Canada

Prairie pragmatist

The Opposition leader vows to change Canadian politics

DALE EISLER June 16 1997
Canada

Prairie pragmatist

The Opposition leader vows to change Canadian politics

DALE EISLER June 16 1997

Prairie pragmatist

The Opposition leader vows to change Canadian politics

DALE EISLER

Ten years ago, Preston Manning began learning about the loneliness of the long-distance runner. He found himself in Regina, alone and unsure of where to turn as he tried to find people who might be interested in his idea of forming a new western-based federal party. Picking up the phone, he called a local newspaper reporter and asked if they might meet for coffee at his downtown hotel. But instead of an interview about his new party, Manning sought something more valuable: the names of influential people in Saskatchewan disillusioned with politics who might be looking for a new political home. Last week, the image of that uncertain politician with a big dream and little else was behind him as Manning seized the reins as leader of Canada’s official Opposition. With 60 seats across the West—including eight of 14 in Saskatchewan—Manning has cemented his position as the parliamentary alternative to Jean Chrétien’s Liberals.

But even now, who Preston Manning is, and what he represents, remain a source of fierce debate. The newly minted Opposition leader has been called everything from a western populist with a new and compelling vision for a united Canada, to a kind of demagogic Darth Vader figure who appeals to the dark side of Canadians. Manning is a man of strong Christian faith—religious beliefs seen by some as a source of strength. Others suspect he wants to use government as a tool to impose his morality on society at large. One thing seems certain: Manning is positioned to alter the political debate in Canada, the task he set out to do 10 years ago.

During the five-week election campaign, he largely shaped the agenda. With TV ads that claimed the national unity debate has been dominated for too long by politicians from Quebec, he was able to consolidate and broaden his support in the West. But he was denounced by many as bigoted and anti-Quebec. And Reform’s message—that equality of the provinces in a decentralized Canada, not distinct society for Quebec, was the key to solving the nation’s interminable unity debate—was itself deeply divisive

as Canadians beyond the West turned their backs on Reform’s populist message. Still, there is no denying the significance of Reform’s arrival as official Opposition. ‘The reality of June 2 is that the West sent a guided missile into the national unity debate,” says University of Calgary political scientist David Taras. ‘The message was clear and unequivocal—distinct society for Quebec is unacceptable.”

As he met with campaign workers last week at The 400 Club, an exclusive private business retreat in downtown Calgary, Manning seemed confident and serene. Admittedly disappointed that Reform had not scored a breakthrough in Ontario, he insisted he is on the right course. Status as Opposition leader has given him a “broader platform” for expressing his views—and Manning believes it is only a matter of time before Canadians beyond the West embrace

them. “I predict with considerable certainty that in five years the whole country will accept the principle that you have to treat all citizens and provinces equally in law if you want to unite the country,” he told Maclean’s. “The argument will be how do you do it.” The unshakable belief that he is on the right track, coupled with his sense of mission to change the structure of Canada, has long been central to Manning’s political character. It explains why he sees no need to adjust his positions on key issues such as unity and greater accountability of politicians, even though more than 80 per cent of Canadians did not support his party in the election. The reason more people did not vote Reform, Manning believes, is because they have not accurately heard his message. On national unity, he says: “I would be willing to consider changing our position if I felt the majority of Canadians knew what our position was. Their understanding is what they’ve been told by traditional media or by traditional parties. So I don’t think we have to make changes in the message until we’re sure everyone knows what the message is.”

Critics say Manning is dangerously inflexible—and intolerant as well. And although he dismisses those labels as the product of vicious politics, the attacks took their toll and were crucial in blocking Reform’s attempt to make inroads in Ontario. (Although Reform has put down deep urban roots in the West, particularly in Alberta, even there its appeal remains strongest in rural ridings.) Donna Dasko, vice-president of Environics Research in Toronto, says that Reform’s socially conservative views, rather than its conservative economic policies, have made it difficult for the party to make gains with culturally diverse urban voters outside the West. “It’s more a case of the party’s image than its policies that have made it a tough sell in urban Ontario,” says Dasko.

“And Manning has the kind of personal image that reinforces that perception.”

But others maintain that, with Manning as leader of the Opposition, Canadians will finally get a more accurate picture of the man—rather than the distorted caricature of a narrow, right-wing ideologue. Such a portrait, says Ray Matheson, a pastor at First Alliance Church in Calgary, is completely inconsistent with the shy, self-effacing person who regularly shows up for Sunday service. “He is very unassuming and not the typical politician,” says Matheson. “The thought of him being an angry or intolerant person is wrong. He is just the opposite—very tolerant and concerned about others.”

While people might debate the merits of Reform’s agenda or Manning’s motivation, there can be no arguing that Manning is an extremely astute politician. On one level, he is a Prairie populist who understands people’s sense of alienation from Ottawa. Political scientist Tom Flanagan, a former Manning adviser who left the party because of policy disagreements

with Manning, maintains that the Reform leader is more interested in methodology than ideology. “Preston has many conservative views, but he is more of a pragmatist who wants to reorient the political system so it reflects the popular will,” says Flanagan. He also dismisses any suggestion that Manning would attempt to use the state to impose his religious views. “Religion comes in only in his sense of mission,” Flanagan says. “He feels a personal calling to be in politics, but not to legislate his fundamental religious beliefs.”

As a populist, Manning takes obvious pride in the support he has marshalled in the West, and offers it as a response to those who attack his character and question his motives. In fact, he sees it as a vindication of his original belief back in those lonely days when he sought out those who shared his disillusionment with the political system. The race might not be over, but when he takes his place directly across from the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, Preston Manning will see the finish line in front of him. □