Canadian 'messiah' sets election alight: By challenging political taboos, Preston Manning has tapped a deep vein of discontent, writes Rupert Cornwell in Calgary

Click to follow
The Independent Online
HE MAY not be Canada's messiah but last weekend, in the improbable setting of the assembly hall of the Chinook Park elementary school in south-west Calgary, Preston Manning looked like one. The leader of the Reform Party was making a final appearance before 200 of the faithful in his home constituency before setting off on a coast-to-coast final week of campaigning before Monday's general election. For a moment, antiseptic Canadian earnestness vanished. A small country band played, red- and-white maple-leaf flags bedecked the stage behind him. Last but not least, they rose and sang the national anthem.

Now as anthems go, the Canadian one does not rate highly. The words are clothed in bombast, the tune is instantly forgettable, the alternating English and French verses normally only a symbol of how artificial the very structure of Canada is. This time, though, it was different. For if he has done nothing else in this autumn of 1993 - even if the huge expectations he has aroused are dashed by the ballot box - Preston Manning has at least made his English-speaking countrymen examine what it means to be Canadian.

But the send-off is unlikely to have been in vain. If the polls are to be believed, what Lucien Bouchard and the Bloc Quebecois are doing to the collapsing Conservatives in Quebec, Mr Manning and his followers are doing here on the other side of the continent. The prisms of a gleaming western frontier town and cosmopolitan Montreal, with its European feel, could not be more different. But through both an old Canada is visibly dying, and a new one, of quite unpredictable shape, is struggling to be born.

With his calculated appeal to the grassroots and his scorn for the status quo, Mr Manning is often dismissed as a northern version of Ross Perot. And on occasion he can do a pretty good impersonation. Take their common refrain that national politicians must be made more accountable to ordinary voters. 'Ottawa fever,' Mr Manning calls it, that 'strange virus' in the capital's corridors of power when 'their hearing starts to go and their heads start to swell a bit'. The audience at Chinook Park loved it; the Texan self-publicist couldn't have put it better in one of his diatribes against Washington.

But despite the efforts of his critics, Mr Manning makes a pretty tame rabble-rouser. In private as in public he is thoughtful, humorous, with none of Mr Perot's bullying and bluster. Until he went into politics full-time in 1988, he ran his own management consulting firm. Neat and bespectacled, he still looks the part - only today's client is an entire country. 'Since the late 1970s Preston has been thinking how Canada's politics can be overhauled,' says David Bercuson, Professor of History at Calgary University. 'He is the closest thing to an intellectual among our politicians. He may be a populist, but he's not a demagogue.'

Nor, in a sense, is he a novelty. Mr Manning has grown from the bowels of the Social Credit movement, that brand of conservative populism born in Britain during the Great Depression but which found fertile soil in the Canadian West. Ernest Manning, Preston's father, was the So-Cred prime minister of Alberta for 25 years until he was defeated by the Conservatives in 1971. Today, his son is regaining a lost inheritance by articulating grievances that have only grown since then: foremost among them that Ottawa is not interested in the region, other than to expropriate its riches to subsidise the rest of the country, and especially the whining Francophones of Quebec. 'Preston,' says a close aide, 'simply understands these people'.

For all its celebrity, the party has only been around since 1987. Just before last year's failed referendum, which brought Canada's constitutional crisis to a head, Reform stood at 16 per cent in national polls. As passions cooled, its support ebbed to 8 per cent. Today however it has made up the lost ground and even gained some.

In its strongholds of Alberta and British Columbia, Reform is running well ahead of the other parties. In the prairie provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba next door its strength is growing too. Recent projections give it 40 to 50 of the 295 seats in Ottawa. A few more in Liberal-dominated Ontario, the most populous province, and Mr Manning would have an outside chance of pipping Mr Bouchard to the post of leader of the official opposition. So angry are voters across the land that few rule out the possibility completely.

But Ottawa-baiting and Quebec- bashing are not his only weapons. Reform has produced a plan to eradicate the Candollars 35bn ( pounds 18bn) federal deficit in three years, in part by cutting foreign aid and many existing subsidies and welfare benefits. It wants to tighten the country's immigration rules: immigration, says Mr Manning, 'should be driven by Canada's economic requirements'. And of course, he aims to change the constitution, with a more devolved federal structure which gives broader but equal powers to all provinces, Francophone and Anglophone. For Quebec it would be a case of take it - or get out.

Of every proposal questions may be asked. Is another dose of fiscal austerity what Canada really needs, when inflation is virtually non-existent and growth so feeble that unemployment is stuck at 11 per cent? Might not the break-up of the country increase financial and economic instability? Have not an open-door immigration policy and generous welfare programmes given Canada its deserved reputation of civility and decency?

But at least Mr Manning is being honest. The western Canada whose soul he embodies is no less decent and civilised than, say, Liberal- dominated Ontario. But immigration and benefits and the special status of Quebec have until lately been almost taboo subjects, part of the subtle political correctness that made Canada's politics so sanitised and drab. 'To query immigration,' says Mr Manning, 'is to be labelled a racist.'

The same goes for anyone who queries bilingualism. Reform's policy, on the other hand, 'is based on the concept of equality of all citizens, not on the old Canada as a partnership of 'founding races', with special status for some.' In other words, an end to such absurdities as equal French and English signposting at the Banff National Park in the Rockies, 75 miles west of Calgary. From that breathtakingly beautiful spot, the Quebec which is presumably being humoured seems not just 2,000 miles away, but on the other side of the moon. If another language is required, a glance at the visitors' register suggests it should be Japanese.

For all its refreshing frankness, Reform still has many problems. As with any populist party, it attracts rank undesirables of the right. A taste of power could cause splits within its ranks. 'Preston still hasn't worked out some of his ideas,' warns Mr Bercuson, 'and I'm not sure he can run a really large organisation. He finds it hard to delegate.' But for the time being affluent western Canada is ready to overlook these defects.

(Photograph omitted)