Preston Manning

Let me get this straight: the founder and namesake of the Manning Centre presumes to lecture Ottawa’s Parliamentary Press Gallery on a supposed dearth of ethics because one disreputable Conservative Senator was once a member of the exclusive journalistic club and another worked as part of the Fourth Estate?

Preston Manning, the godfather of the Canadian Organized Right who acts as its chief financial matchmaker, teaming politically ambitious young market fundamentalists with well-heeled donors, launched his broadside at the Press Gallery yesterday, purportedly for the sin of having once been the professional home to Senator Mike Duffy.

As for Senator Pamela Wallin, Manning wrote, well, she was a journalist too. Ergo, there is a likelihood “that the ethics of both are at least partially rooted in their training and experience as prominent members of the media.”

This seems a little rich coming from the founder of the misnamed Manning Centre for Building Democracy, a partisan political organization closely tied to the ruling Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which of course appointed Duffy and Wallin to the Senate for their potential as fund-raisers and spokespeople.

But from this unpromising start, Manning draws expansive conclusions.

First, he got his hands on a copy of the Press Gallery’s constitution and found it wanting. It has, Manning explained, an insufficient number of references to the very notion of ethical guidelines, let alone a list of the things.

Indeed, there is only one, a shocked Manning told readers of the apparently self-hating Globe and Mail, which obediently published the piece, and it says only that members of the Gallery ought not to use their membership “to obtain a benefit other than by journalism.”

Manning then went on to make the claim — plausible enough, I suppose, although without a shred of evidence other than the bland statement it is “well known” — that Duffy used his membership in the Gallery to lobby for years for a federal appointment, eventually landing a very sweet one in the Senate. 

Full disclosure here: when I was a poor student in Carleton University’s journalism program many years ago, I once spent a highly entertaining evening drinking with Duffy in the Press Gallery’s bar. I can report that he paid for all the drinks, although for all I know he expensed them afterward to his employer, and never said a word about wanting a plum federal appointment. (Note to Mr. Duffy: I expect to be in Ottawa in March and , if you would like to meet again for a drink, it’s my shout!)

Regardless, from this Manning obviously hoped readers would draw the conclusion the Gallery has somehow fallen short, ethically speaking, and should therefore immediately don a metaphorical hair shirt and revise its ethical guidelines to … what? Something more like those of the Manning Centre?

Note that Manning never comes right out and states that the Gallery itself is a seething hotbed of corruption. He just leads us to the water and lets us decide for ourselves if we’ll take a drink. Doubtless many readers will.

But even though the suggestion is only made by implication, based on the extremely flimsy evidence he presents, it is fair to call this conclusion quite a stretch, and his prescription for fixing this non-problem preposterous — and I say that as someone who has never been a member of the Gallery and is not a particular fan of the work of most of its members.

Manning’s real complaint, it is said here, is something quite different.

To wit: the fact Duffy’s behaviour as a Conservative Senator, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s simply incredible explanations of his role and that of his office in trying to put an end to the resulting political embarrassment caused by Duffy’s shenanigans, continue to be topics of journalistic enterprise and commentary, much of it by Press Gallery members.

What better way to cast a little doubt on the next revelations by Gallery members than to suggest, somehow, without quite saying it, that they would do better to clean up their own back yard first.

Manning’s complaint, fanciful as it seems, nevertheless inspired me to a vain search of the Manning Centre’s website for its list of ethical guidelines.

Alas, I could find only two pages that even mentioned the topic. One was a passing reference on the “About” page. The other was a transcript of Manning’s speech at the group’s conference last spring in which he suggested better training, like that offered by the centre, might make for more ethical politicians. A likely story!

Well, perhaps there’s a Manning Centre constitution not available online that has a list of ethical guidelines for officers and employees.

If so, it presumably lacks a guideline that tells the organization’s chair he ought not at the same time to be a member of the supposedly apolitical Security Intelligence Review Committee.

Nor, presumably, does it say anything about taking donations from a “sprawl cabal” of well-off developers with a specific desire to topple a too-liberal mayor, and using  some of the dough to train market-friendly “Manchurian Candidates” to successfully campaign for municipal office.

Nor, I guess, would there be a guideline suggesting the centre’s founder shouldn’t play a key role in what the Canadian Association of University teachers called a bid by a wealthy donor to wrest “unprecedented and unacceptable” control over a public university grad studies program’s teachers and the topics they’re allowed to teach.

I think readers get the idea.

The Parliamentary Press Gallery, no doubt, is a far from perfect institution.

But it need not pay much heed to this particular flimsy and illogical sermon by Parson Manning or his attempt to find the Gallery guilty of ethical shortcomings by association with a single Conservative formerly in its ranks!

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

David J. Climenhaga

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 with the Globe...