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PostPosted: Fri Jun 01, 2007 7:48 pm
 


$1:
How Reform changed our system
Reform sought to be both a movement for change and a political party at the same time

By PRESTON MANNING
Friday, June 1, 2007 – Page A21

It was 20 years ago this weekend that the Reform Party of Canada was born at a modest convention in Vancouver.

In the beginning, it had only a handful of members, no seats in Parliament and no influence in national affairs. Ten years later, it had 130,000 members, formed the official opposition in Parliament with 60 seats, and significantly altered the national agenda on such issues as budget balancing, tax relief and the federal government's position on Quebec secession.

Today, its successor, the Conservative Party of Canada, holds the largest number of seats in the House of Commons and Reform's first policy chief, Stephen Harper, is Prime Minister.

Is there anything instructive or inspirational in the Reform story for Canadians and the politicians of today? Several things come to mind.

When it comes to democracy, Reform proved it is still possible in Canada for a small group of people with limited resources to take the tools democracy gives to us all - freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom to vote and influence the votes of others - and use them to alter the national political agenda.

Whether you agreed or disagreed with the changes Reform sought is not the point. If you belong to a group that is seeking to change the national agenda, you should take inspiration from the Reform experience that change can still be accomplished through grassroots political organization and action.

The rapid growth of Reform in the West and the Bloc Québécois in Quebec during the 1990s also demonstrated that the third-party tradition in both these pivotal regions of the country is alive and well.

This tradition is as broad and deep in these two regions of the country - which, between them, fill over half the seats in Parliament - as is the old Liberal-Conservative tradition in Atlantic Canada and Ontario. The ability of any governing federal party in Canada to recognize and accommodate the forces and aspirations that generated these movements in Quebec and the West can be the key to long-term political success or failure. And the willingness of new political movements, such as the Greens, to learn from the successes and mistakes of their third-party predecessors can also spell the difference between success and failure.

Reform sought to be both a movement for change and a political party at the same time, an idea worth contemplating.

The job of a political movement is to move public thinking and opinion. Reform, the movement, for example, sought to move public opinion from that of tolerating deficit spending toward supporting balanced budgets.

The primary job of modern political parties (regrettably, in my view) is simply to run and win election campaigns. To do so, they generally seek to accommodate public opinion as it exists, rather than attempt to change it. And they have little or no resources left over from campaigning to devote to the development of their intellectual capital or human resources. My insistence that Reform attempt to be both a movement and a political party at the same time no doubt constrained our progress on the partisan political front. Reform, the movement, tended to be more successful than Reform, the party.

So what's all this mean for the new Conservative Party?

A few weeks ago, I sat in on a fascinating conversation between two friends who were discussing the future of the Conservatives.

One expressed the view that the Harper government is not pursuing a genuine conservative agenda rigorously enough. The second defended the Harper government by arguing that a minority conservative government must, if it's to win a majority, target the "median voter." And targeting the median voter in Canada, under present circumstances, will tend to pull the party away from its conservative roots and values.

The conclusion that best reconciles these two positions is this: It is the job of a conservative party - in a minority situation, with a leader who (contrary to the common perception) tends to be more cautious and pragmatic than ideological - to target and win the support of the median voter. And it is the job of the conservative movement - the think tanks, public intellectuals, interest groups, and communications vehicles - to move that median voter onto more conservative ground.

In the 21st century, finding the right division between movement and party - something Reformers wrestled with for 10 years - will be a key determinant of political success.

Preston Manning is currently a senior fellow of the Fraser Institute and the president and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.

PRESTON MANNING
Founder and only leader
of the Reform Party of Canada


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PostPosted: Sat Jun 16, 2007 12:10 pm
 


The other side of the coin that Manning doesn't address in this particular piece is the fact that, if a party is too deeply rooted in its principles, it has limited growth room. It will attract people who support and share their principles, and alienate others.

In one sense, Manning tried to address this by advocating a non-ideological foundation for the party -- the Reform party was never meant to be a right-wing party, or a left-wing party, but instead tried to attract as many of Canada's reformers as possible under the umbrella of his party.

Perhaps what Manning underestimated is the partisan (and, to lesser degree, ideological) polarization that has set into Canadian politics. The NDP could in various ways be described as a reformist party, holding down support of a great deal of Canada's left-wing reformers. Liberal party supporters, on the other hand, are quite happy generally with the way Canadian politics operate. And while the Liberal party can't be properly described as a left-wing party, it holds the allegiance of many self-pronounced left wingers.

As such, the Reform party was destined to become a part of right-wing reformers. That die was effectively cast when would-be co-founder Stan Waters left the party because he wasn't elected leader. In his defence, however, Waters was suffering from a personality-altering brain tumor at the time, and passed away shortly after.

The Reform party failed to find the breakthrough in Ontario that it so desperately desired because it was so inflexible about the principles it was founded on. While a person has to admire the party for sticking to those principles, rigidity is a fatal flaw for any political movement wherein it exists.


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