Manning on the spot

“I am opposed to state-assisted suicides.”

“The initial interpretation indicates a strong constituent support for physician-assisted suicide.”

“I would be obligated to support that.”

The above statements were made by the leader of the Reform Party of Canada and they once and forever illustrate the shortcomings of Preston Manning’s populist approach.

Over the past year, this paper has come under a great deal of fire for its perceived anti-Manning, anti-RPC stance.  To set the record straight, the editorialists with The Interim have always admired Mr. Manning’s Christian ethics and have agreed with many of his party’s platforms.  By speaking out against abortion and euthanasia, Manning won our respect.

There was, however, always one sticking point.  In carrying his populist style to the extreme, Manning conceived the notion that MPs should poll their constituents to decide issues of moral and social significance.  For example, if a vote on gun control came up in Parliament, and a survey showed that 60% of constituents were in favour of it, the Reform MP would have to vote accordingly.

For legislation on gun control, this back-to-the-people style of voting might work well.  It is a black and white issue which can be easily understood by the public.  Though the procedure is not entirely in keeping with Canadian Parliamentary tradition, it could conceivably work.

Unfortunately, Manning felt it best to stretch his referendum concept to cover issues of much greater moral significance (abortion, euthanasia) – issues which should not be governed by public opinion but by the unchanging principles of natural law.  Many feared the implications of leaving such huge moral resolutions to the elusive and ever-changing whims of public opinion and, after Manning’s University of Calgary debate, these fears have been realized.

On April 17, Manning took part in a televised debate to discuss the subject of state assisted suicide.  After the debate, viewers were invited to call the station and voice their opinion.  Manning was surprised by the results- 60% of viewers voted in favour of euthanasia.  The scary consequence is that this unsampled collection of viewers, who bothered to call Manning’s electronic “town hall meeting,” will now help shape the legislative mindset of several Reform MPs.  This puts Reformers in the unenviable and unexpected position of having to politically support an issue which they disagree with morally.

Not only were the results of this referendum distorted, but the timing of the debate was all wrong.  With the emotionally charged saga of Sue Rodriguez’s final hours so fresh in the viewers’ minds, it is inconceivable to think that anyone could vote with their heads and not with their hearts.  Moreover, it’s too much to ask people, who lack familiarity with a complicated issue, to vote knowledgeably on it.

What we experienced during the Charlottetown Accord referendum should have taught us a lesson.  Aside from Joe Clark and a few constitutional lawyers, not many people fully understood the issues involved.  The “No” vote which resulted was more a result of voter dissatisfaction with the Tories than it was of a rejection of the Accord.  Yet the result was seen by politicians as an accurate assessment of how Canadians viewed the debate.  Reform will find that the same will hold true for the results of their moral referenda.

The populist, grass-roots approach which worked so well during the election has now shown its weakness.  What will Reform MPs do when confronted with voting against their beliefs on a moral issue?  Will they conform to party policy or will they break ranks?  If so, what will that do to the party’s morale?

During the last election, the party rose to prominence by not avoiding the controversial.  It took a stand on the debt, social institutions, welfare reform and immigration.  As

Canada’s unofficial opposition, they must start placing a greater stake in Canada’s moral future.  Why not take a stand on abortion and euthanasia?

The Calgary debate could be an opportunity for Manning to abandon his concept of letting the public decide moral issues and develop clear and fair policies – policies which made Reform the party of choice for many pro-lifers in the last election.