“October Revolution” is probably an apt description of Canada’s 1993 parliamentary elections, as the month marked the enthronement of a left-oriented political establishment and the ejection of the ruling Conservatives. The Liberal Party’s sweep to an absolute majority meant the relegation of the Tory Progressive Conservative Party to virtual extinction (it now holds only two parliamentary seats). Also noteworthy was the emergence of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, although its overall vote total was only 12 percent. While given scant attention in the American media, the remarkable second-place finish of the Reform Party, with an impressive 19 percent slice of the electorate, calls for a closer look at what is brewing in our continental backyard.
Founded a mere five years ago, the Reform Party (in this—its second—national election) has grown from one to 52 seats, coming within a hair’s breadth of being named the formal opposition, a position now occupied by the Bloc Québécois with its 53 scats. The winds of middle-class anger that swept from Canada’s western provinces embody a rejection of establishment political elites on both the right and the left. Specifically, the Reform Party is heir to a lost sense of Canadian radical conservativism, more accurately described as an anti-big government populism seeking to restore a cultural identity to Canada’s middle class. Based in the oil-rich province of Alberta, its tax-reductionism, anti-multiculturalism, and anti-welfare statism echo the “new polities” now found on both sides of the Atlantic, and its success in last year’s election came as no surprise to those familiar with Canada’s declining economic health. A 1991 report on public discontent had spoken of a “fury in the land.”
Anchored in Calgary, the Reform Party is rooted in the Depression-era Social Credit movement headed by a media-savvy monetary reformer named William Aberhart. This talented clergyman had founded a Bible school prior to becoming the charismatic exponent of the ideas of Major C.H. Douglas, the British military officer-turned-social thinker. In a startling victory, Aberhart led the newly created party to power in 1935. After five years of governing. Social Credit lost its popular support but persisted as a doctrine of populist agitation from British Columbia to Quebec.
Six decades later, the seemingly quiescent ghost of western Canadian populism has been resurrected in a party led by Preston Manning, son of one of the original organizers of Social Credit. Hardly a figure of captivating charm, the man with the visage of a mild-mannered “Clark Kent” has a fierce reputation as the “Superman” of the forgotten Canadian middle class. As one biographer matter-of-factly observes, “It is unusual in Canada for a political figure or a political party to arrive quickly and decisively on the national stage”; in fact, Preston Manning quietly trained for two decades before following in his father’s footsteps. (Achieving much but never gaining any national prominence, Ernest Manning had staked out a career as premier of Alberta for 25 years and was revered by many as a virtual saint.) What drew the younger Manning from the political wilderness to assume aggressively his father’s commitment to the major political realignment of Canada was the Movement for National Political Change that began in 1978. Central to this enterprise was the idea that Canada’s major parties were headed toward the destruction of the nation and its key economic and social values.
By the early 19S0’s, a discernible prairie wildfire of populist anger began sweeping the land. In its wake lay an initially fragile coalition of rural and urban splinter groups organized under the rather prosaic title of the Alberta Political Alliance. With Preston Manning’s skillful nurturance, this entity formed, in 1987, the nucleus of a second wave of Canadian political populism known as the Reform Association of Canada. While other Reform Association members restricted themselves to thinking in terms of provincial power. Manning set his sights on Ottawa and national politics from the organization’s inception.
In a speech delivered during the party’s first national electoral campaign in 1988, Manning declared the historic mission of the Reform Party to be the replacement of the Conservative Party, which he described as hampered by its “congenital inability to govern.” With its free-trade and low-tax platform, the Reform Party indeed paralleled the stance of Mulroney’s ruling party; success therefore depended on Tory displacement. In this first electoral outing, Reform captured seven percent of the vote in the western provinces of Canada, but its share of the total vote was barely over two percent; it elected but a single member of Parliament.
Central to the discontent emanating from western Canada, and Alberta in particular, was the economic imbalance of a prosperous oil and agricultural heartland taxed by and subordinated to the provinces of the east with their large social welfare budgets and obsession with Quebecer demands for greater power and autonomy within the confederation. In 1989, Manning set as his goal the erosion of the political monopoly enjoyed by the traditional right and left in the country’s eastern provinces. Four years later, the evidence—19 percent of the national vote resulting in the election of more than four dozen members of parliament—suggests that the Reform Party will play a major role on the national stage of Canadian politics. Following its dramatic gains in October, Reform executive director Gordon Shaw boasted: “we expect to be the governing party in four years’ time.”
While standing for strict fiscal responsibility, the Reform Party is also dedicated to addressing the cultural issues confronting Canadian society. Key on its agenda is the slashing of the umbilical cord that binds the federal government to the aboriginal peoples of Canada and to the resolution of a variety of outstanding land claim negotiations. Reform recommends replacing the Department of Indian Affairs with self-governing institutions. Additionally, the party formally declared that it seeks to repeal the National Multiculturalism Act, as well as to abolish the Department of Multiculturalism. It opposes policies encouraging “hyphenated Canadianism” and urges “the integration of immigrants . . . into the mainstream of Canadian life.” Restrictions on immigration would be aimed at maintaining a traditional distribution by socioeconomic level, if not by social origin.
Critical to the party’s tax-reform agenda is the repeal of the CST, the value added levy imposed by the Tories in 1988. And, given its strong commitment to laissez-faire economics, the party supports free trade. In order to balance the federal budget. Reform calls for steep reductions in foreign aid and grants to social advocacy groups, as well as for the scaling down—but not elimination—of social welfare and health benefits, particularly those provided to new immigrants. Overall, the government is regarded as too big, too remote, too powerful.
In 1991, Manning expressed his preference for an American-style market economy, although he felt that “it could not be sold to the Canadian people at this point in time.” In the party’s “Blue Book” of principles, number 21 declares: “We believe that Canadians should seek to maximize the benefits of our unique geographic and economic relationship to the United States, and that the establishment of more positive relations with the U.S. need not in any way impair Canadian sovereignty or cultural identity.” The Reform Party’s affinity to several large U.S. oil, energy, banking, and investment corporations, as well as its links to South Africa, may give pause to some who see the party as an exponent of Canadian populism and nationalism. Dependence on U.S. capital investment in particular—something Preston Manning has made a point of favoring—would seem to run counter to the strengthening of small business and even larger enterprises at home.
Inevitably, comparisons of the Reform Party’s Preston Manning to the personalities of Canada’s southern neighbor may be offered. Such analogies abound, given that Alberta may be seen as perhaps the most American of Canada’s provinces. Indeed, its history is traced to the migration of Americans who followed the grazing lands and oil fields north, with Calgary frequently being dubbed “North Dallas.” Yet, when a leading newspaper proffered the headline “Canada’s answer to Ross Perot taps discontent” following Reform’s major electoral breakthrough. Manning bristled at the equation, labeled Perot “a lone-wolf political entrepreneur,” and asserted, “We got started before Perot did.”
While so much of the Reform Party’s ideology and platform closely resembles the ideas set forth by Pat Buchanan in his 1992 bid for the Republican Party presidential nomination (especially on the cultural side, where Buchanan is the parallel, not Perot), the cautious and well-grounded organizational skills of Preston Manning set him apart from any American counterparts. What he has accomplished is the virtual destruction of a conservative party that seemed to fail in its mission, in a manner quite reminiscent of the Bush presidency.
Certainly it is hard to see in the choirboy features of Preston Manning either the Texas shrewdness and combativeness of Ross Perot or the savvy media toughness of Pat Buchanan. And yet Manning has achieved what even his harshest opponents acknowledge: the transformation of an anti-government protest movement into a viable new political presence in the very interstices of Canada’s governing structure. As Manning himself indicated in his victory address, he intends to lead more than a rejectionist movement, but to accomplish what the Freedom Party’s Jörg Haider has been able to achieve in Austria: making itself the catalytic force within the political arena that drives a timid establishment to confront the tough issues of the moment.
Rather than marginalizing the conservative philosophy in the public mind. Manning has instead offered a challenge to the “political class” of Canada that focuses on the authentic populist roots of governmental and economic decentralization, coupled with cultural nationalism. If this sounds like a “Canada First” approach. Reform stresses the need to retain the present confederation of coequal provinces linked through a core of values expressed in a majoritarian context rather than a multiethnic one.
If, in the wake of Canada’s “October Revolution,” that nation’s Conservative Party is headed for the scrap-heap of history, does it portend anything for Canada’s southern neighbor? One may anticipate that the Reform Party will create a new politics linking elements of traditional conservatism with those of grassroots populism. Admittedly inspired and even defined by an American model of free enterprise, the Reform Party is now positioned to do more than nay-say. In the cold and clear winter of its discontent, the U.S. Republican Party may well ponder such a movement.