Reform Holds Annual Convention

How many politicians does it take to grease a combine? Three or four. It depends how fast you feed 'em in.

Reform Holds Annual Convention

How many politicians does it take to grease a combine? Three or four. It depends how fast you feed 'em in. - Two-term Reform MP Deborah Grey

The contradiction in a seven-year veteran of the House of Commons taking aim at "politicians" as though they were a different species, seemed to be lost on 1,200 Reform Party of Canada delegates assembled in one of Vancouver's largest convention halls. To them, Grey is a grassroots hero: the party's first elected MP. But as Reform struggled to shake off weeks of self-inflicted embarrassment with a display of unity and tolerance at its annual policy assembly last weekend, the joke that Grey told to kill time during a delay in the program was not the only mixed message. On the assembly's first day, delegates voted heavily in favor of a resolution intended "to affirm the equality of every individual." But they did so only after first stripping from the declaration the key additional phrase "without discrimination." The offending words, one delegate objected during debate on the resolution, might have meant that "parents [would] have no right to object to a homosexual teacher."

Whether the abridged resolution would, in fact, give parents the right to force gay teachers out of the classroom was debatable. Nonetheless, the ambiguous message set the tone for the June 6 to 9 assembly. Successfully sidestepping most of the differences between moderates and neo-conservative hardliners that pundits had predicted could crack the party open in Vancouver, Reform delegates from every province and territory rallied around leader Preston Manning. Manning, meanwhile, used the occasion to unveil Reform's strategy for the run-up to the next federal election - one based partly on a radically different notion of human rights in Canada and partly on a tough carrot-and-stick approach to Quebec. Still, observers were left bemused by a barrage of policy resolutions that at times were contradictory, at odds with legal or constitutional realities, or simply ungrammatical.

Critics fastened on the excision of the key anti-discrimination clause from the equality resolution as further confirmation of Reform's alleged insensitivity on human rights issues - if not its outright intolerance. Liberal junior cabinet minister Raymond Chan, for one, expressed outrage at Reform's stand. Without its key clause, Chan charged, "this so-called equality resolution means nothing." And in fact, the position adopted in Vancouver retreated from one that Manning had set out before the assembly, when he asserted: "Our party affirms the right of Canadians to be free from discrimination." Pleaded Manning, in a hastily scheduled news conference minutes after the resolution was passed: "Give ordinary people some credit. The ordinary people themselves are moderates. And if you get enough of them together, they will balance out any kind of extremism."

It was a balance Manning badly needed to strike. Controversial statements by two of his MPs - and the defection of a third - have thrown his party onto the defensive since April. First, B.C. Reform MP Bob Ringma told reporters that he would fire a black or homosexual employee from a retail store if customers objected to their presence. Days later, Alberta Reform MP David Chatters compounded the damage by saying of homosexuals that "society has a right to discriminate against them in certain instances." Manning suspended both from the Reform caucus until at least next month. At the same time, he also suspended a third Reform member, Alberta MP Jan Brown, for publicly criticizing her caucus mates as too conservative; Brown subsequently left the party. With his caucus in turmoil, Manning also found himself under personal attack in the days leading up to the assembly. A mostly anonymous group of dissident Reformers based mainly in Ontario was calling for a review of Manning's position, alleging heavy-handed leadership from Calgary.

In the event, there was little sign in Vancouver of a serious challenge to the 54-year-old Manning's leadership. Although Ringma received a warm welcome when he first entered the assembly hall, the former Canadian Forces major-general and (until his suspension) party whip also made it clear where his loyalties lay. "In case there is any doubt, I am a Reformer," Ringma declared to ringing applause. "Reform policies are my policies." Said political scientist Alan Whitehorn, a visiting professor at nearby Burnaby's Simon Fraser University who attended part of the assembly as an observer: "My sense is that this is a party very much under the direction of the leadership."

With his support seemingly assured among Reformers on the eve of a leadership vote on June 9, Manning reached beyond the party rank and file in a keynote speech on Saturday that was explicitly addressed to Canadians at large. In it, the Reform leader laid out the appeal that he will make in the next election to what he called "worried Canadians." Sketching a scenario of a working couple with children, facing the loss of one income and fears for their financial security, Manning told his followers that their task was to "offer understanding and hope." He called for lower taxes, a more "personalized" social security system, and a tougher approach to justice - especially youth crime.

Manning's speech also reflected Reform plans to position the party as the only one ready to "drive the national unity issue to resolution." Laying out new details of his vision for constitutional reform, Manning called for a realignment of federal and provincial roles that would leave Ottawa with dramatically fewer, but much strengthened, powers. Among 10 strengthened areas would be defence, foreign affairs, banking regulation, the Criminal Code, management of monetary policy and internal trade, and the setting of national standards for social programs and the environment. All other powers, including minority language protection, would devolve to the provinces. If that failed to dissuade Quebecers from voting in favor of a clear proposal to separate from Canada, Manning said, a Reform government would negotiate the breakup of the country "as expeditiously as possible," submitting the eventual terms of secession to a national referendum.

But if Manning's unity plan was made clear, the same could not be said for the policy initiatives that emerged from the Reform grassroots. Several resolutions that delegates approved called either for actions that the federal government has already taken, or for others that would be unconstitutional. Among the latter was the contested equality resolution, which also called on Ottawa to scrap what it called "group rights." According to University of Victoria law professor Cheryl Crane, a former legal counsel for the Canadian Human Rights Commission, such collective rights are deeply embedded in Canadian history and the Constitution to protect linguistic and religious minorities. Observed Crane: "You can't constitutionally remove protection for those kinds of groups."

Reform strategists count on the party's promises of lower taxes, safer streets and a conclusion - finally, one way or another - to the country's protracted Quebec crisis to deliver the critical seats it needs in Central Canada. "We have to break through in Ontario," Manning conceded last week, "or we will be just a right-wing NDP." For a career politician in the 1990s, that is a fate perhaps only a little better than winding up as combine grease.

Maclean's June 17, 1996