Preston Manning (Interview)

For Reform party Leader Preston Manning, 1997 was a year of triumph. In the June 2 federal election, he led his party to victory in 60 ridings - and to official Opposition status in the House of Commons.

Manning, Preston

For Reform party Leader Preston Manning, 1997 was a year of triumph. In the June 2 federal election, he led his party to victory in 60 ridings - and to official Opposition status in the House of Commons. His success, however, was tempered by disappointment: Reform failed to win a single seat in Central and Eastern Canada. Now ensconced in Stornoway, the Opposition leader's residence, Manning spoke to Maclean's Editor-in-Chief Robert Lewis and National Affairs Columnist Anthony Wilson-Smith about the challenges ahead, both for the Reform party and the country as a whole. Excerpts:

Maclean's: The Liberals have taken a tougher approach to crime and the national unity issue and paid more attention to the debt and deficit. All of those reflect Reform positions. Do you feel like the NDP in the 1970s, when the Liberals were plucking their major planks out from under them?

Manning: I suppose there's a danger of that happening. The Liberals tend to steal the words and a little bit of the substance but they never go far enough, fast enough, to actually implement what we've been talking about. We think we've got at least two things in our platform, or maybe three, that if the Liberals try to swallow, they'll choke.

Maclean's: Which are those?

Manning: Tax relief is one. The Liberals' instinctive desire is to spend. They'll tinker around with tax relief but I don't think they'll go anywhere near as far as the public wants. Another one is the principle of equality of citizens and provinces rather than special entitlements based on your race or culture and language. If the Liberals start trying to steal that, they tend to blow their Quebec wing out of the party and all this collection of interest groups they've built up around multicultural policies. The third one is this desire for democratic bottom-up decision-making, freer voting in Parliament, letting the public in on more of these decisions. The Liberal party is held together by top-down discipline greased with patronage, and if you ever took that away from them I don't think they could hold their group in the House together for a week.

Maclean's: Are they on the right track now on the Quebec issue?

Manning: No. They've finally picked up on this Plan B stuff [emphasizing to Quebecers the potentially negative impact of sovereignty]. We were on that 18 months before the last referendum, and we're pleased because we think it's going to help the vote in the next referendum. But they're completely neglecting the Plan A part, and you've got to keep them both in balance. Plan A, the positive position that's got potential for being sold both in Quebec and outside of Quebec, is this rebalancing of the powers. We've been on that for a long time. Our data show that talking about rebalancing the powers has more impact on those swing voters in a referendum, the soft sovereigntists and discontented federalists, than any of the symbolic stuff - either distinct society or the unique character of Quebec.

Maclean's: In your home province of Alberta, the legislature unanimously supported the Calgary declaration. What is your position on that?

Manning: The most important thing about the Calgary declaration was this commitment to consult with people at the front end rather than halfway through or at the end. So we certainly supported the consultative aspect of it. The ingredients in it that we are particularly attracted to are the importance of equality of citizens and provinces. And it's got this recognition of the unique character of Quebec. But the interesting thing is that it ties the two together and says that whatever anybody gets to develop their uniqueness is available to all the provinces, which is the way to handle that.

Maclean's: How do you feel about your prospects for expanding your support beyond the West?

Manning:The big thing that encourages us is we got a big vote in Ontario [in the June 2 election] - 900,000 votes. The difference between it and 1993 is that our vote in 1997 was a lot more positive. In 1993, everyone was mad at somebody and just picked up Reform's stick to beat people over the head. We are disappointed we didn't get seats. We came within 500 votes in one place and 900,000 votes is a lot of votes, a lot more than we got in Alberta, but it wasn't concentrated enough to win seats.

Maclean's: What do you expect will happen to Jean Charest's Conservative party over the course of this mandate?

Manning: Their behavior in the House has been fairly curious. Mr. Charest seems to still have a lot of animosity towards me and to Reform. I'm not sure if that's what's driving their voting behavior, but so far they're voting with the government more often than the NDP.

Maclean's: There seems to be a little animosity going the other way as well.

Manning: I guess there's a little that way too. But Charest turns around and calls our guys bigots all the time. Of course this gets them mad after a while. But I don't know how long the federal Tories can keep voting with the Liberals without adding credit to this idea that what ought to happen to sort all this out is that the Red Tories should go with the Liberals if they are Liberals and call themselves Liberals. The Blue Tories should come to us. We've got a mini campaign going on this united alternative to the Liberals in Ontario. And if Charest can make a more positive contribution by going to Quebec and running for the Liberals there, then he ought to do that and everyone would be happy!

Maclean's: Did you ever imagine you would see a day, as you have already, where you would stand up in the House and defend former prime minister Brian Mulroney?

Manning: No. But we still think there's something really smelly about that whole Airbus thing. It goes beyond Mulroney - this principle of people being innocent until proven guilty. The idea of the justice department ever being used to pursue a political agenda is a fairly scary prospect. I think that does call for demanding explanations and accountability, even if Mulroney is the guy that triggered it.

Maclean's: The Prime Minister is about to lead another Team Canada trade mission, this time to Latin America. Are these missions a good idea?

Manning: I don't think they're particularly effective. One of the functions that governments do not do well is marketing. You don't see the Germans or the Japanese or the Americans running around on this type of trade mission. The big world traders and the most effective ones tend to let their private sector carry the ball visibly and the government plays a more supportive role.

Maclean's: Given some of the Liberals' flipflops, such as the Goods and Services Tax, why doesn't more, in your view, stick to this government?

Manning: I think a lot more sticks than is apparent. For the last four years, the government was up at this 60- to 65-per-cent approval rating - and then as soon as we got into a full-blown electoral contest, they came down like a stone 20 points. And groups like ours that were supposed to be at seven or eight per cent went up considerably. I think what that's telling you is that in between elections, Canadians are just prepared to park their votes with whatever seems to be most convenient, which is usually the governing party. When it gets into an electoral contest, that so-called Liberal support is soft as can be.

Maclean's: Do you have any kind of timetable for how long you will stay in politics?

Manning: I think it's governed by whether you think you can be effective. Our party, unlike the rest, has this regular leadership review every 18 months. I'm quite content to leave that in the hands of the members.

Maclean's: What is your general feeling about the state of the country?

Manning: I think it's got some huge problems. Despite the progress we've made on the fiscal side, we've still got 1.4 million out of work, two to three million underemployed and a very high youth unemployment level. Despite the progress on the deficit, the debt is so high we've got interest eating the heart out of the funding of social programs. So if people ask you honestly, is the funding for medicare, social assistance or pensions secure, the honest answer is no. That's a huge worry in terms of security - and we still have this unity thing. But the problems are not insoluble. On balance, I'm actually optimistic about the future. If you put these things in context, Canada has got problems but we've got resources to cope with them. And when I look at a lot of the other countries of the world, I couldn't think of any place where I'd rather be.

Maclean's

December 29, 1997