The Reform Party is dead; long live the Reform Party.
Almost a quarter of a century after its birth, Reform still animates Canadian politics. Yes, it changed its name to the Canadian Alliance, and the Alliance died in the merger with the Progressive Conservatives to create today’s Conservative Party. But Reform’s ideas remain alive and kicking inside the Conservative Party – see the Harper government’s use of a majority to push through legislation eliminating the Canadian Wheat Board, toughening the criminal justice system and abolishing the long-gun registry.
These policies were vintage Reform, popular in the rural Prairies and in many parts of B.C. outside the Lower Mainland, and among those who sharply differentiated Reformers from Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives.
Mr. Mulroney’s party, enjoying two huge majorities, never moved on these fronts. The PCs had a minister of state for the Wheat Board who was committed to the institution’s proper functioning. They tweaked the criminal justice system but they never dreamed of an all-fronts “tough on crime” approach in the face of overwhelming evidence that such an approach wouldn’t work. And, if anything, they wanted to toughen gun-control legislation, not weaken it, although, in fairness, the long-gun registry came after Mr. Mulroney left office.
Stephen Harper, himself an early Reform MP, always supported these policies, whether in opposition or as Prime Minister in minority Parliaments. The policies were “present at the creation” when Reform took shape, and they remained tenets of the Alliance and the Harper Conservatives.
Eliminating the Wheat Board has been a controversial promise since it was first made. It reflected Reform’s ideological aversion to big government and monopolies, and its preference for market-based solutions. The promise also reflected changing realities in the grain-growing Prairies. Farms were getting bigger through consolidation, corporate agriculture was growing and the old collectivist instincts of the Prairies were weakening. From government as helper, more and more farmers apparently adopted the view of government as obstacle.
Minority governments blocked any move against the Wheat Board. So, presumably, did political caution. Whereas the Conservatives had promised a referendum among wheat farmers on the board’s fate, none was ever held, probably because there was no guarantee it could be won. Re-elected with a majority, the Harper government interpreted its victory in Western Canada as a green light to proceed with the Wheat Board’s demise (a strained interpretation of the election result, since voters seldom decide en masse around one issue).
In any event, the Wheat Board is done for, as is the long-gun registry, which Reform opposed from the first suggestion that Canada needed one. It didn’t matter that the country’s chiefs of police favoured the registry. In rural Canada, Reform’s original heartland, the registry was an affront to personal freedom, a useless and costly bureaucracy, a city slickers’ invention with no applicability to rural realities. Now, with a Conservative majority government, Reform’s original opposition will be vindicated.
As for the crime legislation, toughening the law was always a mainstay of Reform. Its early rhetoric was full of criticism about mollycoddling criminals, protecting “law-abiding Canadians,” victims’ rights, more punishment and less rehabilitation, stricter parole laws and more vigilant application of those laws.
This was quite different from the attitude of the old Progressive Conservatives, who could hardly be accused of having been soft on crime but who never attempted anything like today’s changes. Indeed, current Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, while in opposition, was widely thought of as a moderate critic of the Liberals. But he gets his marching orders from the old Reformers, starting with Mr. Harper.
In these three measures – the Wheat Board, the long-gun registry and criminal justice – Canadians can see that, although the Reform Party is long dead, it still lives.