COLUMN

A man worth getting to know

It is unfair to call Reform party Leader Preston Manning antiFrench. In fact, he says that the prime minister should be bilingual.

DIANE FRANCIS March 2 1992
COLUMN

A man worth getting to know

It is unfair to call Reform party Leader Preston Manning antiFrench. In fact, he says that the prime minister should be bilingual.

DIANE FRANCIS March 2 1992

A man worth getting to know

COLUMN

It is unfair to call Reform party Leader Preston Manning antiFrench. In fact, he says that the prime minister should be bilingual.

DIANE FRANCIS

I’m in Preston Manning’s Toronto hotel room. He looks just like a Sunday school teacher with thick glasses and a gentle, thoughtful manner. Always relaxed and laid-back when we meet, there’s no edge nor anger in his voice even though his politics and his party appeal to angry Canadians. Above all, Manning is not some egocentric politician, scratching and clawing his way towards power. He is, simply, the bookish-looking guy next door. This is, I say to myself, “Mr. Peepers Does Politics.”

Life on the stump is certainly not glamorous. Turning a political movement into a national party is hard work. Tonight, he will check out of the hotel, give a keynote address in a highschool auditorium in nearby Pickering, Ont., then embark on a one-hour flight to Montreal. Same type of thing the next day and the next.

On his coffee table are notes for a speech he’s reviewing, a stack of Reform party news releases and a manuscript from a party member outlining a proposed policy initiative. On his bed is an open flight bag with shaving gear atop suits and shirts. Speaking on a cellular telephone, in the bathroom for privacy, is his sidekick, Ron Wood, a gravel-voiced ex-broadcaster. Both Manning and I laugh as Wood emerges from the water closet just as I’m leaving. “Here you are, on the phone, in a can,” says Manning. “Life on the road is so glamorous, eh Ron?”

These two are the odd couple of Canadian politics: teetotalling, clean-living Manning and his press hand Wood, a chain-smoking media man with street smarts. They stay on different floors in the same hotel, Wood in a smoking section and Manning in a non-smoking area. But the combination of the two is certainly making waves. And history. In the January Maclean ’s/Decima annual poll, some 46 per cent of the respondents in English Canada said that they would either vote for the Reform party or consider voting for it in the next federal election, a stunning development in Canadian politics.

Of course, one poll does not a prime minister make, but there’s a growing interest in the man and his party even though both remain a mystery to many. Manning’s new book, The New Canada, certainly lays out his philosophy in great detail. Although few will read it, many will vote Reform anyway because the name stands for what recession-weary Canadians think the country needs.

Because so little is known about Manning, he is dogged by accusations that he is a dangerous right-wing fanatic, or anti-French, or even racist. But there’s no evidence to support any of those accusations, and he simply shrugs off labelling. He’s used to this. As the modest son of a former Alberta Social Credit premier who dominated the limelight, he has no romantic notions about power or how to exercise it. “I used to do my homework outside my dad’s office,” Manning recalls, “and he used to say: ‘If you listen, you’ll hear grinding. The sound of axes grinding.’ ”

As a result, he has a uniquely laid-back attitude towards matters that would give most novices or highly strung types apoplexy. Earlier, Wood emerged from the bathroom with his cellular phone and a “problem.” Says Wood, chuckling: “That was The Windsor Star, and it

seems that one of our executives who was elected is a woman, but actually used to be a man. She’s called the paper and says that the other members of the executive are pressuring her to resign.”

Manning’s smile turns into a grin and he throws back his head as if to guffaw. But he doesn’t, and collecting his thoughts, he zeroes immediately in on the issue. “The policy is that there should be no discrimination against anyone on the basis of sexual orientation,” he says coolly.

Such are the growing pains in the quest to become a real party, and despite Manning’s lack of political track record, he takes it all in his stride. Even better, he ruminates, this type of controversy over sexual orientation strikes at the root of one of the criticisms of the Reform party—that its members are mostly white, middle-class and elderly. So does the fact that a Chinese woman is running for a Reform party nomination in British Columbia without any problem whatsoever from the executive.

“Yes that’s been very helpful,” he says. “Her last name is Hu and she told me that if she gets the nomination her motto will be ‘Hu Cares.’ She also said to me, ‘Have you met my husband, Joe?’ She certainly has a good sense of humor.”

Another bum rap about Manning is that he is anti-French. Interestingly, he said during our discussion that he believes a prime minister of Canada should speak both French and English. “If Quebec is in Canada, the prime minister should be able to communicate with as many people as possible, ”he explains.

So, I ask, is he taking French lessons or thinking of reconsidering a decision not to field any candidates in Quebec? Manning replies that he understands French, but speaks it very falteringly and would need time to brush up his skills. “I’m kind of busy these days,” he says, “and I won’t jump from being unelected to being prime minister overnight.”

As for Quebec candidates, he says that the Reform party would organize in that province if there was a grassroots demand for it to do so. So far, that’s not the case. “We are taking a look at the lay of the land,” he says, “but won’t run in anglophone areas only even though we are concerned about their rights.”

There is even speculation that the Reform party may join with the federal Tories. But, for now, Manning says that he doubts such a merger will take place. “It depends upon whether the Conservative party is coming or going,” he adds. “You wouldn’t want to be tied to a corpse. The Bloc Québécois is eating into its vitals in Quebec. We are too. The PCs are leaking voters, and can it recover?”

What makes Manning run is small-c conservatism, free enterprise and a more responsive democratic system. Nonbelievers dismiss him as a bourgeois bore. Reformists say that he’s a savior in a suit. To the rest of us, he’s simply Mr. Peepers with newly polled support. But that’s not all. Like the new neighbor on the block, Preston Manning is someone we must, like it or lump it, get to know a great deal better.