Reformers have been subjected to a first-class lesson in the politics of old over the past few months, and it has reminded many why the Reform Party was formed in the first place.
Reform was created to give the people a voice, to have elected individuals represent and serve them, and not become the masters of the masses. It was in many ways very socialistic, or at the very least populist, and somewhat idealistic with dreams of referenda and recall and actual representation.
Soon Reformers will be asked to decide on a " virage,"a change in direction that would, it is promised, lead them to the position of political power, from where they may implement their vision for Canada. I don't think think we should choose to change.
In the early days of Reform, I was among those that sat at the feet of our chosen leader, Preston Manning. He told us of how MPs of years and parties gone by would go to Parliament with the best of intentions, only to come back to us, the people who sent them there, totally "Ottawashed." This was a condition brought on by having been to Ottawa, and having bought into the notion that any good and worthwhile idea must emanate from those hallowed halls. Also, having been to the centre of the Canadian universe, these new political elites said they knew what was best for us poor peons in the hinterlands. (Hinterlands being anywhere in Canada further than 50 metres from Parliament Hill.)
Today we have a Reform leader who, in many ways, has himself become "Ottawashed." We are told: Reformers, as good as your ideas are, without power you will never have the opportunity to implement them. True, Reform has positively influenced public policy for seven years. From deficit reduction to criminal-justice reforms and, now, tax reduction, Reformers have set much of the agenda for the Canadian political landscape. Reform has been a positive, active influence and, I believe, was being recognized as such, thereby earning the respect of Canadians. It was only a matter of time before Canadians would grant Reform the right to govern, provided the electors believed that they could trust us to be who we said we were and do what we said we would.
Then, lightning struck on the road to Ottawa. Power in Y2K+2, the short-cut to governing was envisioned. The United Alternative became the secret elixir of political success; marketed with the wiles of old that even former Trudeau strategist Keith Davey would appreciate.
Politicos at the power apex of Reform decided what was best for the party and they are determined to use every means at their disposal (funded of course by the rank-and-file Reformer) to bedazzle Reformers with the prospect of a short-cut to power. Reformers were introduced to the "Ottawa top-spin," and around and around we were tugged, pulled, pushed and prodded. Saliva was wiped away as they panted for power, their brows dripped sweat from the hard work of spinning the core of political common sense, the bedrock members of Reform.
It went something like this: "Let's repaint and retool and call ourselves something else. Ontarians, Québécois and others who are wavering in their support of Reform will buy into this new entity; somehow not realizing that it has a Reform (-like) constitution, principles and policies. They, those gullible enough -- and surely enough will be gullible -- will, before they realize it, be Reformers by default. Then we, the Reform elites, will be in control. Control, then governing power, wow, the ecstasy of it all. Who needs sex after that?"
To sell Reformers on the UA, they were spun and enticed with the prospect of immediate power. We have been browbeaten and bullied with our own funds and by our own leaders and employees. We have been subjected to a national travelling road show that featured one-sided presentations and ignored other facts. Reformers have been threatened with perpetual hinterland status politically by those very people who were selected and hired to be the guardians and promoters of Reform. Makes you wonder doesn't it?
How disappointing to many loyal Reformers that those very people who were trusted with the leadership of the Reform Party have become the very ones that seek its demise? Reform's future has been torpedoed, it's members divided, and the orchestrated, attempted destruction of Reform has been manipulated from within.
"Friendly fire," Mr. Manning would call this, "Bound to be some."
Reformers have been confronted with the practice of old-time political behaviour, as the UA spinners within Reform have gone into overdrive. Today they are pushing a scorched-earth policy to ensure that Reformers "believe" they will have nothing left should they reject the UA. Even the Reform treasury has been razed to make way for the UA.
Today, Mr. Manning has resorted to a form of leadership blackmail. His latest ultimatum smacks of the immature rich kid, threatening to take his marbles and go home unless he gets his own way. This unfortunately communicates a notion that Mr. Manning now thinks that he, the creator of Reform, is bigger than the party.
As a long-time Reformer, I happen to believe that the party is bigger than any one member, me, or you, or chief of staff Cliff Fryers, or senior adviser Rick Anderson, or Preston Manning.
All of us -- even the pro-UA proponents within Reform -- are, I believe, dedicated and proved Reformers. Where we differ today, other than in our practices of promoting change within the party, is in determining the best vehicle with which to continue to have an impact on Canadian political life.
Will it be Reform or the UA that will enhance the Reformers' ability to take power and govern this great nation? Will it be a Reform government, as promised by Preston Manning of assemblies past? Is the good ship Reform listing and sinking from the "friendly fire" or can it be steadied and readied to sail on in glory and success? I believe it can, but that depends on what Reformers as a whole believe.
The maturing of a democratic institution may not always be a neat and tidy affair, but it is an important step toward the growth of any democratic party or institution. Reform is growing up, and that is a good thing. No matter what happens, Canadian politics will be better for this process. But only a revitalized Reform party can come out of this and hope to challenge in the next election. The UA would be starting from scratch.
Reformers must decide on their party's future, not just Preston Manning's. Let us do so in confidence that Reform will continue to have a positive impact on Canada's political future for many years to come. Regardless of the outcome, may the people win. Eric Schenstead was a member of the Reform Party's founding Constitutional Task Force and is a Saskatoon delegate to the party's Ottawa Assembly.