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Canada's Reform Party Sets Sights on Conservative Seats

CANADA'S western populists are moving east with the likely outcome, says one party organizer, that ``politics in Canada will never be the same.'' The Reform Party of Canada, the fastest-growing political movement in Canada outside Quebec, voted at its weekend convention to expand beyond its present base in the four western provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

But the party voted to stay out of Quebec. Indeed, it is a party that holds that, if Quebec secedes from the federation, Canada can live without Quebec. Party leader Preston Manning says he and his followers represent ``the new Canada.''

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``New Canada must be open and big enough to include a new Quebec; but it must be more than viable without Quebec,'' Mr. Manning told delegates to the convention in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Founded four years ago to deal with the political frustrations of western Canadians, the Reform Party has strong support in the West and expects to become the voice of English Canada by moving into Ontario, Canada's most populous province.

``There's a huge vacuum on the right wing of Canadian politics and the Reform Party is a credible alternative,'' says Mel Watkins, a professor of politics and economics at the University of Toronto. But Mr. Watkins thinks the party could be making a mistake by moving outside its base in western Canada.

``They are a phenomenon of western Canadian populism, and unless the Conservatives have collapsed completely I would have thought they would have done better to stay in the West,'' Watkins says.

The Reform Party, as Watkins points out, is a populist movement of the right. Its platform would do away with many things Canadian federalism has achieved, from bilingualism to big government spending on social programs. Reform Party proposals include:

Ending official bilingualism. French would be Quebec's language; English would be spoken elsewhere.

Abolishing official ``multiculturalism,'' federal policies that encourage immigrant groups to keep their identity rather than melding into the dominant culture.

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Balancing the federal budget. If it is not done in a three-year period, the party would call for an election.

Adopting a flat-rate income tax.

Making referendums binding on the government.

Perhaps the Reform Party's most radical proposal is that of doing away with official bilingualism. Federal laws require English and French signs and services in federal buildings across Canada and radio and television services in two languages. Quebec, however, outlaws English on commercial signs and discourages the use of any language beside French in the province.

Public opinion polls show the Reform Party position to be popular. The result, analysts and pollsters say, is that it could replace the Progressive Conservative Party as western Canada's dominant party.

``The Reform Party isn't just a blip anymore,'' says Meg Burns, an analyst with the Angus Reid Group, a polling company in Winnipeg. The latest polls show the Reform Party in first place in Alberta with 33 percent of voters and the party ahead of the Conservatives in British Columbia, she says. It only has 11 percent support in the prairie provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. But support is growing there too.

A look inside the ``Parliamentary Guide'' yields few signs that this party threatens the ruling Conservatives. The Reform Party holds just 1 seat of 295 in the House of Commons.

But that seat is the first elected seat in the Canadian Senate - and the Reform Party is leading a movement for an elected Senate that would give more power to provinces outside Ontario and Quebec, which between them dominate federal politics.

Right now it is possible to rule the country by capturing Ontario and Quebec, which between them have 160 out of 295 federal seats. Senators are then appointed from the ruling party. This system has frustrated western Canadians.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's Conservatives have 167 seats in the House of Commons. In western Canada, where the party has long dominated, the Conservatives have 46 of 86 seats. The mildly socialist New Democratic Party has 32.

Political analysts, such as pollster Angus Reid, feel the Reform Party could win anywhere from 40 to 86 western Canadian seats. That massive change, combined with the power of Bloc Qu'eb'ecois - separatist Quebecers running for Parliament in Ottawa - could leave no one party with a majority at a time when Canada is debating whether or not it should break up.

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