By 1996, Preston Manning was in trouble. The tight control he attempted to keep over his caucus was crumbling and the party was rife with dissent. Early party members who feared that extremism would prevail, were being proven to be correct, and yet absolutely nothing was being done to curtail it.
Manning's anti-government rhetoric that inspired Newt Gingrich, may have helped in his political success, but at some point you've got to prove that you can actually govern if given the opportunity. But instead the Reformers were only proving that the opposite was true.
Upon his retirement, Don Newman, former Senior Parliamentary Editor for CBC, was asked about the toxicity of politics today, and when it changed. Calling it the "politics of suspicion", he stated:
Of course, Parliament worked because elections in those periods also produced majority governments and sooner or later majority governments get their way. But it also worked because MPs made it function. They seemed to understand that they were there to get things done. That is not the case today ... The fraying was not — it might surprise some I'm sure — the fault of the Bloc Québécois who, while preaching their own view of both history and the future, always treated Parliament with respect. Rather it came from the Reform Party led by Preston Manning. (1)His comments wouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone following politics then, including many of the early Reform Party members. They saw what was supposed to be a populist party turning into a totalitarian regime:
"Dissidents in the party ... openly claimed that the party was being run by a 'Calgary clique' "A lot of people are frustrated - we're seeing the inevitable erosion of grassroots politics into a smaller more domineering group at the top...' " One of the key members was thirty-two-year-old Stephen Harper, a founding member of the party, it's Chief Policy Officer, and the man who became known as Manning's chief political lieutenant. (2)In fact he was challenged for the leadership in the beginning, because many feared that something like that would happen.
Manning left nothing to chance. He was determined to defeat his only opponent, Stan Roberts, who was not only more charismatic and eloquent but better known and better equipped financially. Reluctant to enter the race, Roberts was finally convinced by [Francis] Winspear that a leader-ship contest was necessary to ensure the legitimacy of the outcome. Roberts also was becoming increasingly concerned about the direction the fledgling party's supporters appeared to be taking, fearing it was becoming too extreme on both economic and social policies. He also was greatly concerned that the anti-French sentiment of some of the delegates in Vancouver was being given free rein. (3)But a dirty trick would secure his leadership bid.
The hall was filled with his people when, nearly a day ahead of schedule, Manning urged the organizers — including the chair, staunch Manning supporter Diane Ablonczy — to cut off registration of delegates. When Francis Winspear took the floor to protest this action, moving a motion to reopen registration and noting many of Roberts's delegates had not yet arrived, he was soundly, defeated by the Manning forces. Astonished and shaken, Winspear left along with a furious Roberts, who later withdrew his name.They were being referred to as "a bunch of right-wing Christian fanatics" even before the real fanatics joined them. A great deal is made over how the opposition is "anti-Christian", but accusations of religious fanaticism were more common within the party itself.
In an angry press conference the next day, Roberts not only accused the organizers, and implicitly Manning, of "compromising" the new party's commitment to "honesty and integrity," but also alluded to a significant sum of missing funds and accused Manning's supporters — almost all of whom were from Alberta — of being "a bunch of right-wing Christian fanatics." (3)
Enough was Enough
Preston Manning was having major troubles with his caucus ... The carefully orchestrated and near-absolute control of the party he had exercised for nearly ten years began to dissolve ... but his unsuccessful attempts to rein in his caucus were already widely known and ridiculed long before then. .. The conflicts with Stephen Harper were not the only problems Manning encountered with the leading lights of his caucus. For many of his critics, these conflicts were further proof of Manning's inability to tolerate dissent and his need to be the only one in charge. (4)Harper would leave Reform before the next election to join the National Citizens Coalition. There has been a lot of speculation as to why. Did he feel he could do more to help the movement on the outside? The NCC spent a great deal of money advancing Reform during the 1997 election.
Or was it because of a battle for control with Preston Manning? I suppose it could be either. However, the final showdown came about when he went public with accusations that Preston Manning was abusing his expense account and the party sent him a four page letter (4) criticizing his actions. I suspect that was the trigger, because Stephen Harper never could stand criticism.
However, he wasn't the only one to exit stage left (or right?)
Brown left the party, citing the rampant racism of the "God Squad" and stating that there was no room for women in this party. Eight others followed suit, all moderates, paving the way for new, even more radical members to take their place.
The cases of Jan Brown and Jim Silye were typical. Among the most progressive and cosmopolitan of the Reform MPs, they also became known for their ability to shine in Question Period. Both were urban moderates and excellent communicators who developed positive relationships with the media and, in the case of Brown, a degree of national name recognition. Both were often unhappy with the "racist redneck" element in their caucus, and endured much criticism from other caucus members for their continuing attempts to broaden the base of Reform policies.
By early 1996, Brown, Silye and Stephen Harper were all reportedly reconsidering their future with the party. When Art Hanger announced he was going on a "fact-finding mission" to Singapore to explore the use of caning and other forms of corporal punishment in the penal system, most Canadians were astonished and amused. Brown and Silye were humiliated, and said so publicly. "I don't want to be campaigning for caning and whipping," said Silye, a millionaire Calgary businessman and former Stampeders star. Brown, another Calgary MP and a corporate consultant with two degrees, agreed with Silye and suggested Reform would lose mainstream voters if it did not shake its extremist image. For their comments the two were raked over the coals at a lengthy caucus meeting in which one MP after another took the floor to lambaste the two, accusing them of betrayal ...
Brown left the three-hour meeting "ashen-faced," escorted by Rick Anderson past the waiting media and saying nothing at the time. Silye stayed to speak with reporters but broke down midway through his mea culpa, in which he apologized to his colleagues for hurting their feelings. Later, however, Brown indicated she did not plan to apologize and refused to be a scapegoat for the party's evident difficulties ... In the end this only delayed the inevitable. The split between the moderates and the rednecks was serious and apparently irreparable. (4)
Jason Kenney and More So-Cons on Steroids
It was this amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act protecting homosexuals from discrimination, that encouraged the formation of the Canada Family Action Coalition by Roy Beyer and Brian Rushfeldt, and the Canadian Christian Coalition, which included Jason Kenney. Both groups were inspired by a Washington Conference of their American counterpart, where the speaker was Ralph Reed.
Barely two months later, during debate on the government's proposed amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act protecting homosexuals from discrimination*, the Reform caucus erupted again. When B.C. MP Bob Ringma** told reporters he would move gay or visible-minority employees to the back of the shop if they were costing him business, colleagues such as Dave Chatters, Leon Benoit and Myron Thompson agreed. In fact, Thompson went further, saying "If they were costing me business, I would remove them." Asked for her comments, Jan Brown replied, "I'm so saddened by this," while another moderate, Ian McClelland, suggested Ringma should apologize and promise not to say such things in the future.
Sensing the whole affair was getting completely out of control, Preston Manning decided to come down hard on the miscreants. His decision proved to be the final straw. Not only did he suspend Ringma and Chatters from the caucus for six weeks for their alleged deviation from party policy, but he dealt the same penalty to Brown for publicly criticizing her colleagues. Thompson and Benoit, meanwhile, were unaffected, as was MP Grant Hill, a doctor who said the bill "will produce and allow the promotion of an unhealthy lifestyle," a comment which drew immediate and public disapproval from another Reform MP and the only other doctor in the caucus, Keith Martin.*** (4)
And with so many new openings in the Reform Party, these motivated fundamentalists saw an opportunity to take control and join the other "extremists" from the "God Squad".
Jason Kenny himself took Jan Brown's seat. Rob Anders, whose nomination was brought forward by Hermina Dykxhoorn (5), president of the Alberta Federation of Women United for Families, an anti-women's rights group and affiliate of REAL Women of Canada, claimed Stephen Harper's.
Other hand selected social conservatives included Maurice Vellacott, Gerry Ritz and Jim Pankiw, who would later get into trouble after writing a letter to the president of the University of Saskatchewan condemning their affirmative action policies and comparing them to the KKK.
Following the Dec. 20, 1999 signing of an agreement between the U of S and the provincial government forming a partnership to work to increase the number of aboriginal people in the University’s workforce, Saskatoon-Humboldt Reform MP Jim Pankiw wrote a letter to U of S Pres. Peter MacKinnon and Saskatchewan Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Jack Hillson condemning the move. Pankiw said it smacked of racism and bigotry, and resembled the former segregationist policies of the southern United States. He said proponents of the agreement could be seen as "modern-day Klansmen". (6)But besides the influx of fundamentalists, this was also a period that saw an enormous number of non-profit groups emerge, that would back up the agenda, including the Civitas Society. This group was founded by William Gairdner, early Reform Party member, and the hierarchy includes many other far-right Harper supporters: David Frum, former speechwriter of George W. Bush, Link Byfield, Ezra Levant and of course, Jason Kenney.
There was an attempt by some in the party to combat this infiltration of religious extremists, including Nancy Branscombe.
Nancy Branscombe was not successful as the Reform candidate for Peterborough during the 1997 federal election. In response to the CLC election questionnaire,he indicated that she considered herself to be pro-choice, did not oppose the sale and listing of the abortion drug RU-486 and supported legalized doctor-assisted suicide. During that election she was also the Reform party's organizer for 23 Ontario ridings and became known by the pro-life community for her intense social liberal views. Branscombe was one of the party chiefs who forced the removal of a reform candidate's campaign manager simply because the manager was pro-life. (7)And when she attempted again in 2000, the so-con infrastructure was in place and they took immediate action:
These people are now in control and the late Stan Robert's predictions of "a bunch of right-wing Christian fanatics" taking over, have materialized.
An anonymously published pamphlet titled "Who is Nancy Branscombe?" was mailed to some Alliance members and handed out at the nomination meeting. Among other things the pamphlet claimed:
- "Nancy states she stands for strengthening the traditional family, yet she refers to herself as a feminist and openly supports the killing of unborn children".
- "Many members report that she has demoralized the riding association, manipulating the membership lists to ensure her control."
- "She has repeatedly dishonoured herself, the people she represents and her party with crude, off-colour comments".
In the end Branscombe lost the October 21 nomination by a wide margin of 970 to 555. (7)
*Stephen Harper voted against the motion and would later say that Bill C-38 to redefine marriage would prevent religious schools from firing gays and lesbians if it was discovered that they were in a same-sex marriage. (7)
**Ringma repeated his remarks at the next caucus meeting and received a standing ovation.
***Keith Martin is now a Liberal MP
1. Stephen Harper and the politics of suspicion, By Don Newman, CBC News, November 19, 2009
2. Preston Manning and the Reform Party, by Murray Dobbin, Goodread Biographies/Formac Publishing, 1992, ISBN: 0-88780-161-7, pg. 121-122
3. Hard Right Turn: The New Face of Neo-Conservatism in Canada, Brooke Jeffrey, Harper-Collins, 1999, ISBN: 0-00 255762-2, Pg. 295-296
4. Jeffrey, 1999, Pg. 318-319
5. Hold your fire, National Post Thursday, July 03, 2003
6. In response to Pankiw’s attack letter, Pres. says no Aboriginal hiring quotas". On Campus News. University of Saskatchewan. January 21, 2000.
7. CA Parachute Candidate Nancy Branscombe Severely Criticized, LifeSite News, November 9, 20008. Harper’s speech makes case for firing gay people … where does Conservative leader stand? Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, February 17, 2005