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Former Aussie PM's unintended message to Canadian progressives: Democratic coalitions work!

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John Howard

OTTAWA - Was former Australian PM John Howard sending Canadian conservatives a coded message about their future Saturday, or was his research just not up to snuff now that he's no longer a prime minister?

Howard is a Liberal, which in Australia means he's a conservative, which almost anywhere else would mean he’d be termed a neoliberal, which here in North America requires him to be called a neoconservative, which of course was the reason he was invited to be part of the closing act at Preston Manning's "Big Ideas for Conservatives" bunfest in Ottawa Saturday afternoon.

Still with me?

At any rate, when Howard was done, Prime Minister Stephen Harper (who did not attend, although he sent along heavyweight cabinet members like Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Treasury Board President Tony Clement) must have been thinking: with friends like this, who needs enemies?

Arguably, Manning himself started the ball rolling at the closing session of the two-day neoconservative revival meeting in the Ottawa Convention Centre, organized on by the misnamed Manning Centre for Building Democracy, by emphasizing his "conservative big tent" theme with the reminder his favourite national political party survives because it is a coalition of the right.

Indeed, the former Reform Party Leader observed: "Remember, it was a coalition that brought Canada into being!"

Howard started his remarks with the usual encomium to the Canadian PM -- "I can't find a better conservative leader anywhere in the world" -- and a little joke about the Canadian Senate being an unelected sort of place. This was well received. But he soon picked up on Manning's coalition meme and warmed to it.

Things look promising for the illiberal Liberals Down Under in their struggle with the governing Labour Party, he said to the cheers, whistles and foot-stomps of the crowd. This may well be so -- Howard is obviously much better placed than I to make forecasts about Australian politics, although he could be argued to have a certain bias.

He observed: "In Australia, things do look good for the return of a coalition government."

"The Liberal Party and the National Party have governed in coalition," Howard explained to his Canadian audience. "We now have a formal coalition." 

"The coalition has always been harmonious," he immediately added. And why not? The Australian Liberals and the rural but Conservative National Party espouse essentially the same doctrine, he pointed out, so it makes sense for them to work together.

"Overall, coalitions work very well," Howard concluded this part of his remarks.

Now, it seemed to this observer that at that point there was a certain nervous shuffling in the room, which moments before had received Howard's joke about the Senate with enthusiastic chuckles.

After all, it could be argued, the political parties in Canada that might most benefit for acting in coalition are those of the centre and the left.

But if the right-wing Canadian prime minister was watching somewhere and grinding his teeth at his former Australian colleague's reminder to Canadians of a progressive frame of mind that there's nothing undemocratic or impractical about governing coalitions of parties with similar platforms, it would have been nothing compared to his likely reaction to Howard's advice about what kind of politician voters should pick.

Stay away from those fellows who have never held a real job, but just worked as aides to politicians, occupied a desk in a think tank or an AstroTurf group and then ran for office, Howard advised.

You know, he unfortunately didn't add, fellows like Stephen Harper who have never held a real job in their lives. Oh well, presumably Howard no longer has a flunky to do his homework nowadays. Anyway, he can always argue it's the exceptions that make the rules.

On another topic, in his formal closing-day sermon to the 800 or so conservative activists at the session, Manning ensured there could be no misapprehension that former neoconservative icon, election strategist and prime ministerial confidante Tom Flanagan has been cast forever from the bosom of Canadian conservatism.

As readers will no doubt recall, on Feb. 28 Flanagan famously made the astonishing revelation at a public seminar in the southern Alberta city of Lethbridge that he views child pornography more as an issue of freedom of expression than exploitation of children.

Whatever Flanagan intended to say, the reaction was swift, uncompromising and nearly universal -- within hours he was severed from the Wildrose Party, which he had served as a senior campaigner, dumped as a speaker at the Manning conference, canned as a commentator for the CBC, disavowed by the prime minister and effectively skidded from the final months of his tenure at the University of Calgary.

In response to the grumblings of the many self-described "libertarians" at his conference -- some of whom could be seen wearing dish-sized buttons displaying the disgraced professor's visage -- Manning unapologetically made the banishment irrevocable.

"If the breadth and the depth of this coalition is its strength, what is its weakness, its Achilles heel, its greatest vulnerability?" Manning asked. "Is not its greatest weakness, intemperate and ill-considered remarks by those who hold these positions deeply but in fits of carelessness or zealousness say things that discredit the family as a whole, in particular conservative governments parties and campaigns?"

He cited, without naming names, "two recent examples from Alberta:

"A derogatory reference to homosexuals by a social conservative candidate, made in the past but dredged up during the recent provincial election to derail the Wildrose campaign in that province.

"A questionable comment by a prominent libertarian and a good friend of mine, which seemed to imply that the freedom of an individual to view child pornography had no serious consequences for others."

Well, asked Manning, "the question then arises, what do we do about these things?"

His answer, which prompted some grumbles from the floor: "For the sake of the movement and the maintenance of public trust, conservative organizations should be prepared to swiftly and publicly disassociate themselves from those individuals who cross the line."

Thus Manning and his generously funded Calgary-based think tank strove to close the book on Flanagan's misadventures. His judgment, it is fair to say, reflects the realities of politics and does not merely apply to conservative organizations.

Manning's reference to the remarks of Pastor Allan Hunsperger, the Wildrose candidate he mentioned, also left no doubt which party the people who bankroll the Manning Centre now favour in Alberta.

However, Manning also made this point explicit in his speech, calling Premier Alison Redford's government "an aging Progressive Conservative administration (that) has lost its way ethically and fiscally and needs to be overhauled or replaced."

Notwithstanding Manning's constant protestations about ensuring Canadians conservatives inhabit a "big tent" -- or Howard's appropriate characterization of the same thing as a "big church" -- the effort of the Manning Centre is clearly designed to move Canada’s conservatives, and by extension the country, much farther to the market-fundamentalist right. 

This is a delicate proposition for Manning, who is both highly ideological and quite realistic, since too much market fundamentalism too quickly could easily shatter the country’s conservative coalition, as could fights with Conservatives like Redford.

Nevertheless, as the cast of characters at the weekend conference illustrated, and Manning's denunciation of Redford's apparently too-Progressive Conservatives clearly illuminates, the Tea Party roadmap adopted by the Republicans in the United States continues to appeal to many prominent Canadian conservatives.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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