Eleven years ago, Stephen Harper’s political mentor and former boss launched a conservative think-tank to come up with well-researched policy proposals and train right-wing activists to seek public office.
Preston Manning, founder of the Reform Party, former leader of the opposition and Companion of the Order of Canada, was not popular at the time. He was persona non grata in the Prime Minister’s Office.
But he was prescient. Over the course of his nine-year tenure, Harper depleted the store of ideas he brought with him, starved the policy development arm of the public service and allowed his party’s research bureau to atrophy. By the time he was defeated last fall, the Conservatives were running on fumes.
Three months later they have nothing in the tank.
Interim Opposition leader Rona Ambrose is doing her best to put a friendlier face on the party.
The Tory caucus is issuing daily press releases denouncing every move the newly elected Liberal government makes.
The heavy-hitters of the Harper government — those who survived — are either lying low until next year’s leadership race or twisting themselves into human pretzels to disown policies they once espoused.
Manning, now 72, is still churning out policy proposals. He’ll outline some of his ideas to “recharge the right” at Toronto’s Albany Club this Wednesday, setting the stage for the Manning Centre’s annual conference in Ottawa next month.
He’s been road-testing some of his prescriptions in recent weeks. They aren’t groundbreaking but they are a refreshing departure from almost a decade of rigid ideology, hyper-partisanship, slick marketing and secrecy.
• Make equality of opportunity and fiscal responsibility the building blocks of the next Conservative agenda.
• Restore integrity and democratic accountability as hallmarks of conservatism, personified by the party leader, his or her staff, all candidates who run under the Conservative banner, party officials and volunteers.
• Disprove the perception that Conservatives don’t care about poverty, health-care, education, the environment, science or culture.
• Explain why balanced budgets, spending restraint, trade liberalization and tax relief will fortify Canada’s weak economy.
• Consult ordinary Canadians — not just party insiders — at every stage of the renewal process. That is how a political movement broadens its base.
It is not a comprehensive list. It is not likely to impress liberals or social democrats. But it is principled and coherent. It would get the Tories moving in a productive direction.
Regrettably, Manning’s harshest critics are on his own side. Some conservatives dismiss his proposals as a warmed-over version of the Reform Party’s 1987 agenda. Some accuse of him of trying to resurrect progressive conservatism. Some want nothing to do with the traitor who split the Conservative Party in 1993 (They have apparently forgotten that it broke in three chunks: western Reformers, Quebec separatists and a rump of Tories loyal to then-prime minister Brian Mulroney.)
Manning is accustomed to such criticism. Since he entered public life he has faced ridicule, vituperation and disdain. He steps out of the spotlight for a while and pops back up when the dust has settled.
Despite his differences with Harper, he does not demonize the former prime minister. He points out four Conservative premiers were toppled in the last decade. (Only Saskatchewan and the Yukon still have right-leaning governments.) Well before last fall’s election, the pendulum was swinging leftward.
Manning has been around long enough to know there is a natural cycle in politics. A party is elected promising to set new priorities, enact new policies and bring new energy to the task of governing. By year or nine or 10, it is getting long in the tooth and short on inspiration. It happened to the federal Liberals in 2003 although they hung on for two more years; the former Progressive Conservatives in 1993; and the New Democrats at the provincial level — 2007 in Saskatchewan, 2001 in British Columbia, 1995 in Ontario.
The first instinct of every defeated party is to find a charismatic new leader. Many Conservatives think that is all they need to get back in power. Manning understands this reflex which meshes well with the pace of social media and reality TV. But he’s never seen one of these quick fixes work.
That is why he is putting his policy proposals in the window and why his think-tank has invited everyone from Rona Ambrose to Aaron Gunn, executive director of Generation Screwed, “a movement of young Canadians who see this country heading for a fiscal cliff and want to set off alarm bells” to address next month’s conference. Other speakers include Ottawa physician and health-care blogger Merrilee Fullerton; Brian Jean, leader of Alberta’s Wildrose Party; Jim DeMint, president of the U.S. Heritage Foundation; and National Post columnist Tasha Kheiriddin, co-author of Rescuing Canada’s Right: Blueprint for a Conservative Revolution.
The Calgary septuagenarian admits a national leader with a pleasing personality and good communication skills could re-energize the Conservatives. His point is that a party with nothing to say about health-care, climate change, income polarization, an aging population and a commodity-dependent economy will have trouble convincing Canadians that it’s ready to govern.