Preston Manning (2002 Interview)

Manning, Preston (2003)
Preston Manning's book Think Big recounts his political career (courtesy Maclean's/photo by Peter Bregg).

Manning, Preston (2002 Interview)

 PRESTON MANNING never achieved his dream of uniting Canada's conservative-minded voters, nor of becoming prime minister. But the former leader of the REFORM party, defeated for the leadership of its successor, the CANADIAN ALLIANCE, remains a respected voice in public policy - and, as one with a firm reputation for probity, on the topic of political ethics. Now a visiting professor at the University of Toronto, he has just published his memoir, Think Big: My Adventures in Life and Democracy. Manning, 60, met with Maclean's journalists.

Have you been surprised by the Liberal scandals of the last year?

Oh, no, what's happening now is just the continuation of a long, long litany of low ethical standards. The ethics counsellor can come out and talk of conflict of interest for MacAulay, but there's conflict of interest in the counsellor's office itself. This business of being appointed by, and accountable to, the Prime Minister - how can a guy who's got a conflict of interest solve conflict of interest problems? You don't have moral authority. It's going to be one of the biggest issues facing the country: how do you raise the ethical standards in politics generally?

The problem is not just confined to the Liberals. They are the best practitioners of it, because they've had more practice. But it's systemic. How does anybody get authority to talk about ethics these days? It's really a difficult question. In my time in Parliament, the two or three people who had more ethical or moral authority than anybody were Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic, Nelson Mandela, and Rev. Lang from Taber [Alta.], whose son was shot. Where all three got their moral authority was, they actually suffered some terrible things for their beliefs. But if you haven't had that, where do you get that kind of credibility?

Do you sense a groundswell for change among the public or have they just gotten used to "politics as usual"?

I think there's this demand for ethical standards on the business side, with the Enrons, the WorldComs. On the political side, every time there's one of these semi-scandals, it raises the same thing. This era of moral relativism, where you have your opinion, I have my opinion, is coming to an end. People don't see that producing any kind of standards. Like Sept. 11 - you can't just handle that by saying, "well, the terrorists have their views, and Bush has his views." There's starting to be a search for standards outside of one's own opinion.

You have strong religious beliefs, which you generally didn't make a point of discussing. Do you feel they were treated and covered positively or negatively while you were in office?

I would argue that there's less freedom of speech on religion in Parliament than on any other subject and in almost any other place. And if you ask members who aren't of the Christian faith, "Why don't you ever talk about some of these issues from your faith perspective?" they'd just laugh. They'd say, "We see the guys that profess to be Christian, how they get treated when they express themselves, what on earth kind of treatment would we get when our views are even more at variance with both the secular orientation in society, and even at variance with the majority of religious views?" So I think Canada's got a long way to go on allowing faith perspectives to be expressed, and brought to bear on public policy decisions.

Half the problem may be with the system, and the prejudice against deeply held religious values. But the other part can be faith-based people themselves, conducting themselves foolishly. So I talk a lot to faith-based groups about the need to be wise in how they present their faith, particularly in the public arena.

You've called for more scrutiny of Paul Martin. What are your specific concerns?

I want to be respectful of Paul, first of all. He accepted more of our ideas on the fiscal side than most of his colleagues - I think he actually believes in them himself - and I give him credit for being willing to balance the budget. But I'd encourage due diligence if people are interested in this democracy deficit. Paul gave a speech saying he was. But he voted against every single minor and major measure to try to democratize that House every year I was there, including the ones that came from the Liberal backbenches. So he may have had a conversion experience on the road to Sussex Drive. But I would like to see more evidence that this concern for democracy is not just a temporary thing.

If people are worried about the executive power that's accumulated in the Prime Minister's Office, and the imbalance between the executive and the legislature, how much worse would that imbalance be if you got someone from a business background who knows how to use the executive power in that office? If you think Parliament's irrelevant now, you ain't seen nothing yet [laughs].

The second area is ethics. Once CHRÉTIEN is out of there, there's going to be more revelations of the level of ethics that were practised by the government. And some people will say, well, at least people like McLellan, Rock and Martin weren't mixed up in it. But the question that's going to be asked is: where were you guys when this was going on? You sat there for nine years, and you saw these conflicts of interest, dozens of them, and you never said a word? People like Paul Martin may have to answer to that.

In your book, you offer some frank assessments of Stockwell Day's performance. Yet some of his former colleagues are calling you a sore loser. Are you bitter about the way you were treated by the party?

No, not really. I'm a small-d democrat. You can't put these measures, like the leadership of a party, in front of a bunch of people, and say they've got great judgment when they agree with you, and all of a sudden be bitter and mad when they don't.

I don't think it was because they had a lot of negative feelings toward me. They were desperately anxious to win, and hoped that if you had a new party, with a new leader, and particularly one with perhaps better skills in the television area, it would help. So I would disagree with that judgment, but I can't be bitter about it. That's how democracy works.

Assuming no merger of the two parties of the right, is there any realistic possibility the Liberals won't win the next election?

I guess the one wild card the opposition clings to is that something will go terribly wrong on the government side. But apart from that happening, I think it's really incumbent that the groups do get together.

Could you foresee yourself ever going back to Ottawa as an elected MP, in almost an éminence grise role?

I've never said never, but I really have no plans in that direction. I like working on the public policy stuff, from a less partisan angle.

Maclean's November 4, 2002