Manning's United Alternative

Preston Manning’s patience is wearing thin. Six months after the Reform leader launched his bid to unite his party with Conservatives - and anyone else willing to take on the Liberals - he is getting tired of hearing about all the problems he faces in forging such a coalition.

Manning's United Alternative

Preston Manning's patience is wearing thin. Six months after the Reform leader launched his bid to unite his party with Conservatives - and anyone else willing to take on the Liberals - he is getting tired of hearing about all the problems he faces in forging such a coalition. One cabinet minister in a Tory provincial government, whom Manning declines to name, expressed support recently in a private conversation, but balked at publicly joining the drive. He asked Manning if he could come to the February "united alternative" convention in Ottawa as a neutral observer, avoiding the political risk of attending as a full-fledged participant. Manning was about to accept that halfhearted commitment - then decided it just was not good enough. "I sort of checked myself and said no," he told Maclean's, the pitch of his voice rising, in that familiar way, as he grew more emphatic. "That's what's wrong with too many good Canadians. Even if you disagree, it's better to come and argue than to stand one step removed."

No one can accuse Manning of hovering on the sidelines. After spending more than a decade campaigning, coaxing and inveigling to lift Reform to official Opposition status in last year's election, he realizes the party's potential has been pretty much reached. Instead of relaxing his pace, reflecting on his accomplishments, Manning, at 56, is taking the biggest gamble of his political career. He has put his leadership on the line in a bold attempt to found yet another new party. There are those who say Manning's power is not really at stake - that this is all a sly ploy to expand Reform's base of support. But listen to Establishment Tory Peter White, a former top adviser to prime minister Brian Mulroney, who sits on the united alternative steering committee. He bluntly says Manning has "hit a dead end for himself" and rejects him as a potential leader of a new, truly national party. "I personally don't think Preston Manning could ever elect an MP in Quebec," White told Maclean's. "He has little profile in Quebec, and what profile he has is negative."

This from a man whom Reformers close to Manning actively recruited into the inner circle of the united alternative process. And, remarkably, Manning does not rise to the bait. Pressed to respond to those who dismiss him as the wrong choice to take the helm of a broader right-of-centre party, he puts off the debate to another day. "While the leadership question has to be addressed, we've got to address other questions first," he says. "There has to be something to lead."

Just what that something might be is still in the early stages of taking shape. Manning publicly launched the united alternative drive last May at a Reform convention in London, Ont. But the movement only began to appear credible in September, when the Reformers who had been running it were joined by high-profile Tories, including White, Ontario Transportation Minister Tony Clement and Rod Love, a close friend and adviser to Alberta Premier Ralph Klein. Then, last month, Klein himself announced he would attend the February convention. As one united alternative organizer put it, an idea that they were hoping had legs just a few months ago now appears to have wings.

The imprimatur of the powerful, popular Alberta premier left little doubt the push has to be taken seriously. In fact, united alternative enthusiasts whisper that Klein is positioning himself for his own bid to lead a new right-leaning federal party. Other names mentioned in the leadership buzz: Stockwell Day, Klein's treasurer, and Stephen Harper, president of the staunchly conservative National Citizens' Coalition. Another sign of bubbling interest: last Thursday evening in Ottawa, about 250 people, including Ontario Solicitor General Bob Runciman, municipal politicians on the make, talk radio personalities and rank-and-file Ottawa Valley Reformers and Tories, turned up at the first public meeting held to debate what policies the united alternative might espouse.

Still, some influential small-c conservatives, even while longing for a federal party capable of threatening the Liberals' grip on power, have not yet fully embraced the process. Harper, a former Reform MP and onetime policy director of the party, remains undecided on attending the February convention. He worries that the attempt to merge with Tories will result in a watering down of core Reform tenets. For example, he wonders if the principle of equality of the provinces can be maintained in a new party that would include federal Tories, like White, who have long contended that Quebec's special place in Canada needs to be recognized. That is a position many activist, small-c conservatives in the West and Ontario reject. Harper told Maclean's the NCC's 45,000 members are looking for "something they recognize as distinctively conservative - not just a party that seeks to replace the Liberals."

United alternative organizers argue that hard-edged, right-wing purists who have gravitated to Reform, and mushy, centrist moderates who have stuck with the federal Tories, will have to somehow meet in the middle. Otherwise, the Liberals will almost certainly win the next election. That assessment is hard to refute. A Compas Inc. poll last month found that 36 per cent of Canadians would vote for a combined right-of-centre federal party - slightly better than the combined 34 per cent of the vote Reformers and Tories would split if they fought an election under separate banners. The hypothetical party's support would be close to the 39 per cent enjoyed by the Liberals, according to Compas. (In the 1997 election, 38 per cent of the popular vote was enough to hand the Liberals their second straight majority in the House of Commons.) Neither right-of-centre party on its own would give the Liberals much cause for concern. "If conservatives want any policies at all to have a chance of influencing the country, there are going to have to be some things that people set aside," concludes Alberta Treasurer Day, a key player on the united alternative steering committee.

United alternative strategists are sketchy, though, about what they see as the policy bottom line for a new party. Manning says the details will have to be hashed out - and voted on, in populist fashion, by delegates - at the February convention. But he believes a platform can be built on four main planks. The first two are familiar conservative themes: fiscal reforms, such as cutting taxes and passing a law requiring balanced budgets, and social responsibility, likely to include a promise to give families with a stay-at-home parent a tax break equal to the deduction for child-care expenses now offered to two-income households. The other two policy themes, Manning argues, hold out real hope of extending a new party's appeal. One would be to make government more directly accountable to citizens, perhaps by somehow increasing the power of individual MPs. And the fourth, "rebalancing federalism," mainly in the direction of boosting provincial powers, is the key to attracting the "soft sovereigntists and discontented federalists" Manning has been courting in Quebec - with scant success beyond the recruitment of former Parti Québécois cabinet minister Rodrigue Biron to the united alternative steering committee.

Manning admits that by wiping out the deficit the Liberals may have stolen the march on the fiscal front. He even concedes the governing party might be tough to outflank on social themes like family-oriented tax policies. But he regards the Liberals as incapable of responding convincingly to a party that proposes to shift power to the provinces, while at the same time promising to make Ottawa more directly responsive to voters. "The Liberals are based on top-down management, greased with patronage," he declares. "Take that away, the thing would fall apart."

So far, though, Liberals are not losing much sleep. Michael Robinson, a veteran Liberal strategist and adviser to Finance Minister Paul Martin, doubts the time has come for a unite-the-right movement. "I think it is going to take another election cycle," Robinson told Maclean's. "It's going to take the electorate passing judgment more firmly on either the Reform party or the Conservative party." Former prime minister Joe Clark, who finally won the Tory leadership on a second ballot last Saturday, has vaguely promised to launch his own conservative unity bid. He has rejected a plea from Manning to come to the convention, even if it is to argue for the Tory party as the best vehicle for a united right.

Manning attributes the reluctance of many Tories to join his latest quest more to deep-seated resentment than clear-eyed political judgment. "Some of the Conservatives think we Reformers destroyed their party in the West, which I guess is to some degree true," he says. "Some of the old diehards will never forgive us for that." Judging by Manitoba Tory MP Rick Borotsik's viewpoint, those hardened resentments will not be put to rest easily. "I find it ironic that the individual who split the right now decides the right should come together again," Borotsik says. "Manning obviously feels strongly that Reformers will keep him in a position of leadership. I, for one, am not willing to take a chance on that." But Manning contends that taking a chance is what the united alternative movement is all about. And unless enough conservative-minded Canadians decide to do the same, politicians of the right could find themselves, come the next federal election, with no chance at all.

Maclean's November 23, 1998