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Preston Agonistes


Preston Manning's recent communications suggest that he believes major change is ahead for himself and his party.


Tom Flanagan

 Author Notes

Professor of political science, University of Calgary, former director of research for the Reform Party of Canada (1991-1992), president of the Canadian conservative society Civitas

Books by Tom Flanagan
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First Nations? Second Thoughts
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Waiting for the Wave: The Reform Party & Preston Manning (1995)
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 Essay - 6/27/1998

Rare among politicians, Preston Manning is a dedicated author. He had no ghost writer for his book, The New Canada, and he writes his own speeches. He labours over drafts and circulates them for comment before putting them in final form. Hence, when he publishes an essay or gives a major speech, those who want to understand his thinking should read it carefully.

In his recent speech to the Reform Party Assembly at London, Mr. Manning promised to risk his leadership in Reform's attempt to build a so-called "United Alternative," that is, a broader party that can stand a chance of wresting government from the Liberals. "Do I risk the position of leadership which you have given me this past eleven years?" he asked. "The frank answer to that question is Yes!"

These words should take Manning-watchers to the passage in The New Canada that recounts how he came to enter politics. In 1983, he tells us, he developed "a conflict-resolution model based on the Christian doctrine of reconciliation but expressed in systems language and stripped of any religious terminology." The central point of this "Model of Last Resort," as he called it, was that at the right moment the mediator must be ready to sacrifice his personal interests to bring estranged parties together.

Mr. Manning describes how he sent his "Model of Last Resort" to "several eminent practitioners of the art of conflict resolution," including Charles Malik, a former president of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Mr. Malik advised him, in words that Mr. Manning says he has "taken to heart," to enter politics "by running for office or seeking some important political appointment, to be able really to contribute to the 'Reconciliation of Parties in Conflict.'"

Mr. Manning certainly wants to become prime minister, but he is not merely ambitious in the ordinary way. If he were, he would have entered an existing party and tried to rise within it--surely a more likely path to high office than creating a new party. Yet the founding of a successful new party is Mr. Manning's greatest achievement--one in which he takes great pride, and which historians will not forget.

That he now speaks of sacrificing his leadership suggests that he pictures himself as facing the crucial moment in his political career. By announcing that his leadership is at risk, he symbolically offers himself as the mediator of last resort between the party he has founded and the other parties that he now realizes he needs.

A related and intriguing development is that Cliff Fryers, Reform's hardest-driving administrator and toughest enforcer, is leaving his Calgary law practice to become the leader's chief of staff in Ottawa. Mr. Manning wouldn't take this step unless he thought he was arriving at a critical juncture.

Is this all just psychodrama, or is something about to happen in the real world? Even though I personally favour a coalition of parties on the right, I have been skeptical till now, believing that Mr. Manning was too attached to his leadership and too individual in his style to share power in a broader formation.

Maybe that view will prove correct, but developments over the past few months have been remarkable. Mr. Manning admitted that Reform can't win on its own and announced a search for allies. The "blue" faction of the Progressive Conservative Party tried to entice former Reform MP Stephen Harper to run for PC leader, and is now pushing their party toward negotiations with Reform. Hugh Segal and Joe Clark, the two most likely successors to the Tory leadership, have stopped attacking Reform and started talking about "setting a candle in the window" for Reformers. If we were observing hostile nations in the international arena, we would be talking with guarded optimism about "signs of movement."

Also important is that Mr. Manning has stopped using his erstwhile favourite word, "populism." Strikingly, that term did not appear at all in his London speech. Instead of arguing that the difference between left and right is meaningless, as he used to do, he now offers a multidimensional analysis of ideological cleavage similar to what one finds in intermediate-level works of political science.

Maybe this more realistic view of ideology will help guide him towards negotiating a broader conservative coalition. He still denies that he wants a coalition on the right; but if one forms, that is where it will be, because that is where the frustrated voters are located.

The odds against success are still long, but it is at least conceivable that something positive could come out of this. The story will be worth following as it unfolds.

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