1987, when plans for founding the party were laid, Manning was explicit and firm in rejecting any ideological base for the party.
In order to ensure that we could draw support from the disaffected members of the Liberals and the NDP as well as the Conservatives, it is important that a new western party have a strong social conscience and program as well as strong commitment to market principles and freedom of enterprise.

A new federal party which embodies the principal political values of the West will transcend some of the old categories of left and right....It should be a party whose members and leaders...attach high importance to wealth creation and freedom of economic activity on the one hand, but who are also genuinely concerned and motivated to action on behalf of the victims of the many injustices and imperfections in our economic and social systems.

We need a political party in which Canadian youth...will feel at home. Canadian youth have a special interest in jobs, in the economy of the future, in environmental protection and conservation, and in conflict resolution on a world scale-concerns which once again are not easily classified on the old "left-right" spectrum and which again call for ideological innovation and balance.
In the face of this, it is hard to see how conservatives could hope to make their home in Manning's party.

The second principle in the Reform Party's statement of principles, after a vacuous commitment to one Canada of equal provinces and citizens added recently, is support for a Triple-E Senate. The idea was talked up with religious fervour until it became obviously tedious and was sidelined with all constitutional talk after the 1992 referendum. In its origins it was an understandable expression of Western resentment against new wrongs like the National Energy Policy added to the history of Old Canada's periodic disregard for the interests of the West. But it is also the most concrete of a series of notions supposed to give the idolised people better control over government. Referenda and popular legislative initiatives are also called for. Most telling for any assessment of the Reform Party's claim to be a party of "stated values and principles", in accordance with the third of its principles, is the doctrine that M. P.'s should be simply the delegates of the voters, subject to no party discipline but bound to consult their constituents on how they should vote and subject to recall.

Opposition to party discipline has a long history in the West where it was felt that Liberal and Conservative members were prevented by it from properly representing Western interests. It was given new impetus by the GST, which was overwhelmingly opposed in Alberta but voted for by 22 of its 24 Progressive Conservative M. P.'s. That the 22 voted for it because they believed it was best for the country or that the Tories who bolted did not vote from conviction but to save their political skins (one, David Kilgour, became a Liberal and the only M. P. elected from Alberta in 1988 to be reelected in 1993) was irrelevant under Reform Party doctrine. The voters did not want the GST, largely because Manning and the Liberals were dishonestly attacking it, and M. P.'s should do what they are told.

A myth has grown up that M. P.'s are somehow forced to vote as their party says and that a good party could simply say that it would not do that and give M. P.'s and by extension their constituents more power. But if a party is to stand for anything its candidates must share a programme and confidence in its leadership and a commitment to work together. If there is to be no party discipline voters cannot know what they are voting for in voting for a Reform Party candidate and the party cannot honestly promise to do anything specific.

The Progressive Party, which in 1921 outdid the Reform Party in taking 65 seats in a smaller House of Commons in its first general, foundered on a dogmatic refusal to be disciplined. In contrast to Preston Manning's dogged pursuit of official opposition status the Progressives declined the honour, leaving it to Meighen's Conservatives. Their inability to commit themselves lead to the constitutional crisis of 1926 and the party effectively broke up in the general election of that year, only nine members being elected as Progressives.

As a practical matter the Reform Party's delegate theory of parliamentary representation might not amount to much. An M. P. is usually able to claim popular support for whatever position he may want to take and frequent detailed polling to test such claims is not possible. But the doctrine that M. P.'s should simply be spokesmen for whatever voters happen to feel makes the Reform Party's claim to be a party of principles untenable.

Up to now the contradiction between the party's claim to be simply the people's voice and its claim to be a party of definite principle has not been much of a problem for it. Its grassroots and its members' constituents are distinctly conservative and the party has comfortably reflected their views. There is a contingent link between the Reform Party's right wing politics and its populist doctrine. Its grassroots have assumed that people generally share their views and that only the deformation of political institutions , giving too much power to special interests and detaching politicians in Ottawa from the voters have lead to governments following what they see as a leftist course. Hence the call for political reform that they presume will lead to smaller, cheaper and more sympathetic government. Hence also a tendency to advance simple right wing policies without either a sense of the complexity of government or the need to win people over to their policies. Developing and winning people over to policies requires a party of principle prepared to take unpopular stands. From the perspective of Reform Party doctrine a party taking an unpopular stand makes no sense because a party is supposed to be simply an instrument of popular will.

To the extent that they are defined and as they are perceived Reform Party policies probably have the support of about 20% of the voters, concentrated in the West. Beyond that, as has been tritely observed, the party garnered in 1993 an historically high protest vote. Some voters sympathetic to its policies still voted Tory in 1993. But if the party is not to stagnate before withering away it must be prepared to take a stand and risk unpopularity while developing its policies and facing the challenge of selling its policies to a majority of voters in English Canada or lose its conservative character.

Preston Manning understands this problem and is determined to resolve it and become Prime Minister. The advertising men and campaign strategists with old party or American experience have been recruited to do the selling job. But Manning does not want to try to sell conservatism to the voters. He wants to sell himself. And what he is is an opportunist looking for the wave that will carry him to power. The pollsters have also been recruited to find the wave.

The Progressive Conservative Party is the historic home of conservatism in Canada in all its aspects. It grew from the loyalism, respect for parliamentary government and compact between English and French from which the country grew. Its one historic departure from free market economics, the policy of protectionism proclaimed by Macdonald as the National Policy, could be excused on political grounds as necessary to integrate a sparsely populated country occupying half a continent. After tariffs had ceased for two generations to be an important political issue the Tories put protectionism behind them with their espousal of free trade in 1988.

Two things have confused the conservative identity of the Progressive Conservative Party. Any party is liable to act opportunistically and to try to win or hold votes by doing what seems popular. In the postwar period when there was a vague social democratic hegemony and when spending always seemed easier than fiscal restraint this affected the Progressive Conservatives as much as any party. They were in a sense infected by populism and promised to do and in office tried to do what people wanted rather than standing for principles and trying to bring people around to them.

More damaging to the integrity of the party was the Red Tory theory advanced in the sixties by the left-wing academic Gad Horowitz. Horowitz purported to trace a collectivist tradition in Canada back to the Loyalists and forward to the CCF and NDP and a Red Tory tendency in the Progressive Conservative Party. Chief in the meagre list of Red initiatives by Tory governments was their involvement in the founding of the CNR and the CBC. The establishment of the CNR was a purely pragmatic measure impelled by the railways' wartime debt crisis. The establishment of the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission was a national measure that did not exclude private broadcasting. Mildly interesting as an academic essay the Red Tory theory had a pernicious effect on the Progressive Conservative Party. It gave a spurious intellectual respectability to Tories who, under the sway of the leftist and big government ascendancy of the sixties and seventies and political opportunism, could see no conservative principles to separate them from the NDP, only matters of style.

The Mulroney government did much that was dismaying and not just to Westerners. But it was always the best conservative government available. With the GST it suffered for forthrightly applying conservative policies. Its main faults were a timid fiscal policy and constitutional conceit. The party also undoubtedly became unbalanced by Mulroney's personalisation of it. By the time the Mulroney era ended Preston Manning had drained away too much Western support for it to be righted.

Tories have always stood for the historic value of Canada. They have seen English Canada as having a real identity, not just leftovers from the American Revolution spiced up by the French. Their Canada has always included Quebec, without any illusions that its distinctness can be papered over by a hybrid nationalism. They collapsed in Quebec in the two wars when the historic attachment of English Canada came into conflict with the historic detachment of Quebec since the Conquest. But the Tories have always been a national party.

The Reform Party cannot claim to be a national party. It is not just a question of the concentration of its vote in the West. That could change. But the party was founded as a Western party to represent Western interests. Its roots lie in a Western Assembly held in Vancouver in 1987. Only in April 1991 did it resolve to expand into a national party, excluding Quebec. The only legitimate elements in the vast Reform tradition Manning claims are the parties of Western discontent. Manning wants to be Prime Minister and will offer whatever he has to to appeal to Ontario and the Maritimes in the next election, even at the cost of exposing his Western flank. But he cannot affect for himself a sense of Canada that neither he nor his party has. There is nothing in the Reform Party's or Preston Manning's history or pronouncements that suggest a sense of Canadian history beyond Western discontents, there is no sense of why Canada should exist. Reform's political doctrines about parliament and a Triple-E Senate show a contemptuous ignorance of why our parliamentary institutions came to exist as they do and how central they are to our identity. Reform has only a fig leaf foreign policy. Because it has no sense of Canada it has no sense of its place in the world.

Reform Party constitutional policy contemplates massive devolution of powers to the provinces. The suspicion of the left is that it intends that the provincial governments should do less with the powers devolved to them than the national government is doing, leaving holes, particularly in health care. But the more important point is that in the Western separatist tradition it seems just not to believe that Canadians as a nation can be trusted to work for their common good. The suspicion that Manning and his party would not mind if the country broke up is not without foundation. The party's policy Blue Book states that 'The Reform Party opposes the conception of Canada as "a meeting of two founding races, cultures, and languages"': but Quebec cannot be kept in the country on any other basis. If bilingualism has been oversold and applied dogmatically without, evidently, binding the country solidly together, the Reform Party's official languages policy is only what would be expected of an international organisation like the European Union. The Blue Book sections on national unity and the constitution do no even mention Quebec. The party's more recent 20/20 paper on national unity is most concrete in its description of the twenty consequences of secession, which reads more like a blueprint for separation than the Chr├ętien government's Plan B warnings about the consequences of a breakup. The party's unctuous refusal to see that Quebec is not a province like the others must mean either that Quebec cannot be satisfied or that separation would be generalised across the country. On one of his early forays into Quebec Manning allowed that in accordance with party doctrine a Reform member from a predominantly sovereigntist riding could speak up for sovereignty. Despite the tentative attempts to organise in Quebec it may be taken as given that the Reform Party will never make a breakthrough in Quebec unless it does a deal with the Bloc and makes explicit its implicit separatism.

Its claim to be a national party and Jean Charest's popularity in Quebec have kept the Progressive Conservative Party going since 1993. Supporters have hung on for old times sake and from suspicion of the Reform Party. But the party's necessary rebound has not begun. It has not overcome the legacy of loathing for Brian Mulroney and the uncertainties of Jean Charest's leadership. Time will slowly put Mulroney behind them; but only if his personalisation of the party is replaced by definite principles. Charest is the most deft and personable politician to emerge in Canada in a generation. But he is all technique. He has carefully avoided taking any position, cultivating good relations with Ralph Klein while pouring cold water on the enthusiasm of young Tories for the new right. All policy was put off to the Winnipeg policy conference in August, but without definite leadership the party risks being too vague to motivate a revival. It is an often successful strategy of opposition parties to wait for a government to defeat itself without advocating specific policies. But to wait for both the Liberal government and the Reform opposition to self-destruct is expecting too much. People must have positive reasons to vote Progressive Conservative and Jean Charest does not seem ready to give them.

But unlike the Reform Party the Progressive Conservative Party is more than its leader. Its riding and other associations and informal networks have independent strength and can shape the party if Charest will not. Progressive Conservatives are conservative. The operators and careerists who supported the party have fallen away and will not be back while the party struggles to revive. Beyond the activists there is a large Tory intellectual tradition in Canada that the Reform Party and Preston Manning reject. Canadian conservatives can make the Progressive Conservative Party a forthrightly conservative party with a national reach. If they do that, it will be the only conservative party on offer as Preston Manning tries to take his party across the political spectrum while his supporters straggle about offering right wing suggestions they lack the discipline, leadership and persuasiveness to make effective.