Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What Was Behind Reformer Stephen Harper's 1991 Speech

The above video is only a very small part of a speech that Stephen Harper gave at the Reform Party Assembly in 1991. The rest of the news coverage that included this, can be seen at the CBC archives here. A view of the crowd says a lot about who this party was, and indeed still is.

Harper has his signature smug look, as he tries to convince the membership that policy changes are needed if they want to be able to sell their party to the nation (with the exception of Quebec). But, as author Murray Dobbin has stated, Harper was always very careful to keep the extreme elements out of the party platform when he was writing it. However, he and Preston Manning, appeased the membership by having William Gairdner deliver the keynote address.

I'm going to cover this convention in several posts, because there are many interesting elements to the story, that help to explain what motivates Stephen Harper and what a Harper majority might look like.

The Weekend That Changed it All

By 1991, the Reform Party had been in operation for four years, but had never been more than a Western protest party; strongly opposed to multiculturalism, 'non-traditional' immigration, equality for women and what they deemed to be special favours for Quebec. Stephen Harper himself ran as a Reform candidate in 1988, listed on the ballot as 'Steve' Harper. He lost soundly.

Realizing that if they wanted to expand, they would have to tone down their aggressive platform, Harper began rewriting some of the contentious points. He was a master of ambiguity and verbiage, so many of his points were open to interpretation.

It is also worth noting that it was at about this time that he was expelled from the Northern Foundation. Mind you, he is the only one who makes this claim, but perhaps the other members were not thrilled that he was backing down on their 'principles'. When I look at the people involved in the NF, staying with the group for three years is the real issue here (Dobbin claims that it was formed in 1989, but most others say 1988) It would have taken me ten minutes in a room with just one member, to run out screaming.

Oh, Steve, Steve, Steve ... what were you up to in those three years? I know what the Northern Foundation was up to, and realizing that you were not only a member, but a founding member; doesn't help me sleep nights now that you're running our country.

However, while Harper was toning down the extreme elements in his platform, he was also expressing concern that they might be moving into Ontario too quickly. He knew that the hate groups were well organized there and that they may be poised to take over.

In fact, co-founder Ann Hartmann, who was then president of NF, was the wife of the late Paul Hartmann, a member of the Western Guard, and two of her sons were skinheads. Harper would have (or should have) known this. The concern that they may try to legitimize themselves through the Reform Party was genuine. And yet they didn't expel her from the party for another few years. Go figure.

The Media and Missed Opportunities

But back to the 1991 policy convention. Author Murray Dobbin, living in Saskatchewan at the time, had been following the news of the upcoming policy convention that was to be held in April in Saskatoon.

"When I moved back to Saskatchewan after a year in Ontario, a friend and former political science professor drew my attention to Reform Party policy. It was contained in the party's newspaper, The Reformer, in the form of sample resolutions for debate at the party's annual assembly.

" ... Three policies ... struck me immediately and started me on the course of writing this book. The first was on agriculture ... The farm-policy resolution, which startled me stated that the party's policy was not guided by the interests of producers, but by the 'demand of consumers ... for secure supplies of food at the lowest competitive prices.

" ... It was a cheap food policy. If actually carried out it could wipe out half the farmers in western Canada. (Stephen Harper grew up in Toronto. What did he know about farmers?)

"The second surprise was medicare. Not only was the policy one of eliminating the nation-wide health care system, but it was phrased in such a way that the impact of the policy was obscured."

"Perhaps the most surprising resolution was the GST. There was a resolution from a constituency association calling for the repeal of the tax. But there was another, from the Party's Policy Committee, declaring that the Reform Party only opposed the GST in it's present form. (later in the book the author states that Stephen Harper himself intervened repeatedly at the 1991 Assembly to argue against repealing the GST. (pg. 172))

"There seemed to be little public awareness of Reform policies, yet a great deal of interest in the party and Preston Manning. This could simply be explained by a lack of real media scrutiny of a relatively new party. But with the party's big national assembly coming in April to my home town, Saskatoon, and the national media paying them a lot more attention, these policies and their implications were, I thought, bound to be discussed and reported.

"It didn't turn out that way. The media, with some important exceptions (such as Jeffrey Simpson, who compared Preston Manning and the Reform Party to the Republican Party in the U.S.), focused on what they said they would: the party's decisions regarding running in provincial elections and expanding eastward and it's hard-line on Quebec. While some did tag the party as right-wing, Preston Manning's description of the party as populist, went unchallenged." (Preston Manning and the Reform Party. Author: Murray Dobbin Goodread Biographies/Formac Publishing 1992 ISBN: 0-88780-161-7, pref. vii and viii)

This no doubt had a lot to do with two media giants at the time. Ted Byfield, a founding member of Reform; and Conrad Black.

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