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Preston Manning turns up again on Alberta's sovereignty-association panel

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Preston Manning in 2013. Image: David J. Climenhaga

Preston Manning is the bad penny of Canadian politics. So no one should be surprised he's turned up again!

Good rarely results from Manning's interventions in politics, which never seem to end, so don't expect positive results from his appointment by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney to what might accurately be called the Firewall Commission but will be officially known as the "Fair Deal Panel."

The nine-member panel is charged with finding ways to overcome Alberta's perpetual case of péquiste envy, thereby allowing this province to negotiate side deals with the rest of Canada like Quebec does, while asserting its imaginary right to run Confederation the way it wants notwithstanding the contrary wishes of voters in other provinces.

This psychological condition appears to be recurring, although not chronic. That is, it only flares up when Liberals are in power in Ottawa.

It's particularly bad right now, though, because Prairie Conservatives are still having a tantrum over losing a federal election they'd expected to win. They are seeing their ambition to amend the Constitution to entrench property rights and make Canada more like the United States under Donald Trump turn to ashes in their mouths.

It is exacerbated further by the inability of Alberta voters to figure out that Quebec's success has something to do with that province's ability to always elect some MPs from the party that's going to form the government.

The trouble is, as with Manning's successful attack on Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney's proposed constitutional reforms in 1992, a lot of damage can be done to the country by his meddling.

So Kenney's announcement at the Manning Conference (but of course) in Red Deer yesterday portends bad things for the whole country, instead of just Calgary, where in recent years the 77-year-old former Reform Party leader has been concentrating his diminishing influence on removing progressive Mayor Naheed Nenshi from power, so far without much success.

It's hard to guess exactly what the purpose of this exercise is, since its premise that Alberta is the redheaded stepchild of Confederation, mistreated by all, is demonstrably false.

Its goal may be keeping Kenney in the public eye as Canada's real opposition leader to further his prime ministerial ambitions. That assumes such ambitions can somehow co-exist with behaviour that would seem to automatically rule him out as PM with voters in most parts of Canada.

Or perhaps it's intended to provide a distraction from United Conservative Party budget-cutting measures that are proving surprisingly unpopular. As with much of what Kenney does, this policy does seem to be designed to create scapegoats the UCP can identify as the source of Alberta's self-inflicted economic troubles.

The main point, though, seems to be to resuscitate the dumb ideas from the 2001 Firewall Manifesto signed by the then still unfulfilled Stephen Harper, his future political advisor Tom Flanagan, Alberta's future finance minister Ted Morton, political scientist Rainer Knopff and a couple of lesser lights associated with the University-of-Calgary-based Conservative brain trust.

As followers of Alberta politics know, these neoliberal tales from the political crypt are hauled out every few years by admirers of Harper's harshly ideological early years, before he became prime minister and was forced to learn to practice realpolitik.

If you were wondering why Harper didn't push these ideas during the decade he and Kenney were powerbrokers in Ottawa, you must not have been paying attention to the cyclical nature of the worst Western Conservative ideas, which, as noted above, only seem to recur when Liberals are in power.

Political reality required the federal Conservatives to act like a normal political party while in power, a lesson both its current leader and Kenney seem to have forgotten.

So among the big ideas to be pushed by the panel are many plagiarized from the Firewall Letter premier Ralph Klein sensibly tossed into the recycling bin, never imagining it would keep getting recycled. These include:

  • Setting up a separate Alberta pension plan to replace the Canada Pension Plan, now with the addition of a new twist, looting Alberta pensioners' retirement security to prop up in the dying fossil fuel industry
  • Opting out of the province's tax-collection agreement with Ottawa, presumably just to show that we can, a move that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars
  • Firing the RCMP and setting up a provincial police force perhaps less inclined to investigate UCP leadership vote-rigging scandals
  • Demanding Alberta participation in the negotiation of treaties and other areas of exclusive federal jurisdiction
  • Forcing local boards and agencies not to make deals with Ottawa without Conservative political oversight
  • Opting out of pharmacare and like programs, because, you know, free markets …

Readers will get the general picture.

As Dave Cournoyer pointed out, Klein did set up his own panel on Alberta's role in Confederation, and it debunked many of the Firewall suggestions now resurfacing with Kenney's encouragement.

So it's hard to imagine how anything good can come from a panel seemingly designed to raise expectations, and then inevitably fail, thus setting the stage for mischief at least, sedition at worst.

In addition to Manning, panel members include former civil servant Oryssia Lennie, now an apparatchik of the neoliberal Canada West Foundation; Fraser Institute fellow Moin Yaha; former Alberta Regional Assembly of First Nations Chief Jason Goodstriker; Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes, who should now get over his snit about being left out of Mr. Kenney's cabinet; and Donna Kennedy-Glans, a former minor Progressive Conservative minister and author of several blog posts with a nasty separatist tone asking questions like, "has Trudeau committed treason?" 

Two other low-profile UCP MLAs also grace the panel. You can read the rambling press release for the complete member list and additional insights into what Kenney may be thinking.

There is good news for Quebecers, British Columbians and denizens of the National Capital Region, at least. Alberta will open offices in Quebec, B.C. and Ottawa so that citizens in those places will have an address at which to gather to let Alberta officials know what they think of Kenney's policies on reproductive rights, LGBTQ issues, collective bargaining and, of course, global warming inaction.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David J. Climenhaga

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