Preston Manning

If on Oct. 21 the market-fundamentalist slate trained and sponsored by the so-called Manning Centre for Building Democracy should fail to sweep most of the seats on Calgary City Council, the wealthy developers who bankrolled this effort can take comfort in the knowledge they received their money’s worth in other ways.

Leastways, the Calgary-based Manning Centre — set up in the mid-Zeroes by former Reform Party leader Preston Manning to be a key facilitator in the coast-to-coast network of think tanks, Astro-Turf groups, media bloviators, academics, pollsters, campaign operatives and other ideological agents that comprise the Organized Right in Canada — is likely to place undermining democracy in Canadian city halls high on the agenda of its next national conference.

The details in a moment, but first, a little background:

Alert readers will recall how, early in 2013, a video, clandestinely recorded by persons unknown, surfaced showing one of Cowtown’s most prominent developers saying what he really thought about Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and explaining what the development industry proposed to do about him.

The developer in question, Cal Wenzel, was addressing a closed-door industry clambake the previous November on how to confound Mayor Nenshi’s approach to governance by finding ways to bankroll candidates more inclined to “swing our way.”

Since the extremely popular Mayor Nenshi was obviously unlikely to be unseated when Alberta communities hold their municipal elections in October, the unhappy developer confidentially explained, “for whatever and however, we have to ensure that we end up with the eight votes.” He was referring to the eight votes required to swing Calgary City Council the development industry’s way, regardless of what the mayor and voters might think about it.

Wenzel drew his listeners’ favourable attention to the Manning Centre’s blandly named “Municipal Governance Project,” and noted: “In order to bring Preston Manning on board, 11 of us have put $100,000 — $1.1 million … so it’s not like we haven’t put up our money.”

Now, for its part, the Manning Centre insists its Municipal Governance Project is not up to anything nefarious, that it isn’t running a slate of Manchurian Municipal Candidates in Calgary, and it isn’t misusing the charitable donations the Centre relies on for partisan purposes because it publishes “research” on the Internet.

Manning’s namesake hobbyhorse merely means “to offer customized training courses for those who wish to strengthen their knowledge and skills in communicating market-oriented ideas and principles in the municipal political arena,” it explains soothingly on its website. This will happen first in  Calgary, and later across the land. Those who do not accept the Centre’s extreme market-fundamentalist take on economics and society need not apply.

Indeed, even conservative candidates who are deemed unduly moderate in their views can find themselves being aggressively pushed to the far right by Manning operatives. The experience of one such Calgary councillor prompted Mayor Nenshi to accuse the Centre of playing partisan politics, its claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

Well, never mind, there’s more to the Manning Centre than the candidates it is backing, whether or not they technically amount to a slate.

For one thing, there’s that annual springtime bunfest in nation’s capital, formally known as the Manning Networking Conference, at which Manning’s starry eyed and frequently impassioned acolytes get to hear from the leading intellectual lights of the Organized Right and mingle with the captains of industry who generously stock their hospitality suites.

Indeed, as this is written the Manning Centre’s capable event organizers are hard at work on the “MNC” agenda for March 2014, and the list of speakers and seminar topics they are considering is informative, not least because it serves as a useful barometer of what the Organized Right is likely to demand next.

This information is not a particularly deep secret — the list was circulated widely to those who attended last year’s conference, not every one of whom shares the Manning Centre’s philosophy.

So what do the Manningites want to talk about next? This is a bit of intelligence from which we can discern what they expect the rest of us to be talking about soon, as their always-effective echo chamber takes up the cry.

At the very top of their list — judged by the number of suggestions put forward to gauge the interest of previous conference participants — are topics related to public education, or, rather, one might say, opposition to public education.

So readers can anticipate, it is said here, increasing interest in this topic among the multitudinous commentators of the right as well as its various political arms. Indeed, this has already started!

Other themes under consideration: the perennial attack on unions, naturally, plus “innovations in the think tank world,” not to mention encouraging inter-generational conflict — a political game that should be known as Blame the Boomers.

The former topic suggests anti-union legislation will remain on the Harper Government’s 2014-15 agenda, both as an effective election wedge issue and a point of ideological principle. The latter is interesting, since we Boomers do deserve a whack or two, although not for “stealing our children’s future,” as the Manningites would have it. The robbery victims mostly are our children, after all. Rather, we should get it for allowing the market-fundamentalist right to get away with its steady erosion of much of what was best about Western society over the past 40 or so years since we came of age.

Would-be future MNC attendees were also asked to rate possible speakers from a long list of the usual suspects in the supposedly liberal dominated media — the likes of Andrew Coyne, Jonathan Kay, Mark Steyn, Paul Wells, John Ivison, and, my personal favourite, Margaret Wente. Readers will get the general idea.

Possible speakers among the political favourites of the Organized Right abound as well, including former would-be Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, Karl Rove, long the dark force behind the right’s electoral shenanigans south of the Medicine Line, and, just in case you weren’t paying attention to the Canadian scene, Alberta Opposition leader Danielle Smith.

But what and who are missing is almost as informative.

The Manning crowd seems to have largely abandoned the propaganda attack on public health care. This is not, one suspects, because they have changed their opinion, but because they have changed their strategy. After all, their noisy ideological attack on public health care has failed utterly to persuade most voters — and so they have switched their efforts to undermine the system to the courts and the organs of international trade relations.

And what about Brent Rathgeber, the Alberta MP who abandoned the Conservative caucus to attack the Harper Government as arbitrary and undemocratic? Since his critique echoes Preston Manning’s past complaints, one would think Rathgeber would be a natural invitee — but, alas, no soap. Or at any rate apparently no invitation. One can only wonder why.

Even the right’s beloved Ezra Levant was not mentioned — strengthening my private conviction Levant has gone missing with his “Freedom Cruise” and that his fevered columns are being written by some other Sun News functionary. I mean, surely even Levant himself wouldn’t have been so silly as to suggest Justin Trudeau has become a secret convert to radical Islam? And has anybody heard even a single whisper about the MS Zuiderdam’s passage through the cold and stormy ideological waters of the North Pacific since she slipped from her berth in Vancouver in August?

Getting back to the original point of all this, right there on the list for consideration were “the problem with municipal public consultations” and “confronting overbearing urban planners.”

Given the well-known habit of right-wing think tanks and their ilk to respond compliantly to the wishes of their funders, plus the Calgary development industry’s extremely generous contributions revealed by Wenzel, what do you want to bet that we can count on the next MNC to devote considerable attention to these matters?

And what, do you think, will they find to be the problem with municipal public consultations? That they’re too democratic? A cynic might wonder, but it’s important to remember that the people who finance and staff the Manning Centre, and indeed Preston Manning himself, don’t necessarily define democracy the same way you and I do.

They are big on “economic democracy” — which might cynically be described as the right to get rich as stink any way you please and not pay taxes while you’re about it. They are not so enthusiastic about your right to decide your fate through the ballot box without interference or deception, especially if your preferred representatives are not of a mind to “swing their way.”

So if some overbearing urban planner gets in your way, abetted by an overly liberal mayor, count on the Manning Centre — which really has very little to do with building democracy — to be there to help you.

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

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...