Preston Manning tirelessly championed the cause of democratic and political reform throughout his impressive career. His presentations provide a dynamic and substantive discussion of both current issues and an outlook for the future, all imbued with a surprising dose of humour that you might not expect from a politician. A reformer at heart, Manning is right at home challenging the status quo and conventional thinking. This week, This week, the Calgary-based Manning Centre for Building Democracy holds its annual conference in the nation’s capital, and The Ottawa Citizen took a look at Manning’s legacy so far:
He was once ridiculed for his squeaky voice and large eyeglasses, accused of leading a rump of political right-wingers, and written off as an outsider from the Canadian West.
But these days, no one says those things about Preston Manning, former leader of the Reform party. These days, Manning is a respected elder statesman — a man who advances conservatism without an overly partisan bite.
His clarion call for fiscal prudence, once seen as unconventional, is now conventional wisdom in many quarters. His warnings a quarter century ago about the need to empower MPs and restore credibility to Parliament are now seen as prescient.
“He is the only true political visionary that I have known in my lifetime,” said former Conservative MP Jay Hill, who was among the first group of Reformers who unsuccessfully ran for office with Manning in the 1988 election.
“Begrudgingly, he’s getting some credit now,” Hill said.
This week, the Calgary-based Manning Centre for Building Democracy again holds its annual conference in the nation’s capital.
It will attract hundreds of conservative thinkers and some of the leading ministers in the federal cabinet. They will discuss topics such as job creation, the arts sector, environmental control, and democratic improvements in the Senate and House of Commons.
While the conference has a decidedly Conservative tilt (it includes sessions on how to win elections), Manning insists his essential purpose is to stimulate policy discussion.
“The movement, in our view, is bigger and broader than the parties,” he said in an interview with Postmedia News.
“The parties are marketing mechanisms for fighting elections. That’s almost all they do these days. So somebody else that’s sympathetic in the general direction has to develop more of the ideas, more of the critiques, more of the training of people.”
In that sense, he said there is a “link” between the conservative “movement” and the strength of political parties.
“We can keep the movement strong. You may win or lose elections in some jurisdictions, but overall the conservative ideas, putting conservative people into the political arena, gets advanced.”
Chuck Strahl, a former Reformer and Conservative MP, said Manning’s work since he left politics is “living proof” of the ideals he has always espoused.
“His entire public life, he has acted very consistently about the desire to see better public policy, better ethical underpinnings and more respect for ideas and the people that bring them,” Strahl said.
“He’s done it for so long that except for the real hard-core cynic, respect for him has grown.”
Manning is cautious not to directly criticize Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whom he brought into politics in 1987 as the Reform party’s chief policy officer. But he doesn’t mind gently chiding federal Conservatives to do better on issues such as environmental control and democratic reform.
“There’s still lots to be done to strengthen Canadians’ confidence in the democratic process,” he said.
“On the environmental side, I still think there needs to be a more positive and proactive approach from a conservative perspective.”
Nor does he turn away when someone from another party has a good idea. Last year he endorsed, with former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, a proposal from New Democrat MP Kennedy Stewart to allow electronic petitions in the House of Commons.
That’s typical of Manning, say those who know him well.
“He believes you put forward your policy ideas, and you advocate strongly and passionately for them,” Hill said. “But, at the same time, you don’t blind yourself to not considering a good idea just because it’s coming from a different political perspective.”