Opinion

What Preston Manning Didn't Say

Coded in his speech was a message directed straight to Stephen Harper.

By Crawford Kilian 11 Mar 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Early schooling: Stephen Harper and Preston Manning in Reform era.

Preston Manning's politics have always been out of step with those of the great majority of Canadians. But he is an unrecognized political wizard who has remade us before our eyes.

Manning is also the heir of the most successful political dynasty in our history. His father Ernest Manning took a lunatic-fringe Depression movement called Social Credit and turned it into a political force not only in Alberta but in British Columbia and Quebec as well. He ruled Alberta for 25 years, from 1943 to 1968, and made that province a one-party state that has endured for 70 years.

The son learned at his father's knee: Never mind the label, use it to win and then create an individualist, sink-or-swim Canada of personal responsibility, success, or failure. Too bad about the failures; God will sort them out.

At every step of his progress, Preston Manning has ignored the hostility and ridicule of urban, middle-class, educated Canada. He had his own political vision, as "conservative" as U.S. communism in the 1940s was "progressive." He certainly didn't want to conserve the Canada that emerged from the Second World War, and still less the Canada that the 1960s Liberals created under Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau.

As an outsider, Manning knew his adversaries' weaknesses far better than they knew his strengths. He went after the Progressive Conservative party and split away its far-right members -- many of them lifelong supporters of his father. "The West wants in" was code for "We want you Eastern bastards out."

Master of rebranding

Like all splinter movements, Manning's new Reform Party was itself susceptible to further splintering. Even young Stephen Harper stepped out for a while over ideological differences.

But Manning kept the movement alive through several rebrandings, even if it meant his own departure. Why be prime minister when you can establish a host of provincial governments following your credo, and then see your former apostate Stephen Harper fight his way to a majority government?

Now the head of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, Preston Manning recently presided over the Centre's annual meeting to rally the troops and deliver his strategic message. His keynote speech on March 9 got close media scrutiny, as it should have. But like Cold War Kremlinologists, we need to read between the lines of his speech to understand what Preston Manning was really saying.

Assessing the conservative movement's strengths and weaknesses, Manning betrayed a weakness of his own: He said, "We have surveyed market-oriented opinion leaders about the state of conservative intellectual capital in Canada." That is, we talked to people like ourselves.

Unsurprisingly, he learned that conservatives are "consistently considered strong on the economy" -- but weak on environmental issues. And why was this a problem? Our children and grandchildren worry about it, and worse yet, it's "the number one obstacle to getting Canada's petroleum resources to market."

A Green conservatism?

Manning's solution was to offer Green conservatism, inspired by the ranchers of Alberta's eastern slope. Anyone who has driven Highway 22 in summer knows how gorgeous that country is; of course the people who make their living there must be environmentalists too... even if like Manning they think in terms of "reducing the ecological deficit and balancing the ecological budget."

Manning's suggestion was vague and general, couched in bottom-line metaphors his audience would appreciate. But he was doing more than re-framing environmentalism in right-wing terms. He was really admonishing the Harper government for missing a good political bet.

To frame the issue, Manning called for a middle way between "environmental radicals prophesying planetary doom and those who completely deny the seriousness of environmental problems and contend that all the statistics are either wrong or grossly misrepresented."

And who would those deniers be, if not the statistics-hostile government that rejected Kyoto, muzzled its scientists, and cancelled the long-form census?

Manning said: "Green conservatives of Canada, unite! And change the climate of environmental discourse in this country." His new discourse would no doubt get the oil to market faster than Harper and Resources Minister Joe Oliver have.

He went on to cite a survey he'd conducted, asking Canadians what skills they valued in their politicians; unsurprisingly, communication skills were at the top of the list, and his survey found few voters who admire those skills in "the current political class." The Conservatives were neither excused from this judgment nor singled out.

But from a "small focus group in the Lower Mainland," made up of current and retired conservative politicians, Manning said he learned they drew their support not from their ideology or their policies. "Instead all mentioned 'how we treat people -- our constituents, our staff, our opponents, and the media' as the primary basis on which voters determined whether to support them or not."

Hence, Manning said, what voters want in their politicians are "strength of character, industriousness, and civilized conduct" -- with a strong implication that the present Harper government is sorely lacking in all three, while treating its own MPs, its opposition, and the "Media Party" with contempt.

Loose lips sink ships

Manning neatly summed up the coalition under the conservative tent, from the libertarians to the populist "democratic conservatives," saying that the "breadth and depth of this coalition is its strength." Then he invoked its greatest weakness: "intemperate and ill considered remarks" by those who speak for the movement.

One such spokesman was the Wildrose candidate whose anti-gay remarks cost his party the Alberta election last year. Translation: The Progressive Conservatives have betrayed us, and one loose-lipped zealot kept them in power.

The other zealot was Tom Flanagan, whose remarks on child pornography got him an early sunset to a notable conservative career. While paying lip service to "our commitment to free speech," Manning warned that "conservative governments, parties, and campaigns simply cannot afford to be blindsided and discredited by these incidents."

Showing how seriously he took this issue, Manning devoted some time to the reduction of bozo eruptions. Step one: training candidates to be "wise as serpents and gracious as doves" rather than "vicious as snakes and stupid as pigeons" -- a damning shot at most right-wing Canadian governments and many of their supporters.

Step two: "Democratically debate… where the lines in the sand should be drawn… This subject, difficult as it is, is better discussed at conferences like this than at party conventions." In other words, let's get our talking points straight in private long before we go to the voters. Given Harper spokespersons' ability to stick to those talking points, Manning was praising the current government on this issue, at least.

Trotsky's ice pick

Step three: "For the sake of the movement and the maintenance of public trust, conservative organizations should be prepared to swiftly and publicly disassociate themselves from those individuals who cross the line." Not because the line-crossers are wrong, but because they say what we really believe, we must excommunicate them.

Concluding his post-Lethbridge interview with Macleans, Tom Flanagan said: "... I was the Trotsky of the conservative revolution and I lived in fear of the ice pick to my head. Maybe this is the ice pick." And as the Chinese Communists like to say, "Kill the chicken to scare the monkeys."

The unspoken message in Preston Manning's speech was that ideology, however true and however sincerely believed, can't be allowed to alienate the voters. After seven long years of Harper, the vast majority of Canadians still don't like even his watered-down ideology.

Manning knows how weak his conservative movement really is -- just as Stalin and Mao knew how weak their regimes were, and how only unquestioning obedience to the party line could hide that weakness. Conservatives telling us what conservatives truly believe would ruin them. Let someone like Flanagan pull back the curtain, and everyone will see that even the wizard himself is just another charlatan.

So in a speech that seemed public, Preston Manning drew on a lifetime of political wizardry to send a private warning to his apprentice Stephen Harper: We are all in trouble, and we will lose everything if you do not come back to orthodoxy and bring your snake-vicious, pigeon-stupid government with you.  [Tyee]

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