Former Reform Party leader pursues environmental and political education goals

Preston Manning dramatically changed the Canadian political landscape when he helped found the Reform Party of Canada in 1987. He was the party’s leader until 2000 — when the Reform Party evolved into the Canadian Alliance.

Manning also served as a Member of Parliament for the riding of Calgary Southwest from 1993 to 2002.

Although he has officially been retired from political life for a decade, Manning has remained as political as ever, frequently appearing as a media commentator and public speaker. He is also the CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy — a Calgary-based conservative think-tank.

Manning recently sat down for a conversation with Calgary Journal reporter Karry Taylor where he discussed his work with the Manning Centre, his interest in environmental issues, as well his thoughts on the need for citizens to engage with public issues.

Editor’s note: questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

You have been retired from political office for 10 years. What have you been up to?

My main area of work has been with the Manning Centre, which is focused on building democracy. It involves raising money and putting those funds into programs designed to strengthen the knowledge, skills and ethical foundation of political practitioners — particularly those that come from a conservative orientation because that is where I have my influence. We have a location in Calgary that is going to be at the heart of our training centre. It will be opening next year. I have been 100 per cent involved in that.

What is your vision for this centre? What do you hope to achieve with it?

There are two levels. The first is that we want to improve the success of campaign managers and candidates in the sense of winning more elections. But more importantly than that, we want political practitioners to be able to govern in accordance with their principles once they get elected.

Part of our impetus in setting up the Manning Centre is that the old idea was you learned a lot of this on the job. But with the pace of news today and the rise in instant communication, you better arrive at your position — whether it’s a campaign manager or candidate who is either running for office or one who has already been elected — well prepared. Otherwise, you can make just one mistake and you will be on YouTube tonight and be finished by tomorrow morning.

After retiring from Parliament in 2002, Manning published a book, Think Big, that detailed his life in politics.

Photo By Karry Taylor

You have become increasingly known for advocating the idea of “green conservatism.” The Reform Party was not known for having an environmental platform. Where does your personal interest in environmental issues come from?

I believe that there is common ground between conservation and conservatism. The words have the same root. So conservatives shouldn’t see environmental conservation as a departure from their conservative philosophy.

Way back when I was studying physics in university, one of the few laws of physics that I actually remembered learning was the law of conservation of energy and mass. If you take a ton of oil sands out of the Athabasca and you get 500 pounds of oil, what happens to the other 1500 pounds? The law of conservation of energy and mass says that it has to go somewhere. You can’t extract things from nature to produce goods and services without having waste and pollution to deal with.

Secondly, like many older people, I have been quite influenced on environmental issues by my children. We have five children. Along with our oldest son, we are involved in organic ranching in the Cypress Hills. He is very dedicated — and we are too— in conserving that unbroken area of grassland. So my children have influenced me in this regard.

Your father Ernest Manning was premier of Alberta for 25 years, and you first ran for political office in your early 20s. Was getting involved in politics always something that you knew you would do?

No, not particularly. My father always said that you shouldn’t approach politics as a career. He believed you should get experience in other areas, such as business, before becoming involved in politics. I never planned on a political career. In 1965, there was an opportunity to run in a riding that I didn’t have much chance of winning. I took advantage of that to get some experience. But then I went on to work in management consulting for 20 years before I became involved in a political career.

What are your thoughts on the political landscape in Alberta? The Conservatives have been in power for the past 40 years. Do you see that changing any time soon?

The old pattern of Alberta politics has never been broken. There have always been long periods of one-party government. After a while, the government gets tired and old. It then rejuvenates itself — it gets a new lease on life with a new leader or a new theme. Alberta governing parties have been able to do that — that is why they have been in power so long.

But at some point, that no longer works and the governing party gets replaced. The odd thing about Alberta politics is that no government has ever been replaced by its traditional opposition. A new group coming out of the woodwork has always replaced it. Until I see something different, I think that pattern will continue to hold.

What do you say to people — in particular young people — who might feel hesitant, or even a bit cynical, about getting involved with public issues?

One negative argument is that if you choose not to involve yourself in the politics of your country, you will end up being governed by those who do. So if you don’t like what is going on or you don’t like the direction that some issues are taking, all you need to do is to stay uninvolved and things will continue to get worse.

The second argument is more inspirational and involves the Reform Party story.
Whether you believe in our particular method or viewpoint is not the point. The tools of democracy — freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of trying to persuade people to do something — still exist. With the Reform Party, a small group of people was able to take those tools and change the national agenda.
It’s true that the change wasn’t anywhere near the degree that we had hoped for — but it can be done. So I try to hold that up.

If people feel passionately enough about something, they can bring about change. There is enough freedom in Canada, and the population is not that big. When you have to move 50 million people in the United States or you don’t even show up on the radar screen, that is one thing. But in this country, we managed to move two million people and it was enough to get the other parties to change their agendas.

So there you have it – one is a negative argument, the other one is an inspirational argument for getting involved.

ktaylor@cjournal.ca