Today, a Canadian political icon is leaving the public office he has held for the past 15 years. Preston Manning, former leader of the official opposition, will step down as MP for the riding of Calgary Southwest. He spoke candidly to the Varsity about his plans to continue shaping public policy in a less partisan environment.
“The current parliament is a pretty frustrating place,” he remarks. “I’m looking forward to greener pastures.”
Come September 2002, those greener pastures will be the U of T campus. Manning has been named the first Dean’s Distinguished Visitor in Political Science and Canadian Studies Award at the University of Toronto.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he says of the post, which will place him as a guest lecturer for both graduate and undergraduate political science students. “I hope to share my insight with those who are interested in studying the system.”
Manning is also excited to have the opportunity to observe the world-class scientific research being done at U of T. He is ready to use his experience as official opposition critic for science and technology to help students learn “how to get the ear of a politician” on scientific policy matters.
But before donning a professor’s robe, he’ll be wearing a thinking cap at the Fraser Institute, a neo-liberal think-tank, where he hopes to work on marketplace economic policy, tax reform and debt reduction, since “there’s still a lot to be done on these themes.” Manning has always openly expressed his right-wing views, and has fully supported every step of Premier Mike Harris’ Common Sense Revolution. He hopes students won’t shy away from his lectures due to ideological differences. “Every perspective is entitled to expression and therefore subject to challenge. One of the great things about university is the freedom to look at ideological trends and perspectives and discuss the pros and the cons.” He calls a melange of views “stimulating, rather than restrictive.”
The predecessor to the Canadian Alliance (CA) was the Reform Party, which Manning founded in 1987 on a platform of electoral and fiscal reform in Ottawa. “I think electoral reform is (still) possible, but first you have to have a democrat in the Prime Minister’s Office,” he laments. “Someone who really believes in strengthening democratic processes. Not only is Jean Chrétien not interested in that, he is hostile to those types of reforms.”
But is electoral reform still necessary? Consider that in November of 2000, the Liberals won a third-straight majority, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since the days of Mackenzie King in the 1940s. Many critics attribute Liberal success to the lack of a viable alternative on the right. “It’s important to have a governing alternative to the government, a political group that’s capable of running the government of Canada. There’s a lot that has to be done, both to restore the role of the opposition, but also to reinvigorate democracy.”
Coincidentally, voter turnout for the 2000 election was the lowest in Canadian history at just over 61 per cent, which many have said is a sure sign of democratic erosion. “The Liberals have to face that people’s faith in democratic institutions, including the one of which they are the guardians now, has steadily declined. You can cling to the old ways, but you may end up with a hollow shell that no one has any respect for.”
So, what must be done to resurrect the right? When asked to comment on the disarray within the Canadian Alliance, Manning quickly changed the subject. “It’s a combination of things which I want to stay out of for now, due to the leadership contest.” Although he did not disclose his thoughts on inner Alliance turmoil, nor endorse any particular leadership candidate, Manning did air his views on the potential CA/Progressive Conservative merger.
“I’ve never used the phrase ‘Unite the Right.’ In fact, I think that dividing the political spectrum into left, right and centre is an obsolete concept. That’s not the way the real world divides up.”
Rather, Manning believes in combating opposition impotency with principles. “In the future [we must] define the principal ground on which [to] create political parties…it’s not as simple as ‘left, right and centre.’”
Manning recalls that such concepts came from the seating arrangement in the French National Assembly after the French Revolution. “That framework is probably a little bit tattered by now,” he chuckles.
Manning labels current parliamentary apathy on the subject of electoral reform as “questionable.” “Discussion on how to revitalize parliament should be of interest of everybody—the governing party, the opposition party and MPs—no matter what their political stripe. If people lose confidence in the process then everybody’s in hot water” And with the most dismal voter turnout in the history of federal politics, Manning has a good point.
Manning admits that the Reform party or Alliance might have received more flack than credit for policies they proposed in the House of Commons, like tighter immigration scrutiny and increased security expenditures, but he is quick to point out that criticism does not automatically equal bad policy.
“[It's not right] to embrace politics with the idea that you’ve got to get credit for everything you do; that’s not what makes it worthwhile. You shouldn’t get your shirt in a knot if you don’t get credit for certain things. What’s important is that the reforms are achieved.”
But his bitterness is not completely subdued. “The Liberals are very pragmatic. They stole a lot of [Reform's] fiscal policy and also even some of [Reform's] constitutional ideas. But the reforms they won’t steal are the democratic ideas, because if the Liberals were to adopt them, it would virtually melt the glue that holds their party together.”
Manning believes revitalizing democracy should be beyond petty party lines. “There may be disagreement on how to implement the reforms, but if you ignore the subject, you’ll end up with a government that can’t carry the judgment of enough people to do anything.
“Anyhow, those are all subjects that we can touch on when we get to U of T,” he laughs.
It seems strange that Preston Manning, founder of the Reform’s The West Wants In campaign, would relocate to central Canada during a break from politics.
“I don’t consider Ontario unsympathetic to [my ideology]. [The CA] got over 1 million votes in Ontario in the last election,” reminds Manning. “I’ve always felt I had a good reception in Ontario. I made a lot of contacts, friends and associates in Toronto and the suburbs around Toronto, and I don’t want to let all of those contacts go.” Besides, Manning’s son, a biology student at U of T, is “a double reason” for coming.
His unwillingness to sever links with “contacts” makes it sound as if he is still planning some day to re-enter the political arena.
“In politics you never say never,” states Manning on the subject. “There may be some opportunities in the future.”
Ultimately, though, Manning makes clear that his reason for coming to Toronto is anything but political. “I want to replenish my own intellectual capital. You use it up in politics.”