Preston Manning's message to Conservative leadership candidates: Don't take party unity for granted
OTTAWA — Veteran politician Preston Manning says the next Conservative leader must strike a balance between emphasizing party unity and addressing populism bubbling up to the surface of Canadian politics.
In an interview before this week’s high-profile conservative conference organized by his Manning Centre, Manning told the National Post whoever becomes leader must remember the Conservative party was stitched together not so long ago.
“It’s got fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, constitutional conservatives in Quebec, democratic conservatives on the prairie. It’s a coalition, and I think whoever leads it has to recognize this is a coalition. … Hopefully the stitching is solid stitching, but it’s not like it’s been around for a hundred years,” Manning said.
The party formed in 2003 to bridge Progressive Conservatives with members of the Canadian Alliance, which was the successor to Manning’s Western-based Reform Party.
You can’t take the unity of coalitions for granted. You have to work on it
“You can’t take the unity of coalitions for granted. You have to work on it,” Manning said. “If you can’t make democracy work internally to handle your differences, how are you going to go to the public and say you can make it work in the broader differences of society?”
The agenda for this week’s conference in Ottawa includes a debate between Conservative leadership candidates who are divided on several major questions, including whether Canada’s immigration policy should be changed.
In the context of Liberal government positions and a Trump administration in the United States, Manning said populist questions around diversity, extremism and inclusiveness must be addressed.
“One of my worries is, and it fits into the Trump phenomenon, that a lot of the political establishment in Canada is denying that those concerns exist here, or just decrying anybody that brings them up,” he said. “I just think that’s a mistake. I think there are concerns on all of those issues and they’re down below and people resent it when they can’t be aired.”
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Manning likened it to an oil patch metaphor. With “wildcat wells,” pressure builds and can push the oil out of the top and blow the platform off. Sometimes they catch fire. To avoid that, you drill a relief well, from the side, at just the right angle, and it takes the pressure off.
“The oil well’s blowing, and it’s messy, and it’s throwing all this stuff all over the place, and it can be dangerous. But what do you do? You try to find some way of redirecting it as some constructive end. And that’s one of the real challenges of leadership.”
Manning recalled how populism in the ’80s and ’90s spurred his Reform Party, which harnessed a “populist element” of Western alienation during those decades rather than allowing it to tear up the federation.
To avoid or suppress topics the rank-and-file care about isn’t wise, Manning said. That’s why several controversial topics are on the docket for this week’s conference.
Titles of hot-button sessions Friday and Saturday include: leading the response to Islamist extremism and its ideology in Canada; Down with the elites?; A Trump movement in Canada?; and stifling dissent: conservatism on campus.
“Hopefully they’ll be addressed responsibly,” Manning said.
As traditional news media lose ground and more online media outlets celebrate specific political biases, however, Manning expressed concern over online silos of opinion that could be counterproductive to that hope.
“People are just taking these social media offerings that coincide with their preconceived opinions,” he said. “I just see that happening all over the political spectrum and it’s not healthy. And it’s not conducive to democratic discourse.”