Reform Party of Canada

The Reform Party of Canada was a Western-based political party that grew out of a coalition of discontented Western interest groups. The coalition began in 1986 as an attempt to voice Western concerns at the national level. In May 1987, however, the Reform Association of Canada voted to support a broadly based party to voice Western economic and constitutional concerns. The party was officially founded in Winnipeg in the fall of 1987 and chose as its leader Preston Manning, son of former Alberta Social Credit premier E.C. Manning.

The party's platform included traditional prairie populist reform panaceas such as free trade and direct democracy (referendums, initiatives and recall), and some contemporary proposals such as the Triple-E (equal, elected and effective) Senate. The Reform Party's major preoccupations, however, were with decentralizing and otherwise reducing the size, scope and cost of government, primarily by cuts to social welfare and cultural support programs (including bilingualism and multiculturalism) and firm opposition to Québec's demands for special status within Confederation.

Reform failed to win a seat in the 1988 federal election, but its percentage of the electoral vote was encouraging, especially in Alberta. The party gained further credibility in 1989 when Deborah Grey won a federal by-election in Alberta and Stanley Waters won Alberta's first senatorial election. Reform's public profile was further enhanced in the 1990s by its vigorous opposition to the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and to the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. The failure of the referendum vote on the latter, in the fall of 1992, marked a high point in Reform Party support.

Support for the Reform Party waned until rebounding again during the 1993 election. Disillusionment with the traditional political parties in general, and with the Progressive Conservative Party specifically, saw the Reform Party win 52 seats, 22 of 26 in Alberta, 24 of 30 in British Columbia, 4 in Saskatchewan, and one in Manitoba. Although Manning portrayed his party as a national force, Reform won only one seat in Ontario, leaving it as a powerful regional voice, in counterpoise to the separatist Bloc Québécois, which took 54 seats in becoming Canada's official opposition.

Reform's fortunes sagged following the 1993 election. While the party could take some credit in moving the public agenda towards concerns over government debt and deficit, it frequently found itself criticized as being unfocused and ineffective in presenting an alternative to the governing Liberals. The party also was riven by internal controversies over Manning's leadership, the future direction of the party, and ongoing accusations that the party was hostile towards Québec and harboured extremist views towards ethnic minorities, women and homosexuals. Reform's public appeal was further blunted by the adoption of fiscally conservative policies by the governing Liberals after 1993, a recovery in the Canadian economy, and a decline in public concern over constitutional issues following Québec's sovereignty referendum in 1995.

Nonetheless, the Canadian election of June 1997 saw the Reform Party of Canada register a stunning success in emerging as Her Majesty's Official Opposition. Reform won 60 seats (out of a total of 301), compared with 155 seats taken by the victorious Liberal Party. As in previous elections, Reform garnered considerable electoral support within Alberta and British Columbia, taking 24 and 25 seats respectively. The party also strengthened its support in the other prairie provinces, taking 8 seats in Saskatchewan and 3 in Manitoba. However, it lost the seat it had won in Ontario in the 1993 election. Reform's failure to garner support outside western Canada highlighted the increasingly regional nature of the country's politics.

During its short existence, the Reform Party had a significant influence on Canada's political scene and achieved a national role as Official Opposition. But Reform faced several obstacles in its quest to achieve power. First, the 1997 election witnessed an electoral rebound by the Conservatives, who captured 20 seats (compared with only 2 in 1993). Efforts by members of Reform to unite with the Progressive Conservatives were met with hostility by the long-established but greatly weakened party. Without such an alliance, the right-wing vote in Canada would continue to be split.

Second, much of the Reform's appeal as a protest party dimmed. Before achieving Opposition status, Reform Party leader Preston Manning had repeatedly stated that he would not move into the official residence of Stornoway, describing the house as an unnecessary luxury paid for by Canadian taxpayers. After the election, however, Manning changed his mind, citing pressure from Reform supporters for him to do so. This about-face, combined with the acceptance by other Reform MPs of previously disdained government "perks," damaged the party's image among some grassroots supporters.

Third, while Reform's Western regional base appeared secure, it failed to win support in other regions of the country.

These obstacles resulted during the period after 1997 in a series of meetings and 2 major conventions designed to create a broader conservative coalition. The second of these conventions in January 2000 saw the creation of a new political party, the Canadian Alliance. Subsequently, the membership of the Reform Party voted to adopt the constitution, policies and name of the new party. The Reform Party of Canada ceased to exist as of March 2000.