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Into the mainstream

International | Upstart conservative party becomes official opposition

Issue: "Bailing Out," June 14, 1997

Vancouver, B.C.--The polls for Canada's June 2 national parliamentary election had been closed for over an hour, and Sharon Hayes, the Reform Party member of Parliament from Port Moody-Coquitlam in British Columbia, had not yet arrived to join her supporters. Journalists on the scene were growing restive, but Mrs. Hayes' campaigners were festive.

"It's not too late to come on over," shouted one Hayes supporter to the disappointed crowd across the street where Kwangyul Peck, the losing Liberal candidate, was conceding defeat.

Mrs. Hayes's backers had reason to be excited. They had won handily, despite their candidate's being forced to drop everything to care for her husband, who had suffered a massive heart attack and stroke four days before the election was called and the campaign began. Mrs. Hayes's pro-family political beliefs were put to a personal test: She limited her campaigning to the contest's final week, when her husband had gained some strength.

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Reformers nationally also gained strength. Altogether they won 60 seats, placing their party second to the victorious Liberals and handing them official opposition status in only their third national election.

Because Canada follows the British parliamentary tradition, its prime minister can call an election at any time. Many pundits were surprised, however, that Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien called this one less than four years into a five-year mandate. Mr. Chretien knew the polls showed his party's popularity drifting ever downward and called the election in order to win a new mandate while he still could. His strategy worked.

Capturing 101 of the 103 available seats in Ontario, the Liberals eked out a second straight majority, something they had not done since 1952. The big win in Ontario was key, for the province contains fully one-third of all Canadian voters and thus similar representation in the national parliament.

But the biggest surprise was the strong showing of Reform. In addition to the extra funding and important committee positions that come with the role of official opposition, Reform has cemented its claim to be the one party to speak for western Canada. It is now in position to provide strong opposition to the Bloc Quebecois, whose 44 members of Parliament (MPs) are in Ottawa for the sole purpose of negotiating the country's breakup; the Bloc is a single-issue party devoted to leading Quebec to secession.

Also, by virtually eliminating the Progressive Conservative party from the west-reducing the Tories to one MP in Manitoba and Ontario-Reform has become the voice of conservatism nationwide. And by displacing the establishment Tories, Reform has given political voice to evangelical Christians who bring a moral dimension long missing from Canadian politics.

Bloc Quebecois MPs, who would prefer to be missing from Canadian politics, may find some success in pressing their one issue, despite the reelection of a Liberal government. The Liberals hold only a slight majority (155 seats in the 301-seat Parliament), but Prime Minister Chretien's passive approach to Quebec could embolden separatists. A referendum on secession, the second in three years, is expected to be held in Quebec next year.

Although Mr. Chretien is from Quebec, his behavior during the run-up to la belle province's 1995 referendum caused many western Canadians to lose confidence in his leadership. Mr. Chretien's passivity is blamed for allowing the separatists to come within 50,000 votes of breaking up the country. Since then, he has sought to give Quebec constitutional recognition as a "distinct society." Led by Reform, many Canadians adamantly oppose that approach, seeing it as a bestowal of favors on Quebec not enjoyed by the other nine provinces.

For media consumption Reform emphasizes its fiscal conservatism and its uncompromising stand on provincial equality. But much Reform support comes from people who recognize that a significant number of its MPs, including leader Preston Manning, are Christians who bring moral values to bear on public life. MP Sharon Hayes, who spoke out at Beijing against the United Nations' "attack on children and the family," has been at the forefront of that wing of the party.

As she led her husband, who came straight from his hospital bed to celebrate her victory, toward campaign headquarters, the crowd cheered repeatedly. Many of those gathered cracked up when he quipped in a voice enfeebled by illness, "I lost the left side of my brain, but it's good to see that Canada has regained the right side of its brain."

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