Opposition Duel Spices Canada's Politics

The western Reform Party and Bloc Qucois are set to vie for leading role

AS Canada's 35th Parliament swings into gear, there is growing anticipation that this grand institution everyone wants so badly to reform will be less predictable and a lot more interesting to watch than usual.

Canadians yesterday watched the televised Throne Speech given by Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn, the Queen's representative, which outlined the new Liberal majority agenda of Prime Minister Jean Chretein's government. Jobs, deficit-cutting, and reestablishing trust in government were the major themes.

Holding the prime minster and his 177-seat Liberal majority government to such reforms normally falls to the ``official opposition'' - the party with the second highest number of seats in the House of Commons.

But for the first time in Canada's history, the official opposition is a separatist party. Lucien Bouchard, leader of the 54-member Bloc Qucois (BQ), wants Quebec to split off from the Canadian federation.

Despite this apparent contradiction of being an antifederalist in a federal institution, Mr. Bouchard proclaimed last week that he would be a ``constructive'' player. His role, he said, would not be limited to simply representing Quebec's interests as he had earlier indicated. Instead he proclaimed himself a defender of English-speaking Canada's interests, opposing budget cuts to Canada's social safety net.

``It is a strange paradox, that a sovereignist party from Quebec will be the only party fighting to preserve the main value of Canada,'' Bouchard said. ``There is an impending assault on the social programs. We will be the only ones in this Parliament in a position to fight for them.''

Preston Manning, leader of the 52 western Reform Party members of Parliament, does not agree. His party covets the BQ's role as chief government watchdog. The squeaky-voiced, bespectacled former management consultant from Alberta suggests that the role of opposition party leader should be his.

``We can say what we want, and [the BQ] can say what they want, and I don't think the public will pay much attention,'' says Mr. Manning in a recent telephone interview. ``I think it will depend on what we do, and who in fact ends up behaving like the official opposition.''

Bouchard has offered a list of economic and social issues, last of which is Quebec sovereignty. Still, Manning says, the Reform Party will act on behalf of the rest of Canada should Bouchard be found to be a only a spokesman for Quebec interests.

The interplay between Reform and the Bloc will be especially important this year because of a key provincial election in Quebec, where separatists are leading in the polls. Any feuding between the deficit-hawk Manning and Bouchard over money for Quebec programs, for example, might tilt the balance in favor of separatism in the province, political analysts say.

``We're certainly not starting out on the idea that we [and the BQ] are going to be at each others throats,'' Manning says.

During the campaign, Manning's railing against deficits, politicians, and special status for Quebec won him votes in the west and the moniker of ``prairie populist.'' It has also tarred him and his party as ``anti-Quebec,'' a charge he denies.

``The traditional parties [Liberal and Conservative] misrepresent Quebec to the west, and they misrepresent the west to Quebec,'' he says. ``This is an extremely irresponsible game that almost bases your political success on stimulating a certain degree of constitutional conflict. We don't intend to allow that to go on anymore.''

Last October, Manning ran almost as an antipolitician, tapping into Canadians' frustration that national unity and the economy were failing while parliamentarians bickered endlessly.

So far, the Reform Party has tried to take the moral high ground, rejecting many perks - including cheap haircuts and nice meals at the parliamentary restaurant - and even taking a voluntary pay cut. Some analysts, however, question whether Reform will really be able to leverage its moral authority to get results.

By law and tradition, opposition parties (other than the official opposition) get little speaking time. Gaining status as the unofficial official opposition may be nearly impossible, the analysts say.

``It's not going to be easy for him,'' says Lawrence LeDuc, a political scientist at the University of Toronto. ``The role of official opposition is someone else's. There's not a lot he can do in terms of the day to day business of Parliament.''

Manning rejects that scenario, saying a critical element of Reform's appeal in the last election was its promise to work for democratic reforms, to push the governing party to be more responsive to people and less responsive to special interest groups. He wants more ``free votes'' on legislation on which parliamentarians can vote their conscience rather than toe the party line.

It is also not clear whether the BQ and Reform will do much feuding this year. Both are on good behavior. The Bloc wants to be credible as the official opposition, and Reform is eager to appear responsible.

In that vein, Manning and his Reformers met convivially last week for a pancake breakfast with Bouchard's contingent. Yet while Bouchard and Manning smiled for photographers, it was unclear to what degree the meeting warmed relations between the two groups, since the Reformers spoke little French and the Quebeckers very little English.

``I would hope this new Parliament will not be a contest between the BQ and ourselves, but between our vision of a new federalism and the Liberals' view of an old federalism,'' Manning says. ``That would be a far more constructive debate since it would present the country with new options as we approach the 21st century.''

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