Interview by Dan Rubinstein / Photograph by Colin Way
Preston Manning is best known as the founder of Canada’s Reform Party, a populist, right-wing movement rooted in the West. Reform morphed and merged over the years, eventually becoming today’s ruling Conservative Party. Manning, former leader of Canada’s official Opposition, has a new focus these days. At the helm of the Calgary-based Manning Centre for Building Democracy, he talks – with urgency – about “green conservatism” at many of his public appearances. No, it’s not an oxymoron. _Dan Rubinstein
You were 23 when you first ran for office in 1965. Was that something that you knew you were going to do, something inevitable?
No, not particularly. My father [longtime Alberta Premier Ernest Manning] got heavily involved in provincial politics, but despite the fact that he spent his entire life in politics, he always said you shouldn’t approach politics as a career, that you should get experience in other areas, like business or public service, and then commit some years to political activity. So I was never planning on getting into a political career; there was just an opportunity in 1965 to run. I didn’t have much of a chance of winning in that riding – I was under pressure by a bunch of other people who thought that it would be a good idea and I didn’t mind doing it – but it was an opportunity to get some experience, which I took advantage of. But then I went from university to establishing and running a management consulting firm for about 20 years before I seriously got into the political arena.
What compelled you, after 20 years, to try again?
Well, I’m a student of the political history of the West and Canada, and I was conscious that there are two parts of the country that will innovate by creating new political parties: one of course is Quebec, and the other is the West. Fairly early on, even when I ran for office the first time, I felt I would rather work through a new, smaller party than through one of the traditional parties. So I kept an eye out for the conditions under which this could happen. In the late 1980s, there was a set of conditions that made it very clear that the West was going to do something different politically. Things hung in the balance for a while; there was strong sentiment that the West would create a separatist movements at the same time as it was occurring in Quebec. That would have really put a strain on Confederation, but I felt there was some genuine Western disagreements that weren’t being addressed, and that it was better to address them by advocating for reform of the federal system, not kicking it apart. I decided to see what could be done.
What did you find most challenging about those days?
Creating a new party is like flying a kite. You can’t create the wind to get it up; all you can do is create a vehicle that can take advantage of the wind when it comes along. Those were quite heady and inspiring times because people wanted to do something different – all they needed to be shown was how you might do it. The biggest challenge for a new party in this country is the attacks on it from the traditional parties, and the misrepresentation in the parts of the country where you don’t exist or aren’t strong. Because then your opponents get to say who you are and you don’t have the capacity to defend yourself. It’s always been that way, and that’s something you have to live with and fight against.
What advice would you give young people who are considering getting into the political arena and want to make change through politics?
One thing is to understand your political culture. It is important to understand the history of your city and region, your province and country, because there are big forces at work that are far more fundamental than what parties do or what the media write. I think that understanding the basic tides that flow will further your efforts. The second thing, and it’s even more true today than it was in the past, is be prepared when you get into politics. The old approach was that you learned on the job, so there’s all kinds of people who are in the legislature who never read a federal or provincial statute until the moment they had to vote on one. The trouble with a younger person learning on the job is that you are under constant media scrutiny and the scrutiny of your opponent. So every time you screw up, it’s on the front page of some paper or blog. If you can enter prepared, and more prepared than your opponent, you will be more satisfied.
Shifting gears if I may: “green conservatism.” How would you define it. What does it mean to you?
First of all, there is common ground between conservatism and conservation – the words have the same root. Conservatives shouldn’t think that environmental conservation is a departure from their basic philosophy. Look at the principles behind balancing a budget. Governments, individuals and companies should live within their means. Extend that principle out and apply it to our ecosystem. Where I think conservatives and free enterprise people have a unique contribution to make is that traditional politicians rely heavily on government regulations to solve problems. Particularly if the problem is rooted in the private sector, who many people blame for environmental problems. But I think there’s a more powerful, far faster mechanism than government regulations: the market itself. I had this discussion with David Suzuki a while back. I’m concerned about water conservation in Alberta. I suppose Alberta Environment could send out an email every morning to three million people saying, “Here’s the water situation, be careful.” The bureaucracy and cost would be prohibitive, and the program would be ineffective. But if you measure and price water at an appropriate rate, every time anybody turns on a tap – whether it be an industry, business or household – it will get a signal about conservation.
If full-cost accounting like this was brought to bear in the energy sector, we would ask what we’re paying for “security” to get oil from the Middle East. I bet it’s $100-plus a barrel. If some that money was used to cover the real environmental costs associated the oilsands, wouldn’t we end up with a more secure North America energy supply at a lower price? And if we internalized as many of the environmental costs as possible and passed on a very significant portion to the end consumer, that consumer would understand that he could use this kind of energy, but he’d have to be willing to pay the cost of avoiding the environmental consequences.
I’ve like what you’ve written about the frontier mentality in Alberta and the spirit of innovation. Does Alberta have an opportunity to truly become a global leader and solve some environmental problems?
I think it could. I have tried to promote new ideas in different cities across the country, and there is no city in the country that will give a new idea or a different idea a fair or quicker hearing than Calgary. In the end, people may not buy the idea, but they’ll consider doing things differently than the way they’ve been done. If that attitude and spirit could be brought to bear, could we figure out ways to reconcile economic and energy development with a genuine, honest commitment to environmental conservation? We could pioneer and demonstrate some mechanisms through which to achieve that. That would be an enormous contributions, not just for Alberta, but for the rest of the world.
How urgent in your view is the climate change crisis? How much do we need to focus on this as a society, as a democracy?
Well, I think environmental conservation is urgent, but I would like to see us take a more holistic approach. I think the danger of focusing on just one component, as important as CO2 and carbon are, is that you’re still not recognizing the principle that the production of every form of energy – not just hydro-carbons, but hydro-electricity, nuclear, renewable fuel, biofuels, all of them – that there are negative environmental consequences to every one of these things, for every business, not just the oil company and the service station but the newspaper, the internet provider, and so on. You can’t extract stuff from nature and produce goods and services without having a stream of waste and pollution. I do think it is important to prioritize, and certainly in Alberta carbon emissions and how to conserve our water are important, but without a holistic approach, in trying to solve one environmental issue we could just cause another one.
One of the problems with the over-55 decision makers in industry is that their basic concept of the economy is extraction, manufacturing, processing, servicing and consumption. The environment is an add-on. To the younger generation, economy and environment are integrated. They know you can’t operate an economy without environmental consequences and you can’t impose environmental visions without economic consequences. Which I think is a far better perspective for coming up with holistic solutions.