Preston Manning suggests shutting up

The former Reform party leader's advice to conservatives

Chris Selley considers the portion of Preston Manning’s speech this past weekend that dealt with “intemperate and ill considered remarks” by fellow conservatives.

He mentioned (though not by name) Wildrose candidate and evangelical pastor Allan Hunsperger, whose “derogatory reference to homosexuals” was “dredged up during the recent [Alberta] provincial election,” and “a questionable comment by a prominent libertarian and a good friend of mine, which seemed to imply that the freedom of an individual to view child pornography had no serious consequences for others.” That would be Mr. Flanagan.

And he took some of the blame for this state of affairs. “In the early days of the Reform Party, we were so anxious to allow our members the freedom to express contrary views that we virtually let them do and say as they pleased,” he said. “But in later years I have come to see the wisdom of Edmund Burke’s observation that before we encourage people to do as they please, we ought first to inquire what it may please them to do.”

That’s the founder of the Reform Party and the principled conscience of the Canadian conservative movement telling people to shut their yaps on controversial subjects for the good of the tribe. First and foremost, it’s depressing.

It is at least cynical. Consider these two paragraphs from the prepared text.

For the sake of the movement and the maintenance of public trust, conservative organizations should be prepared to swiftly and publicly disassociate themselves from those individuals who cross the line.

This does not mean that we as individual conservatives on a personal level ostracize or disassociate ourselves from those who cross the line. Everyone makes honest mistakes, conservatives believe in second chances, and we need to rally around those who have been lured across the line by opponents rather than “piling on.”

So the line-crosser should be publicly scorned, even if also privately comforted. Perhaps it’s only odd to hear someone acknowledge that much out loud—perhaps this is only the political equivalent of breaking the fourth wall—but it does raise all sorts of interesting questions for further discussion.

Consider the case of Mr. Hunsperger. What was his “mistake”? Holding those views? Expressing them publicly? Expressing them publicly if he ever hoped to run for political office? Or, rather, was it the Wild Rose party’s “mistake”? Should it have barred him from running as a candidate given that he had expressed such views?

Is this anything more than a public relations exercise? Or does a party make a philosophical point when it condemns such “mistakes”? (More broadly, how should a modern conservative party reconcile its social conservative members and supporters with the increasing acceptance of gay rights? I actually think that should be the topic of a panel discussion at next year’s Manning conference.)

How generally should this idea of putting the team before the individual be applied? Could it be applied to Stephen WoodworthMark Warawa or Brad Trost? They certainly seem to contradict their party leader’s line on abortion, but they also speak to a sizeable constituency within the party. Does determining whether a line has been crossed and how the party should respond become a purely mathematical matter of determining how many votes are won or lost as a result? And at what point does this focus on the team limit the independence of the MP and contribute to the disempowerment of the legislature?

All of which perhaps sidesteps the fact that, as political advice for conservative parties who aspire to government, Mr. Manning’s advice is probably very sound.