A Political Giant Passes the Torch

Paul Stanway
February 23, 2020
The expression “he’s earned his retirement” could have been written for Preston Manning. The party-founding Canadian political original, onetime Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, prolific author and tireless public affairs commentator has accomplished enough for any five regular folks. He’s nearly 78, has grandchildren, a ranch and loves to ride horses. But with distant echoes of the early Roman republican Cincinnatus or the late Roman emperor Diocletian, crises of the state and confusion among the citizenry press upon him. So Manning finds himself doing double-duty as the most politically experienced member of Alberta’s Fair Deal Panel and, today in Toronto, launching a nationwide tour to promote his new book aimed at the current problems of democracy and conservatism in Canada. Paul Stanway reviews.

A Political Giant Passes the Torch

Paul Stanway
February 23, 2020
The expression “he’s earned his retirement” could have been written for Preston Manning. The party-founding Canadian political original, onetime Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, prolific author and tireless public affairs commentator has accomplished enough for any five regular folks. He’s nearly 78, has grandchildren, a ranch and loves to ride horses. But with distant echoes of the early Roman republican Cincinnatus or the late Roman emperor Diocletian, crises of the state and confusion among the citizenry press upon him. So Manning finds himself doing double-duty as the most politically experienced member of Alberta’s Fair Deal Panel and, today in Toronto, launching a nationwide tour to promote his new book aimed at the current problems of democracy and conservatism in Canada. Paul Stanway reviews.
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Over the past few months Canadian conservatives have been inundated with advice on how to broaden their voter appeal, get “woke” and generally haul themselves into the 21st century. Some of it has even come from conservatives. Very little has been as practical or insightful as that contained in a new book by Preston Manning on the “realignment” of Canadian conservatism and the overall strengthening of Canadian democracy.

Do Something! 365 Ways You Can Strengthen Canada, isn’t specifically about the Conservative Party’s current leadership contest or the state of Canadian unity in the wake of last October’s election. But there is much here on the tensions between what Manning calls “reactionary” and “pragmatic” conservatism and the recent upwelling of Western alienation. So it’s a timely book in more ways than one.

You could probably fill Calgary’s new central library with deep and learned opinions on the state of democracy and, as one of Canada’s most accomplished political thinkers, Manning could certainly have added to the pile. But in addition to being an observer of politics, he has been a practitioner at the highest level, and those familiar with his life will not be surprised to learn that the Reform Party of Canada founder goes beyond theory to offer detailed, practical approaches to heal what ails democracy in general and conservatism in particular.

Do Something! (you can pre-order it on Amazon here) is clearly not intended to be a memoir, but it is a history of sorts, spanning Manning’s political education over six decades from his youth as the son of an Alberta premier (Ernest Manning of the Social Credit movement), to Opposition Leader in Ottawa, to conservative elder statesman. The history is the framework to tell us what he’s learned and what he believes but, most of all, to challenge all those armchair critics to get involved. Hence the title. At its heart, Do Something! is a how-to guide for revitalizing Canadian democracy and Canadian conservatism by somebody with enormous hands-on experience of both, at the provincial and national levels.

“What can be done to strengthen democracy and party performances in the years going forward?” Manning asks rhetorically in his introduction. “This book endeavors to provide answers to precisely such questions.” Each chapter also comes with a list of suggested actions for the reader, and Manning explains their purpose: “These action lists are not presented merely for the purpose of stimulating discussion. They are accompanied by specific pleas for the conservatively inclined reader to Do Something!” There are 392 of them, as it turns out.

Son of a premier, founder of a movement: Preston Manning (r) and his father, Alberta Social Credit leader Ernest Manning (l).

Manning has been a productive writer over the years, a career that has included a nearly 400-page collaboration with former Ontario Premier Mike Harris, VISION for a Canada Strong and Free. His last book, Faith, Leadership and Public Life, was published barely two years ago, and to Manning devotees many of the themes in Do Something! will be familiar. It’s a weighty if not downright daunting list that includes better equipping Canadians to understand and participate in their democratic institutions, the difference between political movements and political parties, looking beyond simplistic left-right labels to redefine politics for the 21st century, winning the global ideological battle against Chinese state-capitalism, the obligations of citizenship, and most of all the mechanics of governing the massive and complex country we call home.

Much of this book is an update and expansion of those themes, with the addition of Manning’s thoughts on social media, identity politics and what some see as the intrinsic threat of populism. As a lifelong student of history and politics, particularly Canadian politics, he provides badly needed historical and moral context. If you are unsettled by the CBC’s “narrative” of populism as an alien, existential Trumpist threat to democracy, for example, you will find comfort (or at the least useful context) in Manning’s timely reminder that populism has been a feature of Canadian politics of all stripes for generations. As he writes:

“Historic examples of populist uprisings in Canada include the farmers’ movement of the 1920s and 1930s that created the Progressive Party of Canada, and elected farmers’ governments in Manitoba, Alberta and, briefly, in Ontario. These, in turn, laid the foundations for the Great Depression parties of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a predecessor to the New Democratic Party (NDP), and the Social Credit Party. In fact, it may be argued that western Canada had more experience in the 20th-century with populist movements, movements which expressed themselves through new political parties including the Reform Party of the 1980s and 1990s, than any other part of North America.”

Manning recognizes that such “uprisings” can be unsettling, and indeed can go badly off the rails. But he believes that in a healthy democracy they also play an important role in broadening public debate, expanding our rights and freedoms and, in the process, turning radicals into legislators. “Canadian populism has demonstrated both a capacity to advance progressive ideas that the establishment initially opposed and on occasion a capacity to moderate the extremism of some of its own leaders,” he writes.

Populism is no anomaly in Western Canada: even the NDP began as a socialist grassroots populist movement, the CCF.

He cites the women’s Temperance Movement of the late 19th century, which in the 20th morphed into a more general agenda demanding women’s rights. Often noisy, sometimes violent, the achievement of the vote for women is now accepted as a major milestone in the development of our democracy, and its elected leaders recognized as heroines. The real danger from populism, argues Manning, lies in ignoring or misunderstanding these “bottom-up outbursts of political energy from rank and file people which erupt from time to time to disrupt the political status quo.”

This is vintage Manning. During his years leading Reform he was habitually portrayed by major media and “progressive” opponents as a reactionary blast from the past with expired beliefs and, often, as a sinister Evangelical with a hidden agenda (entire books centred on that calumny). This is a massive and unforgivable misreading of the man.

Manning on the campaign trail with candidate Deborah Grey in 1997, who had been the Reform Party’s first MP.

In reality Manning has always been a disrupter of the status quo, an innovator and a challenger of conventional wisdom. As a conservative he values the past and its lessons, but primarily as waypoints towards the future. As he puts it, “You can get ahead further when you get a run at it, when you know the political history of your country, your people, your party, and your constituency, than when you start from where you’re presently standing, as if politics did not really begin until the day you discovered it and entered the field.”

Manning’s particular constituency is, of course, Western Canada. From his teens on he has been driven to work on behalf of that region, culture and people. That work led him to become an important architect of modern Western Canadian conservatism – individualistic, practical, confident, tolerant – and that view pervades this book as it has all his writing over the years. So it’s no surprise that a chapter of Do Something! is devoted to the current unhappiness in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Rancher and family man: pictured with wife Sandra and a friend, Manning has earned his retirement several times over.

He provides an excellent synopsis of the history of Western grievance. This ranges from the creation of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905 over the objections of local leaders, who feared the weakness built into such division and had asked Ottawa to create one big province, to the economic frustrations of the present day. Manning concludes that, “As generations of disaffected westerners can attest, the flaws are embedded in the economic structure of the federation, our national political institutions, and often in the complacency and condescension of the so-called Laurentian elites.” As the opinion polls attest, that’s a view lately embraced by a huge number of Westerners, leading many to question the very future of the federation.

Even so, the architect of “The West Wants In” – the Reform Party’s slogan and agenda – has not given up on Canada. As is characteristic for Manning, he looks for and finds the glimmer of hope, the potentially positive outcome:

“The country now has seven conservative-oriented provincial governments with more than 50% of the population, sufficient to fundamentally amend the constitution if there was concurrence from the federal parliament. Just maybe some of those elected to the 43rd parliament will come to believe that the weakness and divisiveness of the current situation calls for nothing less than Re-Confederation: the convening of federal-provincial meetings, not unlike those once held in Charlottetown and Quebec City, to hammer out a new set of terms and conditions (not necessarily constitutional) for uniting and strengthening Canada for the remainder of the twenty first century.”

Could “Re-Confederation” become the big idea that unites Canadian conservatives in a quest to modernize our democracy? Such swinging for the fences is another regular Manning theme and, indeed, “Think Big” was one slogan during some of the Reform years. Manning acknowledges that attempting Re-Confederation now might be “a bridge too far”, as the idea presupposes some interest in Ottawa (not to mention a dash of good faith) in overhauling our creaking federation. His caution seems well-placed. Thirty-odd years ago, in the decade following the patriation of the Constitution from the U.K. by prime minister Pierre Trudeau, a Manning-led campaign to democratize the Senate foundered on general lack of interest and opposition from entrenched factions.

“The West Wants In”: Manning became almost a scholar of historical western grievances, but still eschews separatism in favour of what he terms Re-Confederation.

Undaunted, he seems prepared to have another go. “Members of my family have been intimately involved with Alberta and federal politics for eighty-five years,” he writes. “I understand and feel the pain of western alienation that is prompting separatist sentiments among many of my friends, associates, and supporters as much or more than anyone in the province or the federal parliament. Yet if forced to choose, separation or re-confederation, I vote for re-confederation and will dedicate my remaining years to help bring it about, not just for the benefit of my home province but for the lasting benefit of all Canadians.”

For Manning, good ideas don’t die. Sometimes you just need to persevere, hold tight to your beliefs, wait for the right time – and try again. Last summer, Manning resigned from his executive functions with the Calgary-based Foundation for Democratic Education and the Centre for Building Democracy, which he had created when he left federal politics and which bore his name until this month.

Following his time in electoral politics, Preston Manning founded a centre and foundation, retiring this year.

Was he truly hoping to retire once and for all? Was he clearing the decks perhaps to focus on the one issue that has dominated his political life – the West’s place in Confederation? Or, as circumstances changed and the conflicts in federal politics worsened, did the one become the other? Manning’s experience and focus on the practical will be a welcome addition to the debate and, probably, a strong counterweight to the airy talk of an ostensibly easy separation from Canada.

Do Something! says nothing specific about the Conservative Party’s current leadership contest, and it would be surprising and out of character for him to get actively involved. Having said that, as noted, Canadian conservatives are being urged by all and sundry to think about who they are and what they stand for. Having spent the better part of his life thinking about this, who better than Manning to offer some advice “for the purpose of renewing and strengthening the capacity of Canadian conservatism to better serve the people of Canada.” He has much to say about the tensions plaguing modern conservatism, including this:

“There is a stark difference between the conservative and the reactionary (although detractors love to equate the two). The reactionary mind is one that is reflexively backward-looking, yearning (idealistically, in a perverse sort of way) for some non-existent past-paradise. The archetypical conservative, while temperamentally resisting rapid and wholesale change, nevertheless appreciates the long centuries of gradual corrective change that produced our present society.

“The conservative family also includes people who, because they wish to distance themselves from reactionary conservatives, adopt a pragmatic conservatism without any guiding principles. A kind of conservatism that in its sensitivity to shifting electoral preferences, changes in direction with every political wind that blows. It is the attempt to bring together these two apparently conflicting viewpoints which will determine the future of Canadian conservatism – not in the distant future but over the coming few years.”

Is there a better way to describe the policy confusion that last October caused the Conservative Party to fumble a golden opportunity to unseat the Liberals? One area of particular confusion was climate change. As Manning points out, however, there is nothing fundamentally incompatible between the principles of environmental conservation and political conservatism:

 

“Yet conservative political parties on both the federal and provincial levels have been slow to develop and promote a positive, pro-active conservative position on environmental protection and instead have largely adopted a default position characterized by opposition to the environmental positions of liberals, social democrats, and greens. This posture seriously damaged the Conservative Party of Canada’s chances of winning support in the 2019 federal election, especially support among young people and electors in our largest cities. Thus one of the major challenges facing Canadian conservatism going forward is that of rethinking and repositioning itself on the issue of environmental protection, including that of climate change.”

 

Manning himself is a strong proponent of a “market-based” approach to conservation, although he’s quick to point out that the allegedly market-based policies of the Trudeau Liberals are primarily attempts “to generate new revenue” by a government that neither trusts nor believes in the effectiveness of the marketplace. He laments that left-of-centre parties have “seized the moral high-ground” on environmental issues and sees lots of room for conservatives to develop practical and effective policies that would do less damage to the economy and more good for the environment.

Manning advocates a true market-based approach to environmental protection, which he sees as an intrinsically conservative value.

More broadly, Manning does not accept the widespread notion that “progressives” must be given all manner of advantages in the public arena because their motives are considered idealistic and above reproach, while anyone advocating individual freedom, free markets and less government involvement in our lives generally is assumed to be self-serving, out to impose their views on everyone else, and uncaring about the environment or the welfare of their fellow citizens. This, Manning suggests throughout this book, is pure bunk, and conservatives must not be intimidated by it.

Do Something! offers so much of value, from its discussion of “the polarization of public political discourse” and the increasingly partisan nature of politics to its description of the responsibilities of elected office. On partisan politics, for example: “Partisan candidates running for office and politicians in opposition can get away with taking sides on a particular issue and even adding to the conflict that characterizes the public square in a free society. But once one becomes part of a government, the larger and more difficult task becomes the reconciliation of conflicting interests by non-coercive means.”

Manning, of course, has never been in government (more’s the pity), but in that one short paragraph he captures the central paradox of our increasingly adversarial politics: You must fight along partisan lines to form government but, once elected, you find yourself responsible for an entire electorate of “conflicting interests”. This includes individuals, groups and regions who didn’t vote for you and may even actively despise you, but whose views you must take into account. One suspects our current prime minister may even now be grappling with this urgent requirement of statesmanship, or at least we can hope so.

Preston Manning speaks in the House of Commons in 1993.

Inevitably, Manning lays out what he believes would be an appropriate response from Ottawa to the distress being felt by millions of Canadians in Alberta and Saskatchewan who may not have elected Liberal MPs but whose wellbeing is still partly the federal government’s responsibility. That response must recognize “justifiable demands for reform of the equalization formula, unobstructed transportation corridors to the Atlantic and Pacific, immediate construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, and an administrative agreement limiting federal spending and taxation in areas of provincial and joint jurisdiction (such as environmental protection) without the consent of the affected provinces.” One suspects these suggestions will feature in the report of the Fair Deal Panel set up last November by the Jason Kenney government and of which Manning is a member. The panel’s report is due in March.

Answering the call: Manning joined Alberta’s Fair Deal Panel in late 2019, here seen hosting a town hall meeting that drew nearly 500.

The challenges facing our federation are daunting. Manning never underestimates them in this complex and wide-ranging book, but neither does he underestimate the ability of Canadians to grapple with and overcome them. “There is an old saying that a Canadian optimist is someone who believes things could be worse,” Manning writes in the folksy mode with which friends and supporters have long been familiar. “I am a Canadian optimist who believes the future can be better if enough of us resolve to make it so.”

Preston Manning is a serious, moderate and prudent Canadian elder statesman in an age of unserious politics dominated by instant analysis, shallow opinion, excessive emotionalism, virtue signalling and denunciation of opponents. Those of us less optimistic than he might fear that Canada is in danger of being overwhelmed by the regional and philosophical issues that divide us, the challenges spiralling far beyond the abilities of our current leaders.

Preston Manning retires leaving a legacy of vision, determination hard work — and enduring hope.

Manning acknowledges that faith in democracy is being sorely tested. “The current practice of democratic politics is not producing stellar or exemplary governance in much of Europe or Australia,” he writes. “And then there is the Canadian example of the seeming inability of democratic governments elected on the basis of style rather than substance to even recognize let alone effectively address the major issues of the day.”

Despite all of that, Manning’s confidence in democracy and the ability of conservatives to lead a renewal of faith in politics and public service never seems to waver. For him, it’s just a matter of determination and hard work. As he writes: “The biggest single thing we can do to strengthen the competitive position of citizen-directed democracy in our times is to clearly identify its principal deficiencies and vigorously implement reforms to address them. In other words, Do Something! Do many things to make citizen-directed democracy great again.”

Paul Stanway is a veteran Canadian journalist who lives in Calgary.

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