Event Coverage: Preston Manning in Sydney

A legend of Canadian politics, Preston Manning became known as the man who gave a voice to Western Canada through grassroots campaigning and a message of balanced budgets at all government levels.

A member of the Canadian Parliament from 1993 to 2001, he founded two new political parties – the Reform Party of Canada and the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance. Both parties went on to become the official Opposition, where Preston served as Leader of the Opposition from 1997 to 2000. Today his influence is felt through his political protégé – Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper.

Since his political retirement he has founded and presides over the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, one of Canada’s most extensive organisations dedicated to training political campaigners, strategists and politicians. His annual event Manning Conference is Canada’s largest conservative conference which has been host to former Prime Minister John Howard, Ron Paul and Nigel Farage among many others.

On Thursday, April 9 2015, The Australian Business Executive hosted Preston as part of our “In Conversation” series at the Occidental Hotel in Sydney. J. Landry had the opportunity to speak with Preston prior to the event about life after politics and what conservatism means today.

J. Landry: Where did the idea come from to open up the Manning Centre?

Preston Manning: My family has been involved in politics for a long time. My father was involved in provincial politics in Alberta, he was Premier there for 25 years. I was involved in starting a couple of political parties at the federal level, both of which became the official opposition and laid the ground work for the current Conservative Party of Canada which is the governing party.

In my experience, the old idea was that elected people and constituency people could learn on the job. Today because it’s so fast paced and there’s so much more immediate exposure, you better arrive with a little bit more intellectual capital and a little bit more skill. So when I got out of the act of politics we started this organization to see if it could do something on that front to make sure that people who do decide to participate in whatever level – grass roots level, organization level, interest group level, political level, would be better equipped to perform.

JL: What are your thoughts on Australia and Canada with our similar populations, economies and resources?

PM: I think our countries have a lot in common. We’re both big countries – big enough to have regions that have very distinctive characteristics, so the national politics involve being able to balance regional interests. In Canada the question becomes can you devise a speech as a federal politician that you can give in Atlantic Canada, in Quebec, in Ontario, in the West, in British Columbia that somehow resonates with people in each of those regions. That’s a real big challenge. If you tailor it to particular regions people accuse you of saying one thing about one part of the country and another thing in another part, so we both have the challenge of size and regionalism.

On the economy side Canada is a resource producing country, particularly the region I come from (Alberta) is Canada’s oil producing region. This makes us very much subject to fluctuations of prices over which we have no control and learning to live with the ups and downs of commodity prices and commodity markets is a challenge to both countries. I think we both have security concerns but of a different kind. Australia being close to China needs to be aware of that, where Canada is closer to the United States and the US has an enormous influence over our politics and our economy. So how to live with a friendly brother and how to live with someone who may not be so friendly are issues, but you still have to give attention to your biggest neighbor.

JL: In Australia there’s an undercurrent of Republicanism and our role within the Commonwealth. Do you have an opinion on the value of being part of the Commonwealth in the new millennium?

PM: Not particularly. The Commonwealth as a practical workable entity is diminishing as a formal concept. But I do think the English speaking world and a particularly countries that draw on a tradition of British common law and British conceptions of democracy think there is something that’s worth preserving. In Canada there’s not much Republican sentiment so I think it’s more of why stir it up? You’d cause more controversy than agreement and to what benefit?
Canada has had constitutional debates somewhat different than Australia because we have one region (Quebec) that tends to march to a different drum; unity has always been a worry at the national level. Periodically there have been attempts to strength the unity through constitutional changes. Most of which have created more division and controversy than unity.

JL: Both our countries are familiar with nationalised public utilities. Over the last 20 years we’ve seen a lot of them become privatised. What are your thoughts on this occurring, and can government continue to be responsible for nationalised services moving forward?

PM: On privatization you can approach that issue ideologically believing the private sector can do things better and more efficiently than the public sector can. Or you can approach the issue on a very pragmatic basis. Whoever can do the best job most cost-effectively should get the chance to do it. Now I happen to believe if you had that open competition on most things like utilities, by and large the private sector would prove it could do things more cost-effectively. I think that’s one way to approach that issue that’s not ideological. Let’s just figure out who could do the best job and put those services up for review periodically.

Historically in Canada the big electric utilities were provincially and government owned, particularly in Central Canada. Ontario Hydro and Quebec Hydro were the largest energy companies in Canada and provincially owned. Alberta particularly under my father (former Alberta Premier Ernest Manning), used to argue ‘why would you tie up billions of dollars of provincial capital when that money is actually more needed in social areas like hospitals and schools where you’re not going to get as much private capital interest?’ In the end most of the rest of the country has come around to that decision.

JL: Now on the political spectrum, there’s libertarianism, neoconservatism, flag wavers for free market economics, the religious – what is a modern day conservative?

PM: I think conservatism is a coalition and it is a coalition of those elements that you mentioned. Hopefully it’s a principled coalition and not just a bunch of people getting together to push the other guys out, and get themselves in. The task of leadership is how you reconcile these positions without watering them down to the point where they are meaningless. I think that’s the challenge for some leaders. The political incentive to do so is you can say to each of these factions ‘you can have your factional purity, but you’ll never form a majority government; you’ll never be able to do what you say you want to do.’ You’ve got to join with others and try to find the common ground. There are lessons to be learned there.

The American political culture polarises over everything, and they like to polarise. Until very recently that clarified positions as they would go to opposite ends and then come together. Recently they haven’t done that though. In Britain the social conservatives will say to the libertarians, ‘what values do you have to hold in order to be libertarian’? Well you have to value freedom, property, sacredness of contracts, and then they ask ‘who is going to inculcate those values?’ A libertarian can’t say the state, so the answers tend to be the family, the community, maybe even the religious institutions – so they find some common ground. I see this dialogue in Britain a lot more civilised and productive than in the U.S. and to some extent Canada where they get into opposite camps.

JL: In America there’s been a surge of youth voters that are not traditionally conservative, identifying with the libertarian positions of politicians like Ron and Rand Paul. Have you noticed a similar trend in Canada?

PM: Fiscal and economic conservatism is the element of the philosophy that is doing the best. It’s got elements of libertarianism, but it’s not exclusively that. People just believe that the role of the government is to facilitate activities by other economic actions that will maximize productivity and wealth creation. We do polling in Canada and consistently Canadians say conservatives are strongest on the economic front. That’s expressed in different ways though – some people say poverty, some taxes, some debt, but they’re all economic factors.

JL: Can you discuss your support for green conservatism through taxation? There’s been some comments that the support you show for this initiative would be in contrast to the Preston Manning of the 90’s.

PM: Economists use the word tax to refer to a mechanism for internalising an externality. My point is that the public doesn’t understand tax to mean that at all. To the public it means the government is sticking its hands in their pocket and collecting a bunch of money to spend on whatever. So don’t use the word tax to refer to something like a carbon levy.

We have to pay more attention to the environment, because there’s a lot of activity going on that affects it negatively. And whether one likes it or not, or agrees with it, it’s one of the issues young people will actually engage in. Conservatives have got to address this. They can’t just say ‘we don’t go there’, or ‘that’s not our issue’, or ‘the other guys have got the high ground’. Nobody owns the high ground on this. I try to get conservatives in Canada more positive on the issue, especially since the belief is in markets and the use of pricing mechanisms as a way to address these problems. We ought to be at the forefront of trying to figure out how to do it. I don’t think this is inconsistent with anything I’ve said in the past.

JL: How are politics changing in your view?

PM: One of the disturbing things we’re wrestling with is a recent survey we did on ‘How important is it that your political representatives be knowledgeable on the issues?’ How important is it that they have character attributes like honesty or integrating? What we found is more people place more emphasis on character than on skill or knowledge. This has an impact when you’re trying to prepare people for political life or select candidates. There’s unwillingness from the public to trust anybody or what they say on the issues – or even to trust that they have these skills. It comes back to an assessment of character and what can parties do to strengthen these issues of mistrust.

JL: Having come from a different era of politics do you think the onset of the 24 hour news cycle has made potential candidates hesitant to engage in politics?

PM: I’ve been involved in candidate recruitment for a long time. The biggest single reason being given for a competent person not getting involved in the political arena is that they won’t subject themselves and their family, and I stress their family, to the attacks by the media. The media is mentioned all the time. This also means social media more and more these days. It’s just a huge deterrent.

We do national and sectoral surveys and we did one with 150 female executives. These are people who if they wanted to, have the connections, ability, and resources to go into public life. There are no barriers to their entrance. Over 75% of them said they would never touch the political field. It came back to this character thing. It’s perceived as a sleazy business with unprincipled people.

At some point the media have to accept some responsibility for how they treat the political class. It’s just becoming harder and harder to recruit people to run for office.

If you’d like to find out more about Preston Manning and the work of the Manning Centre please visit www.manningcentre.ca

To view this editorial as it appeared originally in The Australian Business Executive magazine, click here.

Photos from our evening at the Occidental Hotel can be viewed below.

If you would like to purchase any original photos from James Dore Photography, contact us on 02 8091 1410. You can also view more of James’ work here: www.theloop.com.au/jamesdore