Preston Manning gets set to take on Ottawa
Listening to his opponents last week, Canadians might have expected Reform Leader Preston Manning to sprout horns at any moment. In speech after speech, representatives of Canada’s three traditional parties portrayed Manning as a man bent on gutting medicare, bashing nonwhites and homosexuals, robbing senior citizens of their pensions and kicking Quebec out of Confederation. Winnipeg Conservative MP Dorothy Dobbie struck one of the harshest blows when she suggested that Manning, an evangelical Christian, secretly wants to impose his “dangerous” religious views on the nation. But to Manning’s oldest and closn| est friends, those allegations were both pre
dictable and preposterous. Predictable, because Manning’s party has emerged as a serious contender in the Oct. 25 election. Preposterous, his supporters contend, because Manning is nothing like the mean-spirited ideologue depicted by his critics. ‘That’s not the guy,” protests Edmonton business consultant Don Hamilton, a Manning intimate for more than 25 years. “That’s just not the guy.”
Perhaps not, but questions bedevil Manning and his candidates as election day approaches. They are fuelled by polls showing that the shy, bespectacled former management consultant has a realistic shot at becoming leader of Her Majesty’s official opposition. Yet outside of Alberta—where his father, Ernest Manning, was premier for 25 years—the 51-year-old Manning remains for many an unknown com-
modity. As such, he has become the unwitting agent of their greatest hopes—or deepest fears.
Even some Reform insiders acknowledge that many of the voters who have flocked to the party in recent weeks know little about its policies. On the surface, Manning’s platform of drastic government cuts seems more likely to repel voters than attract them. He wants provinces to run medicare as they see fit, opening the door to user fees, extra-billing and even a competing private health-care system. And medicare is not the only sacred cow he is prepared to take on. Manning wants to cut Old Age Security benefits to seniors with household incomes above $54,000, slash the number of new immigrants, abolish official bilingualism and cancel government subsidies for special-interest groups. His constitutional position is similarly blunt. Quebec, he says, is a province like any other: No special status.
To many voters, those policies have a fresh and honest appeal. For them, Manning seems a modern-day crusader, battling a corrupt and cynical political establishment. At the same time, however, the party has attracted an unknown number of extremists whose pronouncements cast doubt on Reform’s credibility. One of the most embarrassing cases came last week when John Beck, a Reform candidate in the Toronto-area riding of York Centre, delivered a tirade against immigrants in an interview with a university newspaper. “I feel we have lost control of our country,” Beck later told The Toronto Star. “It seems to be predominantly Jewish people who are running this country.”
As he has done several times since helping to launch the Reform party in 1987, Manning moved swiftly to distance himself from the controversy. Less than an hour after hearing about Beck’s remarks, Manning dropped him as a candidate. But the incident generated a spate of negative publicity when Manning could least afford it. Within 24 hours, Conservative strategists were phoning reporters with information about another Reform candidate who had publicly joked about family violence. Said Tory worker Michael Coates: “Preston Manning has given a false impression of what the Reform party is all about. In many cases, their candidates are downright scary.”
As a predominantly white middle-class protest movement, the Reform party has indeed attracted more than its share of loose cannons. Hamilton, for one, says that new parties by definition “tend to attract one-issue people—those who want to get rid of all the Asians, or whatever.” He adds: “There are still lots of people in the party who are total right-wing wackos. They’re in the minority, but people want to paint the Reform party that way. He [Manning] has to bear that burden.” In Ottawa, a Reform caucus would be at the centre of the national media glare and Manning could find that keeping MPs in line would be a major preoccupation.
In fact, Manning remains the main defence against charges that the party is intolerant. Friends, relatives and associates describe him as a generous man who treats people with respect, regardless of their race, religion or beliefs. As a private consultant for over two decades, he worked for many of Alberta’s largest energy companies. But he also helped to create one of Edmonton’s first afterhour day care centres and native housing projects in northern Alberta. Beginning in the 1960s, Manning embraced a political theory known as “social conservatism,” which attempts to meld free-enterprise principles with humanitarian concerns. His thinking still owes as much to Tommy Douglas as to Ronald Reagan—a point illustrated last week when he told a campaign rally in Cambridge, Ont., that “thanks largely to the NDP, the Canadian Parliament now has a social conscience that permeates every party. That’s why medicare, pensions and unemployment insurance are safe as long as we can figure out how to refinance them.”
If, as the polls indicate, Manning is destined to be a major force in Ottawa after Oct. 25, his influence will likely be felt in unorthodox ways. Manning has already stated that his first priority would be to overturn parliamentary tradition so that opposition members can defeat money bills without bringing down the government. The party would then push for other reforms—including giving voters the right to recall MPs who fail to represent their views. In keeping with the party’s calls for tough action on the deficit, Manning also promised last week to raise four questions every time the next government tables a spending proposal: “Is it necessary? How much is it going to cost? Where are you going to get the money? Why don’t we spend less?”
That line of questioning is vintage Manning. A management consultant by profession, a systems analyst and policy wonk by inclination, he dissects problems with a rational eye. Says Diane Ablonczy, founding chairman of Reform and the party’s candidate in Calgary North: “He is very good at providing options and helping people to reach consensus.” Whether that approach will work in the partisan heat of the House of Commons is unclear. But even there, says Ablonczy, Manning will try to reach out to Canadians who have lost faith in the system: “He won’t countenance the type of sniping and snarling that goes on now.”
Manning is also unlikely to tolerate members of his caucus or party whose behavior serves to discredit his cause. It is a lesson—one of many—that Manning learned by watching his father govern Alberta for a quarter of a century. And as almost everyone who knows the Reform leader agrees, Manning is very much his father’s son.
Preston Manning was born in Edmonton in June, 1942, just a year before his father became Alberta’s second Social Credit premier. Ernest Manning inherited that office from William (Bible Bill) Aberhart, a charismatic Baptist preacher who had taken the Social Credit from obscurity to a landslide victory in 1935. After Aberhart’s death in 1943, Ernest Manning sought to root out darker forces in the party—including an anti-Semitic element that blamed the Depression on “Jewish financiers.” To a large degree, the premier succeeded—a fact acknowledged when the elderly Manning won a B’nai B’rith Humanitarian Award in 1982.
In place of some of the early Socreds’ more scurrilous theories, Ernest Manning offered Albertans an honest and frugal government that remained largely immune from scandal. When oil revenues poured in during the 1950s and 1960s, Manning built up an impressive legacy of hospitals, schools and services for the disabled. But as a child of the Depression, he refused to allow his government to spend beyond its means. For him, as for his son, debt was a four-letter word.
Preston was the second of two sons born to Ernest and his wife,
Muriel. The older boy,
Keith, born in 1940, suffered a lack of oxygen at birth, which destroyed part of his brain. Until his death in 1986, Keith suffered from epileptic seizures and arrested mental development. Unable to send him to school, the Mannings tutored him at home and enrolled him in a number of special-care programs, including a residential school in New York state. Those efforts sometimes put a considerable financial strain on the family.
When Preston was 12, the family moved to a 900acre dairy farm on the
northeastern edge of Edmonton. Although a foreman managed the farm during the week, the premier could often be seen on weekends driving a tractor or milking the cows. Preston attended nearby Horse Hill High School, where he consistently received high marks and gamely participated in several sports (a 1957-1958 yearbook photograph reveals him to be the shortest and scrawniest member of the school’s football team). As befits the man who now pledges to eliminate Canada’s deficit within three years, he served as treasurer of the student union. He also de-
livered the valedictory address for his graduating class in 1960. In it, he compared graduation to the launching of a satellite, which can only achieve its purpose by resisting the forces that attempt to pull it down. “The extent to which the graduates fulfil their true purpose in life,” he declared, “will be the impact of their influence on the course of history for the good and welfare of mankind.”
Manning’s former teachers and school chums recall him as an unassuming and likable young man. “You would have never known that he was the premier’s son,” says Marivonne Speer, who was Manning’s Grade 9 music and French teacher. Speer, who still lives in a farmhouse near the school, adds that, unlike some of the other bright students she encountered during her 25-year teaching career, Manning “was not full of himself. He had a kindness about him and never cut any-
one down.” A former schoolmate, Edward Wilkins, confirms that view. During his frequent visits to the premier’s house, he says, the family “never put on airs.” Although the premier was famous for his weekly radio program, Back To The Bible Hour, there were few signs of religion in the home apart from evening grace and the odd theological discussion. ‘The Christianity was there,” says Wilkins, “but it was not overt.”
As she leads a visitor out of her home under a sun-drenched Prairie sky, Manning’s
former French teacher—she insists that he excelled at that subject, although he now speaks barely a word of French—acknowledges that the picture she paints of Manning is a rosy one. “It could be that he’s too good to be true,” Speer says.
Don Hamilton laughs heartily when told of Speer’s remark. “People keep saying to me, ‘Look, the guy must have warts.’ I reply, ‘Yeah, I know he must, but I haven't seen them yet and I’ve known him for a long time.’ ”
On a quiet evening last week, Hamilton was relaxing in a downtown Edmonton restaurant with Erick Schmidt, who first met Preston Manning when he signed on as a policy adviser to his father in 1966. Schmidt, who was 26 at the time, was brought in to work on a number of social policy and antipoverty initiatives. The two old friends provide a sharp contrast to the teetotalling Manning who, friends and family say, never utters a profane word. Over dinner, the wine flows freely and their conversation is peppered with salty language.
By 1967, Manning, Hamilton and Schmidt were part of an unofficial think-tank who called themselves “social conservatives.” For a time, they engaged in clandestine negotiations—ultimately unsuccessful—to merge the rusting Social Credit machinery with the provincial Conservatives, then led by a
young Calgary lawyer named Peter Lougheed. They also provided the brainpower behind a 1967 white paper on social policy that spurred several progressive initiatives, including a head-start program for natives and a Crown corporation that recruited young people for community service jobs.
Such programs are notably lacking from the Reform agenda. But according to his two old friends, that does not mean Manning has veered to the political right. “If we had the money, I’m sure he’d be doing these kind of
things,” Hamilton insists. “But his commitment is to get the deficit under control.” Adds Schmidt, who runs an environmental technology firm: “Preston is steeped in the whole ethic of helping the underdog. But he also realizes that if you are not creating wealth, you can’t have a high level of civilization.”
Both men are Reform supporters, although they hold no official position. And they acknowledge that their support has a lot to do with their faith in Manning, who—despite all the talk about Reform being a “grassroots party”—has shaped
practically every Reform policy. “As long as Preston is leader, it’s great,” says Schmidt. “But if he was gone, I’d be worried about who was going to replace him.”
As he demonstrated in the recent televised debates, Manning can marshall his arguments with ease and precision. In part, that is due to a lifetime of research. While still in his teens, he devoured Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume The Story of Civilization. He also read the entire Revised Statutes of Alberta and the Revised Statutes of Canada. He continued to read voraciously at the University of Alberta—he earned a BA in economics in 1964—and in his two decades as a management consultant. He is a American Civil War buff and an admirer of Abraham Lincoln. He has also studied every western Canadian protest movement dating back to Louis Riel.
Offsetting his bookish side is his wife Sandra, who was a U of A nursing student when she met Manning in 1966. They married the following year. “Sandra is lots of fun, spirited and bright,” says Schmidt. She has dedicated herself mainly to taking care of her husband and their five children, ranging in age from 23 to 12: Andria, Avryll, Mary Joy, Nathan and David. Increasingly, though, she is playing a political role, campaigning in her husband’s absence in the riding of Calgary Southwest.
The Mannings share a deep religious faith. When his schedule allows, the couple attends evangelical services at First Alliance Church in Calgary, where they moved after Reform's creation. Like his father, Manning is low-key about his religious beliefs. In today's secular society, he says, people often fear that politi cians with strong religious views will try to im pose them on others. In Reform's case, he contends, that cannot happen, because MP5 must remain accountable to their con stituents. "But I do think that Canadians are correct to ask questions about how your val ues relate to public policy," he says. `The guy you have to worry about is the one who says `I have no values and there is no connection." Manning is rarely shy about defending his party's policies and the values they reflect. In the furor over Beck's anti-immigrant remarks
last week, Manning stood firm behind his party’s proposal to reduce the number of new immigrants from about 250,000 a year to between 100,000 and 150,000. Manning maintains that Canada’s immigration levels should be based on economic needs—and that it is logical at a time of high unemployment to reduce the number of new entrants. He insists that the policy is racially neutral—repeatedly stating, for example, that highly skilled Asians would be favored under Reform’s guidelines. It is a position that appalls many liberals and minority spokesmen, but strikes many others as sensible—or at least defensible.
What appalls most Canadians—and, by his own account, Manning himself—are the xenophobic rantings of people like Beck
who view the Reform leader as a kindred spirit. Speaking in uncharacteristically harsh tones, Manning said last week that what bothers him most are people “who have racist views and disguise them until they get some position where they can speak on a public platform.” He urged Canadians to complain if they feel that any of his other candidates are bigots. “If some of those electors [in York Centre] had even made one single phone call to our office we could have got on it sooner.” Call it populist damage control. If it works, Manning will be one step closer to rewriting political history when voters cast their ballots next week.
BRIAN BERGMAN in Edmonton