There is something curiously ageless about Preston Manning at 70.
Preston—who, like any other celebrity, has no need of a second name west of the Lakehead—was just 44 when the Western Assembly consented to make him the political captain of a regional reform movement. His colleagues in the quest to rebalance Canada, men like Stan Roberts, Ted Byfield and Stan Waters, were mostly a good 10 to 20 years older. Now, as founder of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, he trains and plays political mentor to conservative shock troops nearly a half-century his junior.
And the one thing you can be sure of is that he treats them all the same. What has always mattered with Preston Manning is the quality of your argument; he has never cared much about how many degrees you have or whether your denim overalls are untidy. This explains why the West still admires him, and may help explain why the East has never been able to wholly relent in its suspicion of him. What darker motives are concealed by that overwhelming fixation on ideas, that almost pathological relentlessness in seeking new avenues for procedural innovation and political uplift?
After almost 50 years of political life—his first, forgotten run for Parliament dating back to 1965—surely we can finally agree that there is no great secret to Preston Manning, no hidden key to the man. He sought political power as a means of gaining a hearing for ideas; now, though out of explicit power, he devotes all his time to them—keeping in mind that the Manning Centre is as much about salesmanship of ideas as the ideas themselves.
Maclean’s is giving him a Lifetime Achievement Award as a parliamentarian, but, as Manning says himself, his greatest pleasure in politics has always been trying to win over an audience, whether that audience is a roomful of voters or just one person. You may have noticed that there is not much of that sort of thing in the House of Commons. Manning always found the House, with its party disciplines and traditions, frustratingly inimical to sincere debate. It vexed him, for example, that he was generally not allowed to even mention Senate reform on the floor under the rules of the House—and he beams when reminded of how the 1998 debate on the Nunavut Act, which involved a slight change in the composition of the Senate, gave him a loophole through which he could deliver a coruscating hour-long speech.
It is still common to hear Manning and the old Reformers blamed for inculcating harmful “cynicism” about Parliament, with their rough talk of Ottawa as a foetid swamp. But Manning was the main reason angry westerners kept faith with Parliament at a time when Confederation seemed, rightly or wrongly, like a rigged game. It is not so important that he helped create a Western- dominated Conservative government; what is important is that he helped create the mere possibility that the West’s growing demographic and economic influence would be recognized and reflected in Ottawa’s institutions. The West wanted in, to use the famous phrase, and it was Manning’s foot that found its way into the door.
He remains a fertile generator of ideas around political change, even as the one he is most closely associated with, Senate reform, inches ahead painfully. (Manning still speaks of Senate reform optimistically, but as a task that will require decades rather than months.) His latest passion is for the creation of a non- partisan model Parliament—a toy apparatus with a curriculum of training courses—that could be used to prepare young private cit- izens for the forest of rules, tricks and traps they will encounter should they run successfully for the House of Commons, or go to work for someone therein. The idea is to teach the ambitious and the curious everything from the intricacies of the Marleau-Montpetit guide to the best way of running a press conference.
The classy new downtown Calgary office of the Manning Centre, which has its grand opening Jan. 23, bears an enormous sign on the interior with the Ciceronian admonition “Intrate parati” (“Enter prepared”). The old Romans made sure that citizens entered their assembly prepared by putting them through a long “cursus” of ascending public responsibilities: we, Manning observes, have no analogue. He would like to help make one. And we know better by now than to underestimate what is possible when Preston Manning happens upon a notion.