The thick glasses are gone, replaced by contacts. The hair has gone silver, replacing the brown. Preston Manning is an inimitable public figure with that imitable voice, albeit a bit raspier and deeper – such becomes the case by 77.
He is two decades removed from Parliament, the founder of not one but two federal parties that shook politics like nothing in memory, and he has steered his work into his Manning Centre think-tank.
But he has returned more publicly with a book of profound, prolific advice for conservatism and democracy. The blunt message of his worries: Do something.
Or, more precisely as his book is titled, and as you might hear him speak it: Do Something!
There is no small frustration within the title, its author and his uphill half-century-plus examining the failures and accomplishments of public policy and life. He has his own failures and accomplishments, of course, but with that much time comes that much accumulation of prescriptions – witness the book’s subtitle, 365 Ways You Can Strengthen Canada.
Yes, 365, and within those are hundreds of other ways, wrapped in essayish prose.
It’s a Manningfesto.
I’ve had many discussions with Manning over the decades, dating as far back as the weeks following the 1987 founding Reform convention, and have come to believe he is Canada’s most misunderstood prominent public figure.
Part of that involves his enigmatic amalgam of science, faith, market-based fandom, tolerance, commitment to transparency and abiding belief in dialogue. It takes him down wonky rabbit holes and, even though he can be caricaturized, he can take you off-balance if you dare pigeonhole his politics.
Last week he chatted about his book to a loyal crowd at a downtown club, and all was going really well – self-deprecation, lucid observation, nice touches of humour – until he began to veer into constitutional vernacular. Sure, he can lose a room in the way he could not win the country.
But he does that naturally, consciously, purposefully, as a public intellectual; that wisdom is both his charm and distinction and what keeps him apart.
That being said, he has been on to things well before his time. In opposition, he got the Liberals, for a time, to believe in a balanced budget that doesn’t scrimp on social programs. He was an early adopter of Indigenous political and economic self-determination. He favoured revenue-neutral carbon pricing and lambasted climate change deniers. He decries discrimination against the LGBTQ community, immigrants and people of faith. He embraces science as the decision-making framework for democracy. He has concluded the left-right-centre political axis is irrelevant to millennials.
You can imagine how recent Conservative Party policies have sat with him.
It would be difficult to find maybe one or two others who have contributed more to the contemplation of our democracy in the last half-century. It would be difficult, too, to select one of two ideas out of the book to rattle the cage.
But let me try one.
Manning laments the scant understanding of the complexities of public office by those who pursue it. He argues for the creation of a Democracy House, an institution that would provide the political equivalent of a law school’s Moot Court and a workplace’s internship program, with cross-partisan training for budding legislators at all levels of politics.
It would emulate the experience of public office, with debates, media scrums, committees, caucuses and constituency work so politicians could be better prepared for what faces them upon arrival at Parliament, a legislature or a city hall. He has seen this movie many times – thus his dedication to a new script.
UBC is in on the conversation about it at the moment through its School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, which is creating a new building, and its Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, which already offers a basic program for would-be leaders.
He is not one to talk about legacy. His late father, former Alberta premier Ernest Manning, would tell him that people who think about legacy often look in the rear-view mirror and run their car into a tree. But the passion for this project feels much like a lasting impact from a contributor to the public sphere, and I think everyone would agree it’s an idea for a real need.
Kirk LaPointe is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and the vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.