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Dismay Voiced by Firebrands Who Helped Put Harper in Power

Reform party stalwarts wonder what happened to ideals of their populist revolt.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 6 Jul 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

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Stephen Harper, Reform candidate in 1988, as wave of populist hunger for government transparency and accountability built a movement.

In March of 1996, Ken Epp, the Reform Party MP from Elk Island, Alberta, stood in the House of Commons. It was the seventh anniversary, he said, of "a most significant event in Canadian history" -- the election of his party's first MP.

"It was on this date in 1989," he declared, "that the citizens of Beaver River decided there was an alternative to the politics of cynical pragmatism, of winning at all costs, of special interests and backroom deals choking out the national interest.

"They voted for someone to speak for them, not to them; for a platform of fiscal responsibility and deficit reduction; for democratic reforms to make members of Parliament accountable to their constituents; for fairness and common sense in government.

"Yes, seven years ago today the residents of Beaver River used the opportunity of a by-election to send a clear message to Ottawa. They elected the first Reformer to the House of Commons and thereby set off an avalanche of democratic and fiscal reform which cannot be stopped."

Nearly 20 years later, some original members of the Reform Party say that avalanche has been stopped cold by the party that grew from and absorbed the Reformers -- the Conservatives led by Stephen Harper.

The Tyee spoke with a number of former staunch members of the Reform Party now looking toward the federal election slated for fall. They all felt the Harper government had moved away from important principles that originally fired their aspirations. Some criticized the Tories for scandals and damage control tactics. Others resented the Harper government grabbing more control over citizens' private lives rather than shrinking the reach and power of government. One decried the smothering of politics at the grassroots level. Another slammed the twisting of religious messages for political aims.

Some of those we spoke with will vote for Harper's Conservatives anyway and some will not. What all share is a sense of frustration about what's been lost and compromised on the road to majority government in Ottawa.

As it built steam, the Reform Party often churned up controversy, usually when members made statements throwing into sharp relief their socially conservative views. But also emanating from Reformers was a steady drumbeat of demands for transparency and accountability regarding the spending of tax dollars -- a message that fuelled the revolt rolling out of Western Canada.

In 2000 the Reform Party became the Canadian Alliance, then in 2003 merged with the Progressive Conservatives to become the Conservative Party of Canada. Enlarging the tent stopped vote splitting on the right and allowed the Stephen Harper-led juggernaut to win opposition party status, then a minority government and finally govern with a majority in Parliament.

Today many former Reformers worry that the price paid for those wins was abandoning a raft of populist ideals that Harper rode to victory in the first place.

'It absolutely disappoints me'

Jim Silye was elected as the Reform Party MP for Calgary Centre in 1993 and said he was drawn to the party by its aims of low taxes, fiscal prudence and transparency. But more than 20 years later, Silye said, "I know the things that we stood for back then. They ain't happening now. It absolutely disappoints me."

One source of disappointment for Silye, a former CFL football player who made millions in oil and gas exploration, is what emerged from the so-called Accountability Act.

The act was passed in 2006 with the aim to "strengthen accountability and increase transparency and oversight in government operations," according to the Treasury Board of Canada. But Silye said the opposite transpired. He believes Canada now has the least accountable government in its history.

Making things worse, said Silye, is the Tories' closed-off relationship with the media.

"Look at all the secret deals that are going on. Everything that comes out, the media has to dig," he said. The Conservatives' approach under Harper's direction, he said, is "you don't do interviews with media, you don't allow the prime minister to take questions, you designate who can ask questions, you cut them short. You do everything you can just to keep them guessing."

Silye said he wagers the party has clamped down so much on information because it is concerned about being re-elected and is trying to cater to people in the centre.

He said he'd prefer the government just be honest about its intentions and release information, letting the chips fall where they may.

For example, he said, the recent budget proclaimed balanced by the Tory government is really just creative accounting. Silye said he knows many fiscal conservatives quietly unhappy with Harper's economic performance. He shakes his head, for example, at the debt run up by the Harper government -- which has increased 12.6 per cent to $540 billion according to the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation.

"We now have the biggest debt this country's ever had, and they talk about balancing the budget," Silye said. "That budget can be torn apart quite easily."

Seeds of a new movement?

Before sitting as an MLA in Saskatchewan with the Saskatchewan Party, Allan Kerpan worked to advance the Reform Party in Ottawa in 1993. He told The Tyee a lot has changed since then. Though a fan of Tory moves like abolishing the gun registry and ending the Wheat Board monopoly, Kerpan said the Harper government displays a heavy-handedness and dishonesty the likes of which the Reform Party set out to abolish. Back then, in the 1980s, the Reform movement's prime target was the scandal-ridden Tory government led by Brian Mulroney.

Harper's mode of governing, said Kerpan, "is the way I remember Brian Mulroney to be. He sort of ruled his caucus with an iron thumb. There seems to be far more discipline of MPs than at least I'd like to see."

Kerpan always sat as an opposition MP. He acknowledged that he never knew the burden of governing and "it's a lot easier in some ways to be opposition." But he thinks the Harper-led Conservatives failed to keep alive the spirit of Reform.

"They certainly are not the Reform Party, that's for sure. They're certainly not where we were on openness and transparency."

He said if the Conservatives fail to inspire and the New Democrats win the election in the fall, the same disillusionment among right-wing voters that spawned the Reform Party could produce a new movement in Western Canada.

This time it would have a different flavour, according to Kerpan. "You may not see a right-wing party, you may see a separatist party," he said. "That underground is still here."

'Warped and twisted'

Thom Corbett left his job as Reform party staffer in 1995 and now lives on a standard Canadian pension and Old Age Security. As a Maclean's profile noted last year, his retirement contrasts sharply with the double-dipping, public trough guzzling politicians in the news of late.

In university, Corbett used to chum around with the late NDP leader Jack Layton, but joined the Reform Party years later after seeing founder Preston Manning speak during a trip through Ontario. Corbett identified with Manning's message that party leaders must listen to grassroots constituents.

"What impressed me was the fact that the grassroots actually had a choice of what went on in the party and actually made policy," Corbett said of the early Reform Party. "Of course that switched drastically once Stephen Harper took the reins. He likes to rule by fiat and he doesn't care what anybody thinks other than himself anyway."

Corbett is now an independent pastor and objects to how religion has made its way into the Canadian government's arsenal of public pandering.

The Conservatives have played the religion card in the political arena, such as starting the Office of Religious Freedom in 2013, claiming it would help maintain religious rights around the world, while seeking to restrict some people's religious practices in Canada.

Harper attends a fundamentalist Christian church in Calgary, but Corbett doesn't think Canada's prime minister does what Jesus would do. Instead, said Corbett, many current Tory policies are driven by a "warped and twisted" view of Christianity.

"The way he is governing is completely contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ," Corbett said. "His love and attention to the rich and powerful" contrasts with Jesus's message "completely taking a strip out of those who didn't look after the poor."

Corbett said he believes the government should be looking out for the less fortunate to make sure they aren't cheated or wronged by powerful and wealthy elements of society.

He even wrote a letter to Harper challenging his claims of Christianity based on his performance.

"Stephen Harper, like a lot of people within the Christian religion, have about as much to do with Jesus Christ as the devil does," he said.

Acrimony and advertising hit jobs

Having branded itself a populist revolt, Reform was home to feisty, free-wheeling nomination fights in many ridings. It may have been messy, but it was democracy. Paul Forseth remembers those days well. He was first elected MP for New Westminster-Burnaby as a Reform candidate in 1993, and went on to represent the riding as a Canadian Alliance and Conservative member. He looks at how Harper's Conservatives have run their nominations processes in recent years and concludes the influence of the local grassroots is being ignored.

Forseth still sits on the Conservatives' nomination committee in his riding, but that doesn't prevent him from levelling criticisms.

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Connie Fournier, former Reform party organizer: government surveillance in Bill C-51 has her leaning toward voting NDP.

"The party still kind of unreasonably interferes with local nominations because, of course, the party has become very risk adverse and not wanting to have a mistake," Forseth said. "Every time there's a controversy there's a tendency to draw in a little bit closer."

That, he said, hasn't been helped by social media, which puts parties in permanent campaign mode, leading to a culture of constant "one-upmanship" among parties that has bled into daily life in Ottawa.

Given the new reality, Forseth said he can understand the centralized control from the top brass of the Tories.

But acrimony in the House of Commons is at an all-time high, Forseth said. One result is that Conservatives have gone too far using taxpayer dollars to promote the Harper agenda.

"There's government advertising explaining programs and they just seem a bit too partisan," he said. There is a difference between "informing Canadians and kind of going over the line to just trying to make the government in power look good."

'Be happy our guys are in, or rock the boat?'

Connie Fournier is a former Reform party organizer and founder of Free Dominion, an Internet forum where Conservative-minded people mingle. She has come to the conclusion that Stephen Harper never held the principles she considers vital to the Reform party she helped succeed.

Fournier has been a vocal critic of the Conservative Party particularly since the introduction of Bill C-51, the so-called Anti-Terrorism Act that the Liberals also support but the NDP opposes. Fournier is outraged that a party that said it stands for shrinking government is attempting to enact legislation that will expand its powers to spy on citizens and, she predicts, shut down free speech.

She said she suspects many bedrock Tories feel the same way, but are being quiet waiting to see if anyone else speaks up.

Fournier, who poured years of effort into building the Reform movement into a party that then merged with others to become a right-wing party capable of winning government, said today she feels betrayed.

"All of the people who were in it for all these years worked so hard to finally get to the point where we had our guys in," she said. "It's a really big decision to make. Do you shut your mouth and be happy that our guys are still in, or do you rock the boat?"

Fournier has said she is considering even voting NDP over the issue of Bill C-51's intrusion into citizen's lives.

Corbett said he currently intends to vote Green.

Forseth, Kerpan and Silye all told The Tyee they likely will vote Conservative, as the party remains closest to their political views. But none of the three seemed enthusiastic in their support.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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