Think Big: My Life in Politics

by Preston Manning
ISBN: 0771056761

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A Review of: Think Big: Adventures in Life and Democracy
by John Pepall

Preston Manning's Think Big is a political memoir, the first half of which covers familiar terrain in the history of the Reform Party and Manning's personal history. The second half of the book is what is new, and, to a degree, interesting. It covers the united alternative initiative, the formation of the Canadian Alliance, the leadership race that ended in Manning's defeat by Stockwell Day, the general election of November 2000 and Stockwell Day's downfall.
Manning is not shy about presenting himself as a model politician whose avowed Christianity threatens no policy commitments but stands as a warranty of his probity and selfless concern. In fact he was a consummate political strategist whose success and failure demonstrate the limitations of such a role. Far from being a right wing politician, Manning seems to have had no political beliefs at all beyond a belief in his own unique capacity to manage what issues might arise. In Waiting for the Wave Tom Flanagan has lucidly described the process by which Manning caught successive waves of Western resentment, tax fatigue and deficit anxiety to carry Reform to 52 seats in the 1993 election. To do this he had to join in and exploit the Liberals' demonisation of Mulroney's Tories. It was a remarkable achievement for a party founded barely six years before.
But in the ten years that have followed, the movement that Manning founded (and for over ten years led and was identified with), has not been able to build on that success. The election of 1997 brought eight more seats in a larger house and official opposition status, but the Tories had made an important comeback. Manning moved to finish off the Tories on the day Jean Charest declared his resignation as leader, announcing the United Alternative (never "unite the right") initiative. Unwilling to merge with the Tories, whose demonisation had been essential to his success, Manning hoped to peel off enough to weaken the party fatally. But the United Alternative, which brought about the founding of the Canadian Alliance, was a failure. For the most part, the Tories recruited were fervent neo-cons who tended to push the new party to the right when Manning would rather have moved stealthily to the centre. And then the new party, which was new in little more than name only, would need a new leader. Manning could not understand this.
Manning seems to have genuinely believed in 2000 that he was on his way to becoming Prime Minister. He called his campaign for the Alliance leadership PM4PM. As Manning tells the story, he was fearful of defeat from the outset of the leadership campaign. There were reports in the news that he was shocked when the results of the voting were announced. One difficulty he faced was the need to sell himself openly. He had always been a self-promoter. He is at it again in Think Big. But always before he could hide behind the movement or the cause, the Reform Party or the United Alternative or a Triple E Senate and he faced no serious rival in the political terrain he had carved out for himself.
He says he and his supporters were exhausted from the general election, the United Alternative initiative and the founding of the Alliance. He complains that the media paid more attention to the pronouncements of Stockwell Day and Tom Long, the new faces, than they did to him. He seemed at the time to keep a deliberately low profile and his low key campaign gave every sign that while he welcomed other candidates as giving legitimacy to the new party he assumed the leadership was his. He could not absorb that both old Reform members and new members who believed that the Alliance would be a real alternative to the Liberals wanted a new leader and found in Stockwell Day a credible one.
Manning complains that Day won the leadership by aggressively recruiting Christian social conservatives, as if he himself had not appealed to them-if not so aggressively because he had no competition-or the Manning brand in Canadian politics did not go back to Bible Bill Aberhart's radio ministry, continued by Ernest Manning until 1989. In any event, Christian support for Day was a secondary factor. Tom Long, the Ontario Tory and political strategist who placed third on the first ballot gave his energetic support to Manning for the second. But Manning's vote did no grow and practically all of Long's support went to Day. There wasn't a fundamentalist Christian among them.
To Manning the small advance made by the Alliance under Day in the 2000 election bears out his contention that something went wrong with the Alliance leadership race. But would Manning's fourth appearance as party leader have carried the Alliance to a better result? Almost certainly not. Manning is harshly critical of Day's every step. His defence against the charge that he undermined Day's leadership is basically that Day's leadership was indefensible.
But Day was not an unprecedentedly untalented politician. He is no worse than Joe Clark. He had a fair reputation as Alberta Treasurer and has been an effective foreign affairs critic since Stephen Harper became leader of the Alliance. Wary of the possibility that Alliance could be accepted as an alternative government, the Liberals subjected Day to unprecedented fire in 2000. Manning had never faced anything like it.
Manning's political career is over. He has become not so much an ideas man as a topics man. He ends the book by outlining a wide range of topics from the ethical implications of a genetic revolution to the future of the Canadian dollar about which he has nothing to say.
Manning devotes a whole chapter and several passages elsewhere to an attack on Liberal ethics, Shawinigate etc. This is well enough done but rather stale. It should have been material for vigorous attacks on the Liberals in the House of Commons and election campaigns. But Manning was always thinking too big and too busy plotting the demise of the Tories to be effective at day-to-day politics. The Tory rump, pretending nothing much had changed, often constituted a more effective opposition than their more numerous Reform or Alliance colleagues.
For all his electoral success Manning was never able to form a party that was more than his instrument.When he made the effort, it got out of his hands and began to fall apart. After Stephen Harper had managed to pull it together, he finally came to see that Manning's most successful strategy, the attack on the Tories, had to be abandoned.
Manning's strategy of catching waves could never build the long-term base of support that the Tories have relied on to keep going through ten years in the wilderness. It is the revival of that base of support, the return of demoralised Tories, reinvigorated by the merger and the burying of the Reform hatchet that constitutes the best hope for a future for the Conservative Party. Before the Martin juggernaut in the 2004 election the Conservative Party may not even match the success of Alliance in 2000. But they will be an effective opposition and some day a new Tory government. Canadian politics will recover from the damage Manning did. It will continue to suffer from the mendacity of the Liberals and the distractions of too much political strategizing.

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