© 1998 Karen Selick
Reformís Ongoing Quandary:  Principle or Populism?

An edited version of this article first appeared in the September 15, 1998 issue of The Globe and Mail.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


Reformís Ongoing Quandary:  Principle or Populism? 

The disarray currently plaguing the Reform Party is not the least bit surprising.  In fact, it was inevitable.  The party is torn between two conflicting visions.

On the one hand, its major players like to think of their organization as a party of principle, upholding certain tenets and practices that constitute good government.  On the other hand, the party represents itself as a paragon of populism, drawing its support from the grass roots of the country, developing its platform from the "bottom up", as Preston Manning likes to say.

Occasionally these two approaches will be in harmony, but just as often, or perhaps more often, they will contradict each other. 

On the issue of parliamentary pensions, for example, a party of principle would make a decision about whether the pension plan available to members of parliament was ethically defensible.  If the party determined that it wasnít, then all of the candidates it sent forth to seek the support of voters should subscribe to that position.  If those individuals sought and accepted office on the promise that they would not participate in a pension plan they had described to voters as unacceptable, they should stick to their promise.  If they break their promise by opting in to the pension plan, the party of principle should show them the door, since it would appear that they no longer support its principles. 

A party that claims to take its direction from the bottom up, however, has several problems.  What should it do when those on the bottom disagree among themselves, as they inevitably will?  What should it do when someone at the bottom changes his mind and now rejects a policy he previously supported?   Populism implicitly accepts the premise that one party memberís opinion on an issue, no matter how derived, is as valid an anotherís.  If MP Bill Gilmour decides to accept a pension he previously denounced as indefensible, who can say that heís wrong?  Isnít Gilmour, after all, just another one of those grass roots the party claims to represent?  He may be in the minority in his own party, but heís certainly not out of the grass roots ballpark.  After all, there are millions of Canadians who demonstrated by voting Liberal that they donít care a fig if their members of parliament get gold-plated pensions.  Arenít those voters really the grass roots? 

The Reform Partyís attempt to be a populist party is hardly novel.  The whole enterprise of politics is a continual quest to discover where the broadest pockets of popular support lie, and to tailor oneís platform to capture the votes of those constituencies.  The secret of success in politics is to be all things to all people.  Thatís how parties get elected. 

It also explains why the policies of different parties tend to converge in a mushy, undifferentiated, hard-to-pin-down centre.   Every party believes in balanced budgets when thatís what the public opinion polls say voters believe in.  Every party believes in the sacred trust of social programs if thatís what the public wants--at least, every party that seriously wants to get elected. 

The only way to effect genuine, lasting policy change within a country is not to pander to the current preferences of the grass roots but to influence those preferences at a fundamental level.  Ideas change the world.  Principles  matter.  But ideas and principles are slow to shift. 

It took decades--centuries--for the average Canadian to metamorphose from the self-reliant, pioneering, self-disciplined type of person who first settled here into the timid, dependent Canadian of today, afraid to meet the future without a "social safety net" beneath him, passively submitting to the confiscation of half of all his efforts in order not to be deprived of that comforting, but entangling, web. 

It will take just as long to transform Canadians back.  Maybe it wonít even be possible.  It certainly wonít be achieved merely by mouthing inspirational campaign slogans every few years.  The change will have to be inculcated through the same institutions the socialists have used--the universities, the schools, the media, the culture. 

One thing is clear, however: abandoning principles in between elections is not the way to start.  Reformers will have to choose.  If they wish to uphold certain principles, they will have to resign themselves to the fact that power will not be theirs for a long time to come.  If they wish to take a shortcut to power, they should pursue their populist agenda, telling Albertans what they want to hear and Ontarians something different, changing their platform as often as their socks, and mumbling vague platitudes to reporters instead of enunciating clear, comprehensible positions.  But then they might as well change their name too--to the Liberal Party, because thatís who they will have become. 

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January 18, 2001