Speaking on behalf of the party sometimes means shutting up, Preston Manning says

OTTAWA – Conservatives gathered in Ottawa this weekend to learn how best to spread their party’s message are being told one way is to know when to shut up.

The Achilles heel of the modern-day conservative movement is people who end up discrediting it when they speak their mind, suggested Preston Manning, the founder of the Reform party, which gave today’s Conservative government its start.

Manning referred directly to the case of Tom Flanagan, a long-time party strategist who found himself swiftly ostracized last month after suggesting people who look at child pornography shouldn’t be jailed.

“Conservative governments, parties, and campaigns simply cannot afford to be blindsided and discredited by these incidents when the individuals involved are connected with those governments, with those parties, and with those campaigns,” Manning said in his keynote address Saturday to a conference organized by his political leadership institute.

Flanagan had been scheduled to be a speaker at the conference but was dropped from the schedule.

The movement had no choice but to cut him off, Manning said, even as he called Flanagan a good friend.

Manning said in the early days of the Reform party he didn’t address the issue enough of where the line is between freedom of expression and speaking on behalf of the party.

“If I am only speaking for myself and I am the primary bearer of the consequences of what I say, the horizons of free speech should be as broad and expansive as the sky,” Manning said.

“But if in speaking we are identified with a conservative organization made up of many others who will also bear the consequences of what we say, there are limits to what we can say defined by that line in the sand and the responsibility we owe to colleagues.”

Canadians have every right to ask whether those who can’t seem to govern their own tongue can actually govern the party, Manning said.

Striving to find a balance between protecting the party and protecting its free speech ideals is an example of the challenges Conservatives currently face as it seeks equilibrium between its base and their more recent supporters.

Manning suggests that conferences like his are a place for that debate, not party conventions.

A key draw at this weekend’s event was American libertarian Ron Paul who has advocated against government support for industry, federal social programs and the regulation of illicit drugs.

But his point of view is at odds with current Conservative thinking in Canada, most notably the way Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government tackled the economic recession with a massive stimulus plan.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement, one of the other speakers at the convention Saturday, noted that as a broader goal, the party does believe government should be limited.

He suggested that efforts to provide more basic government information to citizens, mostly in the form of data sets, is one way forward.

“The dream of conservatives is that eventually through crowdsourcing that governments can step back,” Clement said during a panel on the role data plays in politics and governance.

“When all the information is available, why does government need to make decisions? That’s the holy grail for us as freedom lovers, who believe government should be limited.”

But Clement’s advocacy of open government seemingly runs counter to a number of battles the Harper Tories have had over access to information, including an ongoing fight with the parliamentary budget officer over the government’s refusal to hand over financial information relating to last year’s budget.