During a recent flight from Calgary to Ontario, a passenger in executive class noticed Preston Manning sitting in the economy section. “I suggested to the cabin crew that the Reform Party leader be upgraded,” the Toronto businessman said. “But he refused—he had paid for economy class and would stay there.” For Manning, living frugally is a matter of principle—and a central theme of his three-year-old party’s crusade for a more tightfisted federal government. Said the 48-year-old, Edmonton-born Manning: “All across the country people are trying to balance their budgets. I know families of Alberta oilfield workers whose hourly wages have shrunk from $17 to $11. And they make do. Yet in Ottawa we have government after government that refuse to pay their way.”
In recent months, Manning, the product of a political tradition made up of equal parts of evangelical Christianity and fervent conservatism, has carried that message to audiences across the country. Indeed, with his tireless personal campaign, the dapper, slightly built father of five, who holds no elected office, has turned the latest grassroots Prairie movement into Canada’s fastest-growing political party. His campaign is the more remarkable because of his relatively late start. Despite a politically charged upbringing as the son of Alberta’s longest-serving premier, Manning was slow in embracing his vocation. From 1968, when he refused to take up the mantle of his father, Ernest Manning, until he became the first leader of the newly created Reform Party of Canada in 1987, the younger Manning largely avoided active politics and formed a lucrative consulting business.
Evangelical: Still, during two decades in business, Manning developed a clear political ideology of his own. His customers included many of the large energy companies that flourished in Alberta at the height of the province’s energy boom, then bridled under the federal Liberal government’s National Energy Program. Armed with a deep-rooted Western resentment of Ottawa and with the evangelical Christian faith of his fundamentalist, Saskatchewan-bom father, Manning made his “small-c” conservative philosophy the backbone of the Reform Party. Now, many analysts predict that Reform’s message of government restraint, encouragement of free enterprise and regional equality could give the party a powerbroker’s role if the next federal election results in a minority government.
For Manning, the transition to elected office should not prove difficult. Bom in 1942, a year
before his father—who had been among the early pioneers of the Social Credit party— began his 25-year term as Alberta premier, Manning grew up observing politics from a particularly privileged vantage point. Said the Reform leader, who jealously guards the privacy of his own family: “The family itself did not play that great a role in politics in those days. But at a very early age, I began looking at things from a governing point of view because my father was the leader of the government.” At the same time, though, his early years provided him with a solid grounding in the realities of life outside of politics. When he was
12, the family moved to a 900-acre dairy farm on the northeast outskirts of Edmonton. Manning’s elder brother Keith suffered from cerebral palsy until his death in 1987. But Manning himself was clearly expected to do his share of the chores—including milking the Holstein cows before and after school, seeding and cropping and carting away manure. “My first job was driving a ‘honey wagon’ at a nickel a load,” recalls Manning. “Seventy Holstein cows produce a lot of that stuff.” He went to the local Horse Hill High School before attending the University of Alberta, where he studied mathematics and physics for three years before switching to economics and graduating with a BA in 1960. Afterwards, he joined the Edmonton-based National Public Affairs Research Foundation, a think-tank financed by the premier’s conservative business friends that worked extensively for the government.
Laboratory: The foundation provided the Mannings—father and son—with a well-financed social laboratory. Among its work was the Alberta government’s 1967 white paper on human resource development—a result of claims by government critics that the Socreds were more interested in resource development than the quality of life in Alberta.
Recalled Manning: “My father always tested any decision from a government’s point of view. Would it stand up? Not for a week or two but as government policy for the long term.
That made a big impression on me.”
Manning acknowledges that even then the allure of politics was strong.
But he resisted getting involved. In 1967, he married a nursing student at the University of Alberta. He and his wife, Sandra, moved to Los Angeles where Manning went to work for TRW Systems Inc., a contractor to the aerospace industry. They remained there for a year—at a time when the debate over the Vietnam War had polarized Ernest the United States. The ferment of -
those years quickly affected Manning as well. In 1968, accompanied by his wife, he travelled to Asia on a fact-finding trip to judge for himself whether U.S. involvement in the Far East was justified. In part, that journey, which included stops in Singapore and Cambodia, reaffirmed his commitment to conservatism—as well as the U.S. presence in Vietnam. “I wanted to check out whether the theory that if Vietnam went communist, all the region would go communist meant anything,” he said. “Over there,
people certainly believed in the domino theory.”
When Manning returned to Alberta later that year, his father had retired and his successor, Harry Strom, was presiding over the death throes of the Social Credit party. In the provincial election of 1971, the Socreds went down to a landslide defeat at the hands of Peter Lougheed’s Conservatives. Throughout that era, Manning says that he had been considering entering politics. But the demise of Social Credit left him without a party to turn to. “Even then, I did not want to be involved with
the Liberal and Conservative parties,” said Manning, adding, “I decided I would rather wait to get in on the beginning of the next movement, instead of being on the tail end of the last one.”
Instead, he formed M&M Consultants flater Manning Consultants Ltd.) with his father. For the next two decades, they produced longrange planning reports for a blue-chip list of clients with major interests in Alberta, such as Syncrude Canada Ltd., pipeline giant Nova
Corp. and Trans Alta Utilities, the main privately owned electrical ultility in Alberta.
Once again, the younger Manning found an opportunity to test his economic theories in practice. For one group of rural Alberta investors, Manning explored ways to raise the prosperity of parts of northern Alberta where they owned real estate. “It was a privately run experiment to improve the region’s socio-economic development,” said Manning. “And to eam a fair rate of return for investors.” His not-altogether-revolutionary conclusion: “Essentially, we learned to keep government from trying to run business, that government’s best role was to provide roads, bridges, hospitals—rather than operate anything.” On another occasion, Manning undertook to encourage native workers and entrepreneurs to find employment and business opportunities in Alberta’s then-booming oil economy. “It was tough going,” he concedes. “For every one success, we had eight failures.”
BH Bible: Throughout those years, Manning’s commitment to his evangelical Christianity intensified. “I have
»g always been interested in relating reli| gion to business, science, politics and u conflict resolution,” Manning told Maclean ’s. To that end, he has studied the Bible all his life, and until recently, he spoke frequently on Back to the Bible Hour, the long-running Western Canadian radio show that launched first William Aberhart and then Manning’s father into power in Edmonton. Ernest Manning, now 82, still begins each program with the hymn O God Our Help in Ages Past, the unofficial anthem of several Prairie populist movements.
Manning’s religious commitment is shared by his family as well—whose privacy he protects to the point of refusing a Maclean’s photographer permission to visit their home or take a picture of the Manning clan. Thirteenyear-old Nathan and David, 10, attend Calgary’s Glenmore Christian Academy, a grade school operated by the First Alliance Church, which belongs to the evangelical Christian and Mission Alliance. His three daughters also attended similar religious schools. Andria, 21, and Avryll, 19, who both swam for Canada’s national synchronized swimming team, now study pre-law and science respectively at the University of Calgary, while 15-year-old Mary Joy is a Grade 11 student at Calgary’s Western Canada High School. Said Manning: “These
days, I am either working or with the family. I have spent a lot of time at swimming pools and hockey rinks.”
Manning himself is unathletic. He weighs 150 lb., is five feet, 10 inches tall and often leaves the impression of bespectacled, owlish gangliness. He is a teetotaller, and, in deference to Manning’s allergy to tobacco smoke, Reform aides leave the party’s eighth-floor Calgary offices to smoke. Among his personal interests is a fascination with events leading up to the U.S. Civil War. Manning also has a fondness for fishing and often takes his sons to the Red Deer River northeast of Calgary to
catch walleye and trout. Noted one aide: “He is so painfully honest. I bet he measures every fish he catches in case they are undersize.”
The Reform leader describes himself as “a meat and potatoes man.” Added Manning: “I am very conventional. My only deviation is politics.” But many Canadians seem to find that mix of self-deprecating rectitude and apparent lack of charisma appealing. “He is very open, very down to earth,” said Brian Hay, a Toronto executive who worked with Manning in Alberta’s oil business during the late 1970s. “I have never seen him lose his cool. What you see is what you get.”
Some of Manning’s friends, though, note that underneath the Reform Party leader’s cool exterior lurks a finely tuned sense of fun. Virgil Anderson, a Calgary lawyer and Manning confidant, recalls an incident during the 1988 federal election when External Affairs Minister Joe Clark was scheduled to come by train to Jasper. At the time, Manning was in the middle of a spirited but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to unseat Clark in the Tory minister’s Yellowhead riding. “We had the idea to form a posse and meet the train with mounted riders,” recalled Anderson, a member of the Reform Party’s campaign committee and Manning’s tour and meeting co-ordinator. “We put it to Preston, thinking he would not be in it. In fact, he led the 20-strong posse, on his horse, with a poster saying: ‘Wanted, Joe Clark alias Joe Who, for failing to represent the constituency.’ ” Due to a problem with the train, Clark never did arrive in jasper. But, recalled Anderson: “Preston and the rest of us still had a ball.”
Humor: But Manning’s sense of humor is clearly subservient to his political instincts. And he acknowledges that he owes a huge political debt to his father, with whom he maintains a close relationship. In fact, the political thought of the two men is remarkably similar. Manning helped research his father’s 1968 book, Political Realignment: A Challenge to Thoughtful Canadians. The 94-page political statement called for a reordering of Canadian politics and reform of the country’s political institutions. In the book, the elder Manning warned that the Conservative party would suffer if it did not rebuild itself on a wider foundation. And he said that new forces would appear on the political landscape and prosper from any Conservative failure to repair that party’s shortcomings.
Twenty-two years later, with the younger Manning’s party poised to make substantial electoral gains at the expense of the Tories, those words appear eerily prophetic. For his part, Manning says that he has not thought much about his chances of ever becoming prime minister. “My expectations are more modest—maybe leader of a party with up to three dozen MPs in Parliament,” he said. He added: “I will be pleasantly surprised if my expectations are exceeded.” In the meantime, he remains a man with a mission, tirelessly travelling the country to ensure that his vision—and his expectations—come true.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.