The Manning Centre’s annual Ottawa-based gathering of Conservatives has come and gone for another year. Reform Party founder Preston Manning and his wife Sandra created the organization in 2006 to act as a training ground for Conservatives to win in politics. This year’s event featured the usual array of Conservative politicians and operatives from right wing think tanks, the religious right, and a good number of journalists. The event is treated almost as a political convention with abundant television coverage, newspaper stories and live Tweeting. Increasingly, journalists have become speakers and panelists at the event as well – a questionable and dubious activity given the obvious partisan nature of the organization and its events.
Stephen Harper has appeared at Manning’s gathering once or twice in the past but not this year. In fact, the stars of the show invited by Manning were people vying to replace Harper as his tenure shows the fissures created by scandals in the Senate and in the way Conservatives try to steal elections.
The relationship between Manning and Harper has always been complex and – from Manning’s point of view – painful. Manning hired Harper back in 1987 to work for the Reform Party but Harper was to betray his mentor on numerous occasions. Manning was still recovering from those wounds when in 2002 he published a book called Think Big: My Adventures in Life and Democracy. In it, he described Harper as elitist,cruelly disloyal, and a quitter. Harper’s actions toward Manning anticipated the self-preserving ruthlessness he has shown as Prime Minister. What follows here is an edited version of a piece that I published on this blog in April 2009 about what Manning had to say about Stephen Harper in his book.
Manning hires Harper
In 1987, Manning recruited Harper, then a University of Calgary economics student, to become Reform’s chief policy officer. Harper played a major role in drafting Reform’s 1988 election platform. He also ran in that year’s election and lost. Reform did not win any seats but Deborah Grey soon became the party’s first MP in a by-election and Harper became her legislative assistant in Ottawa.
In 1992, Harper clashed with Manning over the Charlottetown Accord. Manning writes that he expected to oppose the accord but that first he wanted to consult the Reform Party membership. Harper and his close associate Tom Flanagan, a University of Calgary professor who doubled as a key Reform policy advisor, demanded that Manning announce his opposition to the Accord immediately. “It would not be the first time that Tom and Stephen and I would differ on the extent to which we should involve the grassroots of the party in decision making,” Manning wrote. “At this point, I did not fully appreciate that while Stephen was a strong Reformer with respect to our economic, fiscal and constitutional positions, he had serious reservations about Reform’s and my belief in the value of grassroots consultation and participation in key decisions. . .”
In July 1993, Manning and other Reformers were engaged in a two-day meeting to plan for the upcoming federal election. He had another contretemps with Harper and Flanagan, which he describes as “a dark cloud” hanging over the session. He says that Harper and Flanagan wanted to run a campaign focusing resources and activity on Western Canada. Manning wanted to run a national campaign and says that is what Reform Party members had resolved to do at their previous convention. Manning wrote, “Stephen had difficulty accepting that there might be a few other people (not many, perhaps, but a few) who were as smart as he was with respect to policy and strategy. And Stephen, at this point, was not really prepared to be a team player or team builder.”
Harper quits Manning
Harper had already quit as Reform’s chief policy officer by 1992, but remained a candidate in the next election. Manning wrote: “He withdrew from the national campaign effort to work almost exclusively on his personal campaign for election in Calgary West.” Reform won 52 seats in 1993 and Harper was elected in Calgary West. Several months later, in April 1994, he and some other caucus members went public with criticisms about Manning’s use of a personal expense account provided by the Reform Party for its leader. Manning used some of the money to enhance his wardrobe and his appearance.
In his book, Manning said that he expected attacks from his political opponents, “but the ones that affected us most as a family, were the ones that came from internal sources.” Manning said that Harper attacked Sandra Manning as well as her husband, then “professed not to know what all the fuss was about, saying that he was being ‘unfairly accused’”.
In 1996, Manning and other Reformers were laying the groundwork for another election when Harper let the side down again. “Stephen Harper had gloomily concluded that we were going nowhere and would likely lose badly in the next election,” Manning wrote. “Rather than pitching in to help turn things around, Stephen again chose to withdraw. This was now the third time that Stephen had vacated the field prior to a big battle …”
In 1997, Harper chose to resign his seat as an MP six months prior to the federal election held in that year. Manning wrote: “The media predictably interpreted this as yet another sign that Reform was in decline, which made it even more difficult to energize the pre-election campaign.”
When the election campaign moved into full swing in May 1997, Manning wrote, Reform came under public attack “from within”. He said that Harper, Flanagan and others told journalists that the party would fail and that Manning was a liability. Manning wrote: “Why people who professed to be supportive of the principles of Reform would provide comments disparaging its election efforts, at the very time when grassroots Reformers were working their hearts out to make the campaign launch a success, was beyond me.”
Between 1997 and 2002, Harper sat on the political sidelines decrying any interest in coming back. Manning was later defeated by Stockwell Day in the leadership race for the new Canadian Alliance party. Day flopped as a leader and in 2002 Harper defeated him in yet another leadership race. Harper then contested a bye-election in Calgary Southwest. Ironically, the seat was vacant because of the retirement of Preston Manning.
Harper’s multiple betrayals must have been particularly hurtful to Manning. In the interest of what he perceives as the greater Conservative good, he has for years chosen to set aside all the attacks and slights of his former protégé, but it is difficult to believe that he has forgotten them.
Manning has cultivated his image as an elder statesman but has also played the role of a good and loyal soldier toward Harper and the Conservative government. He has made mild criticisms but was always sure to tack back to support the cause and the regime. But in the past couple of years he has become increasingly blunt in questioning the Conservatives on environmental policy, integrity in government and other issues. This signals that he, too, is anticipating a changing of leadership and will be pleased when it occurs.
I don’t think there’s a lot to choose between the policies of Prime Minister Harper and Preston Manning, but there are clear distinctions between these two ideologues of the corporate sector. For all the deficiencies of his ‘vision’ of Canada, it’s difficult to imagine a party being led by Preston Manning deliberately trying to subvert elections, glorify war, undermine Parliament, or kick churches who pay too much attention to human rights out of overseas development programs. Manning just wasn’t known for that kind of sleaze.
It’s also difficult to see Preston Manning having anywhere near the same level of vindictiveness and sheer meanness of spirit that so characterizes Harper. Manning brought a certain level of dignity to politics and is, no doubt, a most cordial and congenial at guest at dinner parties; Harper is a schoolyard bully best overlooked on such guest lists.
But, for all the apparent hostility between the two, Manning remains the Dr. Frankenstein who created the Harper monster even now destroying the Canadian village. If one was vindictive, one might be tempted to say that every betrayal Manning suffered at the hands of his protégé was poetic justice – ‘hoist with own petard’ as it were. But the bottom line is that both Manning and Harper have simply played the role of dancing monkey for corporate Canada’s organ grinder.
I doubt very much that, perhaps apart from the being more polite and less vindictive (i.e. – Manning is housebroken), things would be different if Preston Manning was in the PMO today. Corporate Canada would still be running the show, trickle-down economics would still be the order of the day, working people would still pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than the richest corporations, the rich would still be cannibalizing the poor, and the de facto creed of the government would still be ‘Profit before life.’