BY JAMES WHITTON
MONTREAL - At a conference dominated by the Reform Party and some forces in the Conservative party, held in Ottawa February 19-21, delegates voted 55 percent in favor of forming a new party of the right. The "United Alternative" conference was initiated by the right-wing Reform Party. In his main speech to the conference, Reform Party leader Preston Manning said, "The object of this conference is to create a united governing alternative to the federal Liberals based on principles." The founding convention will take place over the next year.
Since the founding of Canada in 1867 and up to the 1993 federal elections, the governing party in Canada has alternated between two capitalist parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives. In the 1993 election, the Conservatives virtually collapsed, from being the governing party with 155 seats to 2 seats. Two new parties entered parliament that year. The Bloc Quebecois, which promotes Quebec sovereignty, won 54 seats, all from Quebec. The Reform Party garnered 52 seats, almost all from western Canada.
While the Reform Party gained 60 seats in the 1997 election and became the official opposition, it did not win any seats west of Manitoba and has virtually no support in Quebec. In several Ontario seats, a united Reform Party and Conservative vote would defeated the Liberal candidate.
About 60 percent of the 1,400 delegates present at the conference were members of the Reform Party. About half of the rest were or had been members of the Conservative party, although Conservative leader Joe Clark and his 19 Members of Parliament all refused to attend. Clark insists he will not join the "United Alternative."
Several prominent leaders of the Conservative party in Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario were present. Alberta premier Ralph Klein, who heads the Conservative party in that province, gave the opening keynote address. Also participating were Alberta treasurer Stockwell Day, Ontario transportation minister Tony Clement, and Hal Jackman, former lieutenant governor of Ontario.
In his opening speech, Klein proposed some changes in program he said would be necessary for the new party to replace the Liberals as the governing party. He warned, "We cannot, as those who adhere to a conservative philosophy, declare ourselves to be the party of minimum interference in the everyday lives of Canadians, and then propose to interfere in the most personal of all decisions." He was referring to past positions of the Reform Party against homosexuality and abortion. Manning's speech to the convention avoided these questions and was generally very vague in an attempt to broaden the base of the new party.
Klein also said it was necessary to "fix the maddening trend towards judge-made law." He was aiming at some recent cases where high courts have made judgments which go in the direction of enlarging democratic rights. For example, in British Columbia recently a judge ruled that a law prohibiting possession of child pornography violated the right to freedom of expression.
On the issue of Quebec, Klein called on delegates to recognize its "distinct" character. He explained, "saying we are all equal, is to deny the history of the birth of our nation."
This is markedly different from the approach of the Reform Party, which has been to argue that all the provinces should be treated in the same fashion. During the last federal elections in 1997, the Reform Party aired an anti-Quebecois TV ad which showed pictures of the leaders of the four other major parties, all of whom are Quebecois, and called for "a voice for all Canadians, not just Quebec politicians." At the convention Manning advocated "not separation, not the status quo, but a third way.... It involves focusing for the immediate present on a rebalancing of the powers between Ottawa and the provinces."
The Quebecois are a French-speaking oppressed nation within Canada, representing 80 percent of the 7 million people living in Quebec. The discrimination they suffer on the basis of the language they speak and the denial of their right to self- determination has been a pillar of capitalist domination of Canada for more than 150 years.
The conference overwhelmingly rejected a motion to "extend a special welcome to French-speaking Canadians to join the United Alternative movement." Not surprisingly, given the Reform Party's history of opposition to Quebecois rights, there were only 62 delegates present from Quebec.
At the same time, the "United Alternative" conference was meeting, tensions were heating up between the Federal and Quebec governments. In particular, in the recent federal budget the government decided that from now on payments to the provinces for health care will be allocated on a per capita basis, instead of favoring the poorer provinces such as Quebec, as has been the case in the past. This means that over the next five years Ontario will receive a supplementary amount of CAN$5.33 billion, while Quebec will only receive CAN$1.4 billion. The end of this policy has been sharply denounced by the Quebec government and has led to a publicity war between Ottawa and Quebec.
As well Quebec refused to sign a social-union pact with Ottawa, which was signed by the other nine provinces, because the agreement would give the federal government the power to oversee how funds were used for social programs. This is an attack on the limited powers that Quebec now has in social programs and health care.
Canada's two national English-language dailies had different reactions to the United Alternative conference. The Globe and Mail editorialized, "We now have three alternatives on the right, which doesn't look like much progress."
The editors of the National Post concluded approvingly that despite unresolved debates, "It's just possible now that the [Prime Minister Jean] Chrétien Liberals could face a real threat in the next federal election."
One sharp critic of the conference was Stephen Harper, a former Reform Member of Parliament and head of the right-wing pressure group, the National Citizens Coalition. He told the National Post that the "touchy-feely" approach of the conference would give ground to the Liberals.
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