Preston Manning's Twisted Genius

I rarely make political predictions, but when it came to the Reform Party, Preston Manning and the Canadian Alliance I felt I was on safe ground. I had spent a regrettable amount of my life studying this strange and scary phenomenon. I wrote the first book on Manning and Reform and then published ReformWatch for four years, tracking the machinations of what must be one of the most exotic political creatures Canada has ever produced.

When friends urged me to do a similar project on Stockwell Day and the Alliance, though, I replied it was completely unnecessary. I argued that what you had to understand about the Reform was that it was Borg-like. Manning was the mainframe computer which designed and ran the collective.Take away the brain and the collective would disintegrate, suddenly developing individual personalities and even names - like "Hugh" or "Rahim Jaffer."

It was just a matter of time.

Manning, for all I detest the man's politics, is a genius. If that wasn't obvious before, it should be now. This squeaky-voiced fundamentalist who had never so much as run for school board, founded an incredibly successful party with a core membership in a permanent state of populist over-excitement. Manning's job: keep this collection of right-wing nut-bars, anti-social misfits, Christian zealots, bigots and homophobes in check. This wasn't herding cats. This was herding cats on amphetamines.

No other Canadian politician in living memory has devoted as much time to strategy and control as did Presto. Absolutely every move he made was thought out down to the last detail. Nothing was left to chance. The core objective of his design of the party was his complete control (or as near to that as humanly possible) of the membership. He accomplished this through a complex mix of party structure, personal leadership and policy initiatives - all crafted with what I referred to as calculated ambiguity.

Each policy - and he wrote every one of them, right from the beginning - was designed to please everyone. Different people could read into them what they believed the policy really meant and Manning would personally confirmeach meaning. Policies impossible to sell - like banning abortions - were cloaked in the promise of referenda. And people bought it. He kept his followers loyal, passionate, dedicated and, most importantly, silent about their most cherished issues.

Manning gave his members something that no one else came close to providing: respectability and membership in the political mainstream. Every other party that had tried had failed miserably. The Western Canada Concept,the Christian Heritage Party and other even more embarrassing efforts presented the anti-abortionists/capital punishers/immigrant haters/anti-Semites/extreme libertarians in plain clothes. They were seen as parties of freaks - so marginal they made Marxist-Leninists look mainstream.

Manning ended their wandering in the wilderness. He gave them status. They could belong to a party that reflected their beliefs and values and one that could actually make it on to the evening news. In return, they mostly gave Manning what he wanted. They shut up. They didn't rant and rave aboutabortion, about teenage sex, about the evils of humanism or French on cereal boxes.

It wasn't easy. It required an extraordinary degree of attention to detail at every level. Manning truly trusted no one except his father. But he carefully nurtured a team of people he knew were absolutely loyal, most importantly the senior members of the party bureaucracy.

He used this core group to ensure the party functioned exclusively as a machine to carry out proselytizing, fundraising and electioneering. Manning was a master of manipulation. He accomplished this objective in part through his ability to make ordinary members believe that theyactually decided the policies and determined the direction of the party.

He combined the use of his core Calgary staff with a brilliant system of controlling the constituencies. The local riding associations were the greatest threat to the party's stability and Manning couldn't be everywhereat once. So he built extraordinary levels of personal loyalty at the locallevel by giving some party stalwarts privileged information while denying itto most others. The more loyal you were, the more privileged. If youwavered, the privilege was withdrawn until loyalty was restored.

Manning was capable of utter ruthlessness when it was necessary, and itoften was. His blatantly undemocratic party practice inevitably createddissenters, some rich and powerful, some even longtime friends. Taking apage out of his own religious background, he used the practice of shunningto deal with persistent dissent. Once shunned, the member simply disappearedas far as the party was concerned. Letters and phone calls to partyheadquarters went unanswered. Manning and officials either refused torespond at all to media inquiries about the dissent, or, if they felt theyhad to, responded in such general terms that the issue was rarely evenacknowledged. In many cases, the most determined dissenters, frustrated anddesperate, became obsessed. Fighting an enemy who refused to fight back, andshunned by their former party colleagues and friends, they ended up lookingand sounding like cranks. They never prevailed. Not once.

The dissent rarely made the media because only one side talked. Compared tothe verbal diarrhea now afflicting the Alliance, Manning's carefulmanagement resembled the performance of a virtuoso orchestra conductor.

The party that is currently falling apart is the same party that Manningbuilt and guided for thirteen years. The same caucus, the same mix of socialand fiscal conservatives, the same carefully structured riding associations.Nothing has changed. Except everything is different. Stockwell Day, likesome lazy and dissolute son of a self-made millionaire, is not onlyincapable of leading and running the party, he is too thick to evenunderstand what he actually inherited from the master.

I do not miss Preston Manning. He was a dangerous man who profoundlyaffected Canadian politics and society for the worse. He deserves to beunhappy watching, from the black tower of the Fraser Institute,uncharacteristically powerless, as his life-long dream disintegrates beforehis eyes.

Long live Stockwell Day, the gift that keeps on giving.

Murray Dobbin is a member of the editorial board for rabble.ca. Heis a journalist, author and activist living in Vancouver.

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