Reform can’t reform itself too much just to attract Tories
By Jojo Ruba
Spring is supposed to be the time that turns young men’s fancy to marriage. It’s also having an affect on one young, reform-minded party.
When Jean Charest announced he would leave the federal Tories to fight Lucien Bouchard in Quebec, Reformers could barely hide their glee. They have been actively campaigning to merge the two parties since the last election. And with the Tory leader gone, that campaign has intensified.
The Reform party is only a decade old but it is already one of the most successful third parties in Canadian history. It became the official Opposition after only its third election.
The second-place finish seems to indicate to them that it is only a matter of time before they become the alternative to the Liberals.
But Reformers know that the party needs to grow before they get there, and with only 19 per cent of the electoral support in the last two elections, that doesn’t seem to be happening. That’s why a marriage with the Progressive Conservatives is so appealing.
Both parties have already rejected institutional merger. In other words, neither wants their party to disappear to form a new one. That hasn’t stopped Reform, however, from encouraging party members to talk with their Tory counterparts and work to merge the parties at the grassroots’ level.
Some Reform MPs, including Preston Manning, have given the impression that their policies are flexible enough to accommodate Tories.
Barry Yeates, a former Tory and a defeated Reform candidate in Ottawa West-Nepean, says Progressive Conservatives are the obvious converts.
Yeates is the volunteer co-ordinator of Reform’s United Alternative campaign in Eastern Ontario. The party started the campaign after the 1997 federal election.
Yeates says the campaign includes making presentations to Tories and talking to them one-on-one. He says conservatives will find that Reform is the more attractive party.
“We are certainly not the ones who need to move on this,” says Yeates. “We finished second and they finished fifth and in raw votes we came in second too. And it seems that we’re the ones more likely to link up with.”
Zubair Choudry agrees. He was the former vice-president of the PC riding association for Mississauga-West, until he joined Reform in February.
Choudry says he left the Tories because he felt they were not representing his views. He also says he’s not the only one who feels that way. In the last few weeks, he’s already recruited at least eight Tory activists.
“What attracted me to the party is the equality principle for people, provinces and groups, which is what I believe in personally,” he says. “Reform is very aggressive with their policy at the grassroots level.”
But Reformers have to be careful about not watering down those very ideas just to attract more Tories.
Many Reformers, like many former NDP supporters in B.C., joined the party because they felt their party no longer represented the West.
Others joined because they didn’t feel the Progressive Conservatives were conservative enough.
All Reformers joined the party, however, because they were tired of the old, traditional parties. They were upset at those parties for not listening to them when it came to their disgust at the Charlottetown Accord or the Senate or the high taxes in Canada.
These are, of course, clear Reform party policies. The same policies that the Tories don’t have a very good record on.
To be fair, a lot of the policies in the newest Tory Blue Book were more conservative than past platforms. They were based mostly on their youth wings’ policies like tax cuts and opposition to gun control.
But Charest rarely mentioned the platform during the election and was pictured criticizing the Liberal Red Book more often than promoting the Tory Blue Book.
Progressive Conservatives are proud of what they call a moderate approach. Charlie Power, the Tory MP from St. John’s East, says Reformers do not represent Eastern Canada’s concerns, especially when it comes to financial support for Atlantic Canada.
“The Conservative Party has always been a middle-of-the-road party. We’ve been fiscally conservative and socially progressive,” says Power. “They’re (Reform) far too right and I don’t think it’s going to happen. I don’t see myself and others from Atlantic Canada joining a far right party.”
And of course there’s always national unity.
Reform became famous opposing distinct society for Quebec and became one of the chief opponents of the Charlottetown Accord.
Meanwhile, the Tories, who were largely responsible for that accord, still embrace the outmoded notion of two founding nations.
These could be reasons why polls show the majority of Tories would rather be Liberals than Reformers.
They could also be why Reformers can’t work too hard to gain their votes.
Asad Wali, from the PC communications department, says the United Alternative plan is just an attempt by Reform to absorb his party, which he insists won’t happen.
“Our position is that Reform comes to the table with little but electoral success as the reason for doing this,” says Wali. “I think it is a mistake to suggest that Charest is the only obstacle.”
But Zubair Choudry says Reform has been successful at getting Conservatives like him because Reformers actively encourage their grassroots to talk to Tories.
Choudry says Reformers were open to his investigation when he was thinking of switching.
That’s why he says his new party is more likely to succeed in the fight to unite the right against the Progressive Conservatives.
“If Charest allowed Tories to talk to Reform, they could have convinced them to join (their party), but there’s already been damage done,” he says.
Wali counters his party hasn’t discouraged members from talking to Reform, partly because there was no need to do so.
But either way, the Tories know they can’t afford to lose more supporters.
Without a national leader who has the charisma and popularity of Charest, the Tories will have to work harder to be heard in a Parliament with five parties.
On top of that, the party still has to pay down a $11-million debt. All of which make the PC party vulnerable.
But Reformers cannot simply abandon major tenets of their policy to accommodate Tories.
The party risks alienating both their conservative and Western Canadian supporters by even giving the appearance that they are watering down their policies.
Besides, who knows if Reform will swallow the Tory party without having to give up their beliefs.
Still, power is tempting and Reformers want to defeat the Liberal juggernaut, especially in Ontario. To do so, they could be willing to give up a lot to attract Tories.
The question is, will Reformers still respect themselves in the morning.