Article: 20000131033

Title: Reform's Gamble

Reform's Gamble
Rogers Media Inc.
Preston Manning, a keen Civil War buff, uses a classic battlefield analogy to describe his current position. He sees himself as an intrepid commander dug in at the base of a hill, about to charge up, wondering who is willing to follow. Is it only his loyal Reform soldiers, or a bigger United Alternative battalion reinforced by, say, a lot of fresh Ontario provincial Tory troops?
John Geddes

Reform's Gamble


John Geddes

Jonathan Hayward for Maclean's
Lunch in Ottawa: challenging the Liberals

Preston Manning, a keen Civil War buff, uses a classic battlefield analogy to describe his current position. He sees himself as an intrepid commander dug in at the base of a hill, about to charge up, wondering who is willing to follow. Is it only his loyal Reform soldiers, or a bigger United Alternative battalion reinforced by, say, a lot of fresh Ontario provincial Tory troops? As for the enemy perched on that hilltop, Manning is disdainful of its defences. “There’s a bunch of fat, sleepy Liberals sitting up there,” he scoffed recently, “thinking they can stay in forever.”

Mannings offhand assessment of his adversary is more cavalier than calculated. Those are the Grits staring down at him, the same bunch that has governed in Ottawa for 34 of the past 50 years. Fat and sleepy? Try well-fed but watchful. Find-

ing a way to beat the proven Liberal electoral machine is the undisguised aim of the United Alternative drive. So when supporters of Manning’s bid to broaden Reform into a new party meet this week for their two-day Ottawa convention, talk among hard-core politicos in the corridors and hotel suites will rarely be about the thorny policy issues—from softening Reform’s stand against bilingualism to perhaps endorsing a flat tax—slated for debate on the convention floor. They will be hashing over ways to win the next election.

Reform’s official pollster will stoke those discussions. Last week, André Turcotte, who is scheduled to address the convention on Jan. 27, shared his key findings, based on extensive public opinion surveys from last March to December, in an advance interview with Macleans. According to him, a UA party could hold Reform’s core western support—while bringing the new right-leaning coalition

As the United Alternative convention approaches, Preston Manning’s future is on the line

within striking distance of the Liberals in Ontario.

Under the status quo, the Liberals would command 54 per cent of the Ontario vote, the Conservatives 21 per cent, Reform 16 per cent, the NDP eight per cent and others one per cent. With a UA option on the ballot, the Liberals would still get 42-per-cent support in Ontario, but the new party would grab 31 per cent, the NDP 17 per cent, the Tories just six per cent and others four per cent. “The UA makes it a horse race in Ontario,” Turcotte asserts. “I like the idea of starting an election there just 11 points behind the supposedly unassailable Liberals.”

Yet even that upbeat take on voter tendencies leaves the Liberals in a strong front-runner position in the most populous province. And few UA strategists talk seriously of a breakthrough in Quebec or the Atlantic provinces. That makes it easy to construct a scenario for the next election that relegates the UA to holding Reforms traditional Alberta and B.C. strongholds.

Still, provincial politics have lately served up a string of reminders that entrenched governing parties can be more vulnerable than they seem. Roy Romanows NDP strolled into last fall’s campaign far ahead in the polls, only to be slapped down to minority status by the upstart Saskatchewan Party. New Brunswick’s Liberals watched their big lead in precampaign polls evaporate as untried Tory Leader Bernard Lord, then 33, slaked voters’ thirst for change. In Manitoba, Tory Gary Filmons gravitas as the country’s longest-serving premier at the time was not enough to fend off his reinvigorated old NDP rival, Gary Doer. Strategists from each of these campaigns—the guys politicians want in their war rooms when things get tough—see lessons from their breakthroughs that might apply to the UA. Three backroom veterans, only one a UA advocate, were interviewed by Macleans.

• “Cultivate the time-for-a-change message,” urges John Laschinger, a seasoned Tory organizer who served as polling guru and tactician for Lord’s campaign. “The Liberals have been in power seven years—say that on a regular basis. Time for an itch, time for a scratch.” He would zero in on two policy themes—though he says neither is ultimately as central as health care and tax cuts—that could be exploited to remind voters they might like a break from the Liberals: the sorry state of the armed forces and, especially, illegal immigration. “I don’t see any evidence that those cards are being played right,” Laschinger says.

• “Demonstrate your own sincerity on the issues,” advises Harry Meyers, a former top Reform official who guided the

Saskatchewan Party’s near-miss campaign. Sounds like motherhood, but Meyers says dogged adherence to core policy pays ballot-box dividends. Formed by Reformers, Liberals and Conservatives in 1997, the Saskatchewan Party’s earnest, issues-oriented style overcame Romanows bid to label it the successor to the scandal-tainted provincial Tories. That’s a trick the UA would have to duplicate to establish itself as something other than Reform by another name. But then, the Saskatchewan Party had the advantage of a fresh, non-Tory leader, former Reform MP Elwin Hermanson. Could a UA led by Manning, who intends to stand for its leadership, claim an identity as anything but warmed-over Reform? “I happen to think Preston would make a great prime minister,” says Meyers, who plans to attend this week’s UA gathering. “But the question is, is he carrying so much baggage that he will hold the new party back?”

• “Neutralize your opponent’s positives,” suggests Brian O’Leary, a veteran NDP organizer who served as a top strategist to the Doer campaign in Manitoba. O’Leary says a key Doer tactic was to assert that he would not reverse Filmons most popular policies, including a vow not to repeal the Tory balanced-budget law. After absorbing your rival’s best points, move on to scoring your own. O’Leary says that means avoiding sweeping statements of principle—an old Reform weakness—in favour of pithy promises. In the winning Doer campaign, the NDP resisted the urge to drone on about the sanctity of universal health care in favour of a pointed vow to end “hallway medicine” by spending a modest $ 15 million hiring nurses and reopening 100 hospital beds. “In the past, we focused on good policy, not good platform,” O’Leary said. “This time, the platform was symbolic and emblematic.”

All this free advice is useless, of course, if the UA stalls at its inception. The final decision is still months away: the UA must be ratified by two-thirds of Reformers in a spring referendum. Manning has said he will step aside if the UA is voted down. Some Reformers are already trying to josde him aside; first, B.C. MP Richard Harris, and last week Alberta’s Lee Morrison, said they will seek the Reform leadership. But others are also engaged in intramural squabbling. Joe Clark’s Tories, standing aloof from the UA tangle, are bitterly divided over his opposition to the Liberals’ legislation on a future Quebec referendum. Liberals are feuding over shadowy manoeuvring by would-be successors to Jean Chretien. Hovering above the fray is the Prime Minister himself: his decision to stay or go will set the tone of the next campaign more than all the tactics of the sawiest election minds combined. C3