On Oct. 13, Reform Party leader Preston Manning delivered perhaps the most compelling and passionate speech on moral issues that the House of Commons has heard in a long time.

Responding to the Throne Speech delivered by the Governor-General the previous day, the Leader of the Opposition made a commitment to both economic and moral conservatism in a 100-minute speech, which included calls for tax cuts and free markets, a definition of the rights of the unborn, support for the traditional family and curbs on judicial activism.

Manning challenged the government to be serious about their children’s agenda by helping families and not seeing the child as an individual abstracted from his or her family. He also argued for a larger understanding of children’s rights.

Manning said that the government “might start at the beginning, if it had the moral nerve, by defining the rights of the unborn.” He said the government will have to do that if it is to honestly address the issue of new reproductive technologies, as it is expected to within the year.

Manning said “the protection and nurturing of the family” is the “most important social responsibility” of government. He reiterated the Reform Party position that marriage must be limited to a man and woman.

Perhaps the most important point of Manning’s speech was his attack on judicial activism, which he blamed in part on the governing Liberals, who have let the courts decide politically explosive “moral issues.” He said that these issues must be debated by Parliament.

The Oct. 18 National Post editorial applauded Manning’s speech, noting it was a valiant attempt to marry fiscal and social conservatism. Most important, the editorial noted that Joe Clark, leader of the socially liberal Progressive Conservative Party, showed his true colours with his criticism of the Manning speech.

“The more Clark speaks,” the editorial said, “the more it seems that little of substance distinguishes the party from Mr. Chretien’s.” Furthermore, thePost applauded Manning’s “uncompromising speech” echoing his opinion that “controversial issues ought to be debated in Parliament, not just the courts.”

The conventional wisdom is that the speech is an admission that the United Alternative is dead and that Manning is returning to Reform’s roots.National Post columnist Andrew Coyne said “the intent [of the speech] was clear: to refurbish Reform’s credentials as the undisputed standard-bearer of the right.”

Peter Stock disagrees. Stock, national affairs director of the Canada Family Action Coalition (CFAC), says the speech was a “great thing” that does not amount to a refutation of the UA. He says Canadians admire politicians who “tell the truth with compassion and vigour.”

Stock says Manning has shown that Reform is the only federal party willing to criticize judicial activism and defend the traditional family. “These are the defining issues that separate Reform and the governing Liberals.” He predicts Reform will challenge the Liberals in the next year over expanding the definition of the family to include homosexuals and what is expected to be a less-than-adequate response by the government to child pornography.

Pro-lifers, of course, would have preferred an outright declaration of opposition to abortion and not the traditional Reform support for deciding such issues by referendum. Indeed, in the week following Manning’s speech, the leader’s spokesman Jim Armour seemed to be back-tracking. He said Reform does not, in fact, have a position on fetal rights but will develop one in the context of the new reproductive technologies (NRT) legislation to be considered within the year.

Armour told The Interim that Reform has not formed a position on fetal rights but expects to do so by the time the NRT are to be debated. He points to Reform’s Blue Book that says MPs are to decide how to vote on a “contentious” issue by ascertaining the wishes of their constituents, unless the caucus has developed a position on the issue. He is unsure which route Reform will follow in this case.

Armour says Reform is committed to discussing moral issues, that they would be debated in Parliament and not limited to the courts where Canadians wouldn’t have any say.

But CFAC’s Stock says Armour is engaging in “spin doctoring” and that Armour is personally more liberal than either Manning or the Reform caucus in general.

Stock says the emphasis on social conservatism was a “bit of a surprise,” but wasn’t really anything new. “This is the same thing Manning says at Reform’s constituency meetings,” Stock explains. He says this speech was not meant for traditional Reformers but was”directed at the mainstream of Canadian society,” because the response to the Throne Speech was “the most visible platform” to deliver such an address. And in it, he enunciated a “completely different vision of the country” than the other big parties offer.