Canada

A reformer's farewell

Manning is leaving his paradoxical career in politics

Julian Beltrame April 2 2001
Canada

A reformer's farewell

Manning is leaving his paradoxical career in politics

Julian Beltrame April 2 2001

A reformer's farewell

Canada

Manning is leaving his paradoxical career in politics

Julian Beltrame

Preston Manning took the road less travelled. About 30 years ago, Joe Clark approached the son of Alberta’s legendary Social Credit premier about the two of them running for Parliament as Conservatives. Clark wanted Manning to help him remake the federal Tories from the inside. Manning declined. They had crossed paths and swords before in student politics at the University of Alberta in Edmonton in the mid1960s. A few years later, they had taken the measure of each other while trying to broker a union between Ernest Manning’s Socreds and the rising provincial Progressive Conservatives. But it was Manning’s decision not to join forces with Clark for the 1972 federal campaign that ended any chance of them turning from rivals to allies. Manning didn’t think the Tories could be reformed. But mostly, he believed the West, as it had been in the past, was primed for another grassroots movement. “I decided to wait around,” he told

Maclean’s last week, “until western juices produced another opportunity.”

It came in the mid-1980s, and Manning took full advantage. Last week, when his journey into uncharted territory finally came to a dead end with his announcement he would resign later this year, he brought to a close one of the most brilliant and paradoxical political careers in Canadian history. He sue-

ceeded in founding a new political entity—the Reform party in 1987—that within five years became a major political force, and in just its third election, in 1997, became the official Opposition. Last year, at the height of his power, he voluntarily risked his leadership— and lost—in an an improbable attempt to unite the right under the banner of

the Canadian Alliance. Yet he never came close to forming a government. And by reducing the once-proud Tories into a rump party, he helped ensure that their mutual foes, the Liberals under Jean Chrétien, would coast to three straight majorities. “He did the Conservative party a great deal of damage,” Clark said last week. ‘And I think he did the system a great deal of damage.”

That is the exact opposite of what Manning, a former management consultant, set out to do. In an interview, he admitted that he initially believed the Reform party, now morphed into the Alliance under Stockwell Day, would have formed a government by now—or at least been in a strong position to do so. “I’ve always been frustrated at how slowly things change,” he said. With 66 House of Commons seats, a mere two east of Manitoba, the Alliance has come no nearer to power than Reform did. Meanwhile, Clark’s political stock is in ascendancy, both because of his strong performance in the House and Day’s many stumbles. Even Manning concedes that the Alliance’s future is not secure. While it has the potential to grow into a truly national party, he acknowledges it could still fade into oblivion like other western populist movements of the past, such as the Progressives, the Socreds, and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the NDP’s precursor.

The political play is not over, so it is not possible to definitively assess the 38-year-old Manning’s legacy. His defenders, and there were many across the political spectrum last week, were quick to list his successes in changing the political landscape. His constant advocacy for fiscal prudence pressured Paul Martin to tackle the ballooning federal deficit, and gave the finance minister cover for tough measures. And Manning put such issues as parliamentary reform, tax cuts, the equality of provinces and Senate reform on the national agenda.

On a personal level, he will be remembered as a class act. With retirement

staring him in the face, he never wavered from his opposition to the generous MPs’ pension plan. That will cost him about $32,000 a year, according to a calculation by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. Manning also refused to tolerate the redneck element that had been attracted to the protest roots of the party. Explaining his decision to step down, he only said that his presence, as a former leader, was “awkward.” Whatever he did could be misconstrued as disloyalty to the new leader, he said.

But Mannings ambitions once went beyond protests and principles: he wanted to govern. Towards that end, he made several missteps. He foolishly pledged to never occupy Stornoway, the official home of the leader of the Opposition, then reversed himself. And he erred badly in that campaign by allowing the Reform party to air commercials decrying the dominance of leaders from Quebec, giving credence to the view that Reform was an intolerant, narrowly regional movement. Mannings biggest miscalculation may have been underestimating the resilience of the Tories, if not in the West, then in the rest of the country. Ironically, said Rick Anderson, Manning s former chief of staff, the party pulled the rug out from under Manning just as he had begun gaining acceptance in Ontario. “The party,” Anderson said, “bought into the psychology that a new party needed a new leader.”

Anderson believes his former boss may yet prove influential in shaping a rightleaning party capable of winning power. Manning plans to continue to be active in politics, writing articles, speaking out on the issues of the day, possibly writing a book. Intriguingly, Clark suggested last week that he may enlist Mannings help in exploring a rapprochement between the Tories and the Alliance in time for the next election. Manning told Macleans he would be eager to lend his support to the effort. If successful, it would ensure that his political creation does not turn out to be just “another splinter party or singleissue party or another party of the strange and extreme”—Mannings own description of what he set out to avoid in 1987. And it would complete the circle the two Albertans began 30 years ago, a course that led one to the prime ministership of the nation, albeit briefly, and the other to change the face of Canadian politics. E3