Notes of Remarks by Preston Manning
Calgary—May 19, 2016
Thanks for invitation and opportunity to speak.
Because of my background I’ve been asked to talk a little about politics which surprised me a little because most political discourse—being less than truthful, fair, friendly, and beneficial—might not meet the Rotary four-way test.
So we’ll see.
When I was contacted about speaking here today, my contact said, “Why don’t you share some of your experience from a dozen years ago in “uniting the right” at the federal level, because there is a lot of interest now in Alberta in doing the same thing provincially.”
What he was referring to federally was our adventures in creating the Reform Party to give the West and fiscal conservatives a stronger voice in Ottawa. And then to stop the vote splitting between ourselves and the federal PCs we initiated the “united alternative crusade” which led to the creation of the Canadian Alliance Party, which then led to further unification of conservatives under the Conservative Party of Canada banner, which eventually led to a conservative majority government in 2011.
And what he was referring to provincially is the fact that there has been a lot of talk in the media and political circles here in Alberta over the last few months about the need to create a principled, competent, united alternative on the conservative end of the political spectrum in this province prior to the next provincial election in 2019 or sooner.
Of course, some of you may feel that there is no need for such an alternative and you are entitled to that opinion and to have it respected. But according to the polls an increasing number of Albertans are interested.
So let me pass on just a few lessons from our federal experience which may be helpful in achieving that result.
First thing I’d say is that the objective of any political realignment needs to be positive not negative.
My father used to remind political party people, including members of his own party, that “the public are never as partisan as the partisans.” They will never love your party or position as much as you may and they will never loathe the “other guy’s” party and positions as much as you may.
So the objective of any political realignment movement in Alberta provincially can’t simply be to “unite the right” for partisan purposes or simply “to beat the NDP.”
To carry the judgement of a majority of Albertans, the objective must be positive—to provide the people of Alberta with the best possible government at a very difficult time—and that objective needs to be kept constantly in mind.
Second thing I’d say is that the principal task involved in creating such an alternative is coalition building.
Modern political movements are coalitions of people who may have their differences but are agreed on some commonly shared principles and are willing to work together to achieve common objectives.
In the federal arena, for example, we had to build a coalition among all the various ideological and regional flavours of conservatism:
-Fiscal, social, libertarian, progressive, democratic, constitutional conservatives.
-Traditionalists, nationalists, hierarchical, populist, polarized conservatives.
The important thing is to aim for a positive coalition—one united by what its members are “for”—not a negative coalition where all that unites them is what they are “against.”
Important thing is to aim for a principled coalition—united by commonly held principles—not a “coalition of expediency” where all that unites people is short-run self-interest and opposition to the status quo.
This means that to build a principled, competent, united alternative option for Alberta someone needs to spend time defining the principled common ground and values shared by:
-The thousands of Albertans who voted Wildrose;
-The thousands of Albertans who voted PC;
-The thousands of Albertans who voted for the NDP only because they wanted change, and,
-The thousands of young Albertans who didn’t vote at all
Dealing With Differences
Third, in trying to unite people politically who are agreed on some shared principles and objectives but still have significant differences—like Wildrose and PC members—it is unwise to try at the beginning to reconcile all those differences before moving forward.
But what we did at the federal level was to recognize those differences and get general agreement on a mechanism or process for dealing with them in the future.
And the process we got people to agree to was the democratic process, i.e.,
-To hold democratically constituted conferences from time to time;
-To guarantee that those with differing positions would have the freedom and opportunity to make the case for their positions at those conferences;
-To agree that after adequate discussion a vote would be taken; and,
-To agree that those participating in the vote would respect the result, at least until some future conference democratically approved a different position.
This is the democratic process. And if a political group cannot deal with its own differences by such a democratic process, why should the public believe that it could deal democratically with all the broader and deeper societal differences it will encounter if it forms a government?
A Balanced Alternative
And then there is the matter of balance. A principled, competent, united alternative for Alberta provincially needs balanced representation and support, right from the get go, from:
-Northern and southern Alberta;
-Urban and rural Alberta;
I once knew a Metis gentleman, he’s dead now, who claimed that when the native people lost the land that is now Alberta to the white man, they cursed it: It would be eternally divided along the Battle River, the river just north of Red Deer that was the old boundary between the northern Cree and the southern Blackfoot.
And as anybody who knows Alberta politics will attest, there are major differences politically between the interests and values of those who live in the northern and southern halves of the province. So you need north-south balance—right from the outset—in forming any new provincial political movement.
Likewise the need for urban-rural balance. More and more people may choose to live in our cities but much of our resource wealth is in the country and dependent on those who will live and work there to develop it as we’ve seen with Fort McMurray. For example, the only Albertans not affected by the NDP farm bill, which will eventually increase food prices, are those Albertans who don’t eat. What happens in the country affects the city and vice versa. So we need to integrate, not divide, rural and urban Albertans and any new movement that aspires to govern this province needs to keep that in mind.
And finally, and most importantly, a principled, competent, united alternative for Alberta cannot simply be a union of political parties, executives, and elites.
It must ultimately involve and win the support of the hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file Albertans to whom the Government of Alberta belongs.
The process whereby a united alternative was created at the national level involved dozens and dozens of grassroots meetings across the country, the build-up of a membership/support list of around 250,000 persons, a number of major conferences, and several party-wide referendums on whether and how to proceed. And such meetings, support base build-up, conferences, and referendums will no doubt need to be part of any process to create a principled, competent, united alternative here.
Alberta Can’t Wait
As most of you are aware, over the past year there have been half a dozen different groups talking about uniting the right in Alberta.
In one sense this is a good sign since when different people from different backgrounds in different parts of the province have a similar idea that usually means that the time is ripe to act on that idea.
Unfortunately, that meant that before a united alternative could be created, groups working to create a united alternative must first unite. Ironic, I know!
Fortunately, most groups have gotten behind an organization called Alberta Can’t Wait, and the Manning Centre is supporting that organization.
It is developing the balance and potential to become the rallying point and has the organizational capacity required to achieve that principled, competent, united, conservative-oriented alternative that many Albertans are seeking.
They have a long way to go and there is a lot of work to be done. But if you’re interested in a united alternative, I would encourage you to check out their website or attend some of their meetings and decide for yourselves whether their efforts are deserving of your support.
Respectful of Current Leaders
Interest and discussion of any “realignment” of political party structures always creates difficulties for the existing leadership of the parties already in the field and their positions need to be respected.
The leaders of those parties such as the Wildrose and PC’s—whether it be party leaders or presidents of local constituency associations—have legal and moral obligations to their own members and those who voted for them in the last election. And since they are in opposition in the Legislature they have obligations to concentrate most of their efforts on holding the government accountable for its actions and policies.
So when those leaders are confronted by the media (whose interest is in controversy, not cooperation) and are asked, “What about this unite-the-right idea?” I think their best response would be to simply leave the door open, note that their first responsibility is to serve their party members and voters, and focus on holding the government accountable. And then for the time being monitor the united alternative process to see where it leads and whether they want to be part of it or not.
Perhaps one of the parties involved can become the vehicle for accomplishing the objective; perhaps neither of them can and a new vehicle is required as we saw happen at the federal level. But whatever happens, the positions of the existing leaders and their executives need to be respected, and if a new vehicle is created, existing leaders should be given a fair opportunity to seek the leadership of it if they so desire.
Next Generation Project
Finally, while I am personally supportive of efforts by “Alberta Can’t Wait” to create a principled, competent, united, conservative-oriented alternative for Alberta provincially, I want to conclude with one very important point.
In my judgment, such an effort must be a “Next Generation” project. It must not be led or dominated by previous generation politicians—dare I say “old” politicos and lobbyists—trying to regain previously held positions or influence.
Many of you are members of that Next Generation of Albertans. I don’t need to tell you that your province is in deep trouble economically and politically. Everyone knows the provincial government inherited a tough situation… but at the same time, its unpreparedness to govern and lack of fiscal discipline are making things worse.
Each of you needs to decide whether now is the time for you to step up to the plate politically and, if so, how and with whom?
A few of you, like me, are of the previous generation and I think our role is mainly to provide advice and support if requested but not to dominate.
In my case, and that of my senior associates at the Manning Centre, we do have the experience of managing a successful realignment of conservative forces at the federal level and are willing to share the lessons learned from that experience—in particular the mistakes that were made and need not be repeated here—for whatever that may be worth.
And in this room, I see veteran Rotarians who could, if asked, bring to bear on any political realignment effort in Alberta the benefits of your wisdom and experience, including the application to any political proposal or action the fourfold Rotarian test:
1. Is it the TRUTH?
2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
3. Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?