Nearly thirty years ago my friends and I set out to kill the Conservative Party – and we damn near did it! Today Reform principles have been erased in Ottawa; there is really nothing of the original values that remains. There’s a proverb that reform movements are like bees: they sting and then they die.
Reform advocated change that excited Canadians. We accomplished something unheard of, galloping in six years from a dead start to 135,000 paid-up members and 52 MPs in Ottawa. It was quite a feat.
In 1988 I first heard Preston Manning speak at a small meeting in Swift Current. He talked of civic duty and accountability and grassroots politics. I thought to myself, “This man is singing my song,” and I joined on the spot. The Reform Party drew a tiny fraction of the vote that year and was widely ridiculed by media and the Tories.
Brian Mulroney was considered Satan in those years. He was tired and patronage-ridden; his caucus marched in lock-step and his cabinet couldn’t balance a budget. Mulroney befriended separatist double-crossers and treated the West with a maddening arrogance. In time his approval rating hit 16 percent in the Gallup poll.
We had good ideas for concrete improvements: less spending, less pork barreling, more citizen participation, more accountability. We felt there was too much centralized power in Ottawa. Our solution was to return power to the people.
I will never forget the 1993 campaign. It was electric. There was a cry for change and tempers ran high. I got into a fight with one voter on his own front porch. And I learned never to campaign in bars; alcohol brings out cynicism in the electorate.
Mulroney predicted his Conservatives would win re-election with 175 seats in Parliament that year; instead they nearly vanished. Half of the Conservative candidates lost their deposits; only two were elected. I’ll never forget the euphoria.
Most of us in that original 1993 caucus were not politicians, and were proud of the fact.
In retrospect, what did we change?
Preston Manning became a politician like all others. An inner circle of functionaries took control of caucus, as they do in all parties. We lost our fire and fell into factional feuding. I think of Reform as a comet that made a flaming entrance – and then vanished.
When we almost killed the Conservative Party, the hunger for change was genuine. We won 2,559,245 votes from Canadians who sought to reform forever the way Ottawa worked. It’s a shame we failed to do it.
(Editor’s note: the author is a geologist, early Reform Party organizer and retired two-term MP for Cypress Hills-Grasslands, Sask.)