How Preston Manning Missed the Wave

December 7, 1996

Reform Leader Preston Manning has consistently refused to let his party enter into the arena of provincial politics, despite strong pressure from the grassroots and clear evidence that the party could do well there, at least in the Western provinces.

Mr. Manning has based this refusal on an interpretation of Canadian political history (and especially the history of his father’s Social Credit Party in Alberta) that runs like this: If a regional protest party competing in federal politics enters provincial politics and enjoys success, the best minds and ideas will be drained off into provincial politics, where the rewards of immediate power beckon.

Eventually, both party activists and ordinary voters will give up on the federal party, and it will sink out of sight. Instead, Reform should “wait for the wave,” in the words of University of Calgary political science Professor Tom Flanagan, referring to a wave of discontent that will sweep the Reform Party into power in Ottawa.

Mr. Manning’s argument does fit the experience of the Social Credit in Alberta. His interpretation also has the convenient (for him, anyway) consequence of preventing the emergence of Reform premiers who might rival him as a voice for Reform. Unfortunately for Reform Party members, however, it is based on a very dubious reading of the lessons of Canadian history.

There are two problems with his interpretation. First, no outside party in Canadian history has ever followed the direct path to office in Ottawa. Second, Canadian political history has shown repeatedly that a protest party that does not win power somewhere fairly soon after it bursts onto the scene will not be around very long to “wait for the wave.” It will soon begin to atrophy as its leaders and its supporters in the electorate get discouraged.

The reasonably successful third parties in Canadian politics ? the Progressives, the CCF/NDP, Social Credit and the Parti Québécois (with its more recent federal ally, the Bloc Québécois) ? all won power in at least one province within about a decade of their founding. Parties that failed to win power provincially ? the Reconstruction Party, for example ? have become almost lost from memory.

To understand why this is so, we must understand the roots of Canada’s pattern of third party protest movements, especially those in the West. Regional economic disparity fuels a sense of alienation in the hinterland. Canada’s single-member district-plurality electoral system strongly rewards small parties (like Reform and the Bloc Québécois) that concentrate their votes in a single region, while punishing parties that spread their votes broadly across the country, as the Conservatives did in 1993. Thus protest parties with a strong regional concentration have repeatedly been able to win a foothold in the House of Commons. They have also been able to win legislative majorities in provincial governments. Third parties have formed governments in every Canadian province west of New Brunswick, giving supporters of those parties a very tangible sign that a vote for that party is not wasted.

Moving to win power in Ottawa has proved tougher for third parties, however; the regional origins and image of these parties have always hindered their efforts to develop a nation-wide base. Indeed, no third party has ever even shared power as part of a coalition in Ottawa. Even during periods of minority government, third parties have had to settle for concessions on specific policy issues (e.g., medicare, Petro-Canada) rather than a formal coalition. Thus the rewards of voting for a third party at the federal level have been fuzzy at best.

It is no wonder that potential supporters of those parties (notably the NDP) have turned elsewhere because they did not want to waste their vote or, worse, bring their least favored party into power. It is no wonder that, at least until 1993, no new party was able to break into the Liberal-Conservative duopoly on power in Ottawa that lasted more than a century.

Political events in the early 1990s offered a unique opportunity to break this duopoly.

At the federal level, former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s heroic but ultimately doomed effort to add a second solid base of seats in Quebec for the Progressive Conservative Party to complement the “solid Prairies” collapsed at both ends, leaving the federal party with at least one foot in the grave.

At the provincial level, corruption and senescence caused the British Columbia Social Credit Party to collapse, leaving a void on the right into which Reform could have moved. In Alberta, too, the unpopularity of the Getty government suggested that Alberta’s unique pattern of successive waves of one dominant party (United Farmers, Social Credit, Tories) being supplanted by another might be about to repeat itself. Indeed, several frightened provincial Tory politicians declared their loyalty to Reform at the federal level. In Saskatchewan, the scandal-plagued provincial Conservatives seemed vulnerable.

It seems possible that even more impetus could have been developed from these unique historic opportunities. If Alberta and British Columbia had elected provincial Reform governments, it would have helped Reform supplant the Progressive Conservative Party in those provinces. With the Tories collapsing, perhaps Ontario’s Mike Harris, with whom Reformers share so much ideologically, might have been drawn into at least an informal alliance with Reform that could help the struggling Reform Party in the province.

But we will never know. Ralph Klein has given Alberta’s provincial Tories a remarkable new lease on life. In British Columbia, the Liberals have emerged as the presumptive conservative opposition to the New Democratic Party, and B.C. conservatives know that if there is more than one conservative opposition party, the vote will split, thus immeasurably strengthening the NDP.

By refusing to enter provincial politics, Reform squandered an incredible opportunity to build a serious power base, create a sense of political momentum and allow its partisans to have undivided party loyalties at the federal and provincial levels.

In Ottawa, meanwhile, Reform has provided an opposition to the governing Liberals that has ranged from moderately competent to comic. Mr. Manning’s most visible rival for influence within the Reform Party, Steven Harper, has announced that he is leaving electoral politics. A popular federal Liberal Party seems poised for a bigger electoral victory in 1997 than in 1993. And Reform voters will be asked once again next year to vote for a political party that has virtually no chance of winning power anywhere any time soon.

More than ever, the Reform Party seems the vehicle of one man, Preston Manning, rather than a vigorous, highly institutionalized party with multiple sources of leadership. Mr. Manning and Reform stand ready for a wave of popular discontent to carry them to power in Ottawa.

But Canadian history suggests that by missing narrow windows of opportunity at the provincial level, the party and its leader may have already allowed the wave to pass them by.