A conservative statesman

Preston Manning decided to forgo a run for Ralph Klein's job in favour of developing his reputation as a guru for the right in Canada

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The Gazette, Monday, May 29, 2006

Preston Manning could have been a contender, and he is certainly a somebody, but in the end he decided against making a political comeback for the leadership of the governing Progressive Conservative Party in Alberta.

A draft-Manning movement was shaping up after the party effectively dumped Premier Ralph Klein in a leadership review, and the founder of the Reform Party certainly thought about it, before deciding against it two weeks ago.

He looked at it, he says, "partly because of my feeling of obligation, Alberta has been very good to us." That would be him and his wife, Sandra, whose enthusiasm for the comeback project was tempered by the hard question of whether politics was something they needed at this point in their lives.

After all, as Manning says, they had "been there, done that." And then, he added, a bit wistfully, "to some extent," meaning never in government.

The more he thought about it, the more he realized a leadership campaign would be six months of "selling memberships," and another year and a half going into the 2008 election. A life on the road again in places like Ponoka.

Moreover, there was already a front-runner, former finance minister Jim Dinning, who has no shortage of money, organization or members. And one important party elder, Peter Lougheed, was asking exactly how long Manning had belonged to the Progressive Conservative Party, which has been in office for the last 35 years. As we say in Quebec, it was not evident.

Manning had another reason for giving it a pass. He has been in the political arena, and successfully moved on to become a senior statesman of the public-policy process, a role he has carefully cultivated as a thoughtful conservative. His main project is the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, whose somewhat portentous, if not pretentious, mission is "the improvement of Canada's democratic infrastructure."

Manning makes the important point that Canadian think-tanks of all vantage points are significantly underfunded and far less influential than in the United States. On the right, the Fraser Institute is the biggest and best known, while the fledging Montreal Economic Institute is the first conservative think-tank in Quebec. No Canadian think-tank has anything like the resources or influence of institutes such as the Wilson Centre or the Brookings Institution or the Centre for Strategic International Studies in Washington. All have significantly shaped the U.S. public-policy agenda for the last generation.

Manning is an interesting study, as someone who began on the narrower margins of the right as the founding father of Reform, a party of regional grievance. Try as he might in two elections, he could never find a way to take it national. He tried recreating it as the Canadian Alliance, but then lost the leadership to Stockwell Day in 2000, before Stephen Harper ran under the revived national Conservative brand in 2004 and won in 2006.

Now Manning is positioned as a senior statesman of the conservative movement in the country, a role he clearly relishes, and one in which he has himself moved closer to the centre of the political spectrum.

Looking very relaxed in a blazer and golf shirt at his Calgary office, he asks: "Where's the conservative science policy, where's the conservative aboriginal policy, and where for that matter is the conservative constitutional policy?"

On that, he says, "There is a community of interest between Quebec and Alberta on the whole constitutional file," beginning with the management of the federation. Quebec and Alberta, he also notes, are the leading proponents of modernizing and reforming public health care.

Manning also has some thoughts on one current file - climate change. Canada is 30 per cent above its Kyoto target of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012.

"The federal government," he says, "had no intention of implementing Kyoto and no way of enforcing it."

That doesn't mean he doesn't take global warming seriously. "I just see Kyoto as a false start," he says.

He sees no Canadian solution without the agreement of "Alberta as the biggest producer and Ontario as the biggest consumer," the two provinces whose economies create the most emissions. Nor does he see a solution without the participation of the private sector and the leadership of the United States.

This also happens to be Brian Mulroney's view of global warming as the most urgent environmental issue facing Canada and the world. Manning and Mulroney - together at last.

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