Preston Manning’s new centre for building democracy .. and Sharia Law in Ontario?

Sep 16th, 2005 | By | Category: Key Current Issues

Western Canadian political guru Preston Manning’s “newly formed, not-for-profit national organization to be called the Manning Centre for Building Democracy” seems to underline the current problems of federal Conservative leader Stephen Harper.

The Manning Centre will arise on the ashes of “an informal roundtable” of “100 conservative-minded people from across Canada,” over the September 17-18 weekend in Toronto. It “will focus on the need to build essential infrastructure’ to support more vigorous, effective conservative participation in the democratic process.”

At first, the news here does seem to be saying that Mr. Manning’s old Reform Party colleague Mr. Harper just isn’t getting the job done. But this is finally unfair and misleading at best.

And building democracy as Preston Manning proposes could even lead you down such thorny garden paths as Ontario’s current controversy over “Sharia law.”

Does humanity really matter?

Stephen Harper was supposed to be the younger incarnation of Preston Manning who could actually win federal seats beyond Alberta and other parts of Mr. Manning’s “New West.”

In fact, Mr. Harper’s new Conservative Party did win 24 seats in Ontario in the 2004 federal election – and another seven seats in Atlantic Canada. And Harper’s Tories (and Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc Quebecois) did manage to almost bring down Paul Martin’s Liberal minority government this past spring.

Yet as at least the political addicts among the people of Canada start to re-focus on the prospects for their fractious 38th federal Parliament over the Fall and Winter of 2005-2006, the old conservative warrior Preston Manning does seem to have a few human attractions that the new Conservative leader Stephen Harper still lacks.

Canada (and especially Central Canada) being what it is, Mr. Harper finally might prove more acceptable to larger numbers of Canadians. But Mr. Manning is still more interesting.

Acceptance of personal responsibility in every area of national life … ?

You probably do have to be some sort of confirmed conservative to find Preston Manning altogether interesting.

This past April he joined with former Ontario premier Mike “The Knife” Harris, to present an aggressively right-wing think-piece called A Canada Strong and Free, sponsored by the Fraser Institute in Vancouver. It elaborated a tough “vision” that “expands freedom of choice and acceptance of personal responsibility in every area of national life and calls for a rebalancing’ of national priorities.”

This document may have been intended to help Stephen Harper’s contemporaneous ambition to at last get some kind of conservative government into office in Ottawa, on the wave driven by the Gomery inquiry into the Liberal sponsorship scandal. But it just as likely harmed the cause.

Mike Harris is not at all as popular in Ontario now as he was in the late 1990s, right after the province’s first-ever NDP government (which had not really expected to ever win an election, and had almost no serious idea of what to do when it did). What worries quite a few of the still more Ontarians Stephen Harper still has to reach is that he just might be a bit too much like Mike Harris – who, it turns out, did not really leave the province in all that good shape.

But building democracy … well …

On the other hand, the name Preston Manning has chosen for his new enterprise in extra-parliamentary politics is a bit interesting – the “Centre for Building Democracy.” Even those who do not share Mr. Manning’s right-wing Harrisite views on the economy and society can warm a little to his views on democracy.

Judging by the newspaper account of what the Centre is going to be doing, training and inspiring bigger and better conservative cadres in all the latest technologies for manipulating voters has at least as much to do with its future as any higher reaches of current democratic thought and aspiration. (Alas.)

But Preston Manning himself has always exuded some kind of authentic warmth for the old grass-roots democracy of “the populist political traditions of western Canada” – the same traditions that helped give birth to what is now the New Democratic Party, back in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

More concretely, Preston Manning actually openly endorsed the controversial (and rather mysterious) “Single Transferrable Vote” option, in the recent BC provincial referendum on proportional representation.

In its highest reaches, some form of underlying grass-roots democracy in Preston Manning’s old Reform Party was what first inspired and nourished the honourable political career of the late great Chuck Cadman.

It does seem unlikely that the new Manning Centre as currently described will be nourishing many future Chuck Cadmans. (Who after all did end his career as an Independent, who finally voted to keep Paul Martin’s Liberal government in office – because his sovereign constituents simply did not want a fresh federal election, so soon after the last one.) But Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party probably would be more successful, even in Ontario, if it had a little more of Chuck Cadman’s old Preston Manning Reform Party grass-roots democratic spirit.

The “Spiritual Frontier” … and Sharia law in Ontario

There is one theme in what Preston Manning has lately been saying to audiences around the country that many will tell you could get Stephen Harper into a lot of trouble, among the still more Ontario voters he still needs to attract. This has to do with what Mr. Manning calls the contemporary “Spiritual Frontier.”

Preston Manning is not, it seems clear enough after all these years, any brand of religious fanatic. But he is a man of religious convictions. And he believes that the “separation of church and state – an important principle to be preserved – does not mean that we can or should keep faith perspectives from influencing political decisions or vice versa.”

In this context you also can’t help but wonder what Preston Manning’s kind of conservative makes of the current Sharia law controversy in Ontario.

Does Mr. Manning, e.g., agree with Premier Dalton McGuinty’s recent rather sudden decision that there shall ultimately be no Islamic, Christian, Jewish, or any other kind of faith-based legal arbitration in the province? Does he agree that there shall be just one law for all – one equal justice for all, and all the same, in the free and democratic society?

And if so, does he also believe that, on the same rigorous democratic principles, Ontario should finally be getting rid of its publicly funded Catholic Separate School system too? And, if you really want to start thinking outside the box, might some version of all this even be a good issue for Stephen Harper in Ontario federal electoral politics?

Is there, floating around in this freshly bubbling pot of conflicting attitudes about just what “multiculturalism” is going to mean in the Canadian future, some advanced version of the hot buttons that did seem to work so well for Mike Harris in the last half of the 1990s? Probably not. But at this point who really knows?

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