Conference Keynote Speech: “Three Challenges for the Conservative Movement,” Preston Manning, March 10, 2012
Notes of remarks by Preston Manning, President and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy to the annual Manning Networking Conference, Ottawa – March 10, 2012
“A majority of Canadians have lost faith in ‘big government solutions to big problems’– good news for those of us who want governments to do a few things well rather than attempting to do everything and succeeding at little.”
“Parties that become afraid of ideas – or that only entertain ideas ‘hammered on their own anvil and forged in their own furnace’ – are already suffering from a hardening of the political arteries which someday will lead to a stroke.”
“To work for Starbucks as a barista you need at least 20 hours of training (…) But you can become a lawmaker in the Parliament of Canada or a provincial legislature without one hour of training in law making.”
“For conservatives, being “right” must mean more than adherence to right-of-centre policies; it should also mean ‘doing the right thing.’”
THREE CHALLENGES FOR THE CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT
The Conservative Movement and the Parties
In the next few minutes I’d like to speak to you about three challenges for the Conservative Movement in the areas of ideas, training, and ethics.
But before doing so, let me say a word about the role of the Conservative Movement in relation to conservative political parties.
I am all for political parties, especially conservative oriented ones. They are an integral and necessary part of our democratic system.
But for them and their candidates to succeed not only in winning elections but also in governing by conservative principles once elected, they need certain resources:
- A steady stream of ideas based on conservative values.
- Trained people – from volunteers to staff to campaign managers and candidates.
- Communications channels and opportunities of all kinds.
- Institutions and programs, outside of the parties themselves that provide such resources I refer to as “conservative democratic infrastructure.”
The conservative movement includes the parties but also includes the conservative-oriented think tanks, policy centres, interest groups, training programs, and communication channels.
It is the particular responsibility of the conservative movement – or the conservative family writ large – to help supply those ideas, trained personnel, and communication channels upon which the success of conservative parties and candidates so greatly depends.
The Manning Centre for Building Democracy is engaged in raising interest and support to invest in these three areas, and this annual Networking Conference is a communications event which seeks to get participants in “the movement” together in a congenial atmosphere to exchange ideas and best practices.
So thank you each and every one for being part of the Conservative Movement and investing your time and money in a conference of this kind. Thanks especially today:
- To Chuck Strahl for your kind introduction and years of public service to Canada.
- To all the Cabinet Ministers, MPs, and other special guests who have taken the time to be with us.
- To our sponsors including Amgen, AstraZeneca, Canadian Natural Resources, Shell Canada, Spectra Energy, TransCanada, and Walton Global for their support.
- To those responsible for organizing this conference – Darrel Reid and Vida Brodie, Jennifer Roy and Bernice Chan, Mike Martens and Olivier Ballou, and the many volunteers.
For all their efforts in making this get together possible, let’s express our thanks!
The Idea Challenge
But now to the challenges facing conservatives going forward. Let me deal with three of them, starting with a challenge in the area of ideas.
Conferences like this are a great place to consider ideas which may be helpful to conservative candidates and parties. Unlike a party convention, we take no binding votes – if you have an idea which may help, you are free to express it here. And if you don’t think it will help, you are free to express that too.
What’s important is that challenging ideas get expressed and debated, because in the long run ideas are the life blood of real democratic discourse. Parties that become afraid of ideas – or that only entertain ideas “hammered on their own anvil and forged in their own furnace” – are already suffering from a hardening of the political arteries which someday will lead to a stroke.
Government as Facilitator
You have seen from the polling data presented yesterday:
- That a majority of Canadians have lost faith in “big government solutions to big problems” – good news for those of us who want governments to do a few things well rather than attempting to do everything and succeeding at little.
- That when Canadians are asked to whom they turn first if they have an economic or social problem, that again a majority first mention themselves, their family, and their community before they mention government. Again good news to those of us who believe in encouraging self-reliance and community reliance rather than whole sale reliance on the state.
So what, then, do these Canadians expect of government? Well the pollsters asked that question too. And the most frequent answer they got – across all regions and from both men and women – was that while people want to do things for themselves, they want government to “help” – sometimes by simply getting out of the way, sometimes by leading as in matters of personal and national security, but most often by “facilitating, enabling, and partnering with others to get things done.”
So what does this facilitating role – which conservatively understood and applied is consistent with such principles as limited government, fiscal restraint, and subsidiarity – what does this facilitating role mean in practice?
At the provincial level, where the three biggest areas of responsibility and spending are health, education, and social assistance – it means stepping away from the old concept of the welfare state where the government assumes responsibility for almost everything.
It means enabling other agencies in society – NGOs, social enterprises, for profit service companies, faith groups, and communities – to perform a bigger role in social service.
It means, for example, providing greater freedom of choice in education and health care and changing the definition of charitable status and the rules of charitable giving to encourage greater personal and private investment and involvement in the social sphere.
Or to further illustrate, “facilitating economic recovery,” means governments creating the conditions where the non-governmental sector can create more jobs and wealth. It means, for example, keeping taxes low, reducing regulatory burden, and negotiating favourable trade agreements and tax treaties with other countries – all of which the current federal government is doing, and which Tony Clement elaborated on earlier today.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in responding to this shift in public expectations of government from a “do it for me” role to a “help me do it myself” role is communicating it – to the conservative community itself and of course to the public.
“Facilitating” can easily be misinterpreted or misapplied as government interventions in the social or economic sectors that entangle non-governmental entities or that create unhealthy dependencies. It can also be misinterpreted as government abandoning its legitimate responsibilities.
And politically, in a short election campaign, “government as facilitator” is a harder sell than “government as the answer to all your problems.”
This is why we offered several conference sessions devoted to this subject – to vet the pros and cons of the facilitating idea and to get the best minds addressing the communications challenge.
Anecdote: “What’s Your Platform?”
Before I leave this subject, I should share one story from my door-knocking days in Calgary Southwest, where I attempted to explain this concept of government as facilitator to a voter. I had been thinking about the idea of “the government that enables” when I knocked on this door. A middle-aged man opened it, and perceiving that I was a candidate in the election, asked me straightaway, “What’s your platform?” To which I replied, “What’s yours?”
He was somewhat taken aback, saying, “What do you mean?” To which I replied: “What are the three or four things that you or your family or your community want to achieve in the next four years? Write them down – that’s your platform! And then support the candidate and party whose policies and actions you believe will enable you to implement your platform.”
This sales pitch is not particularly appropriate if you’re an opposition candidate, but it could be very effective if you’re a government candidate and that voter is one of the 75% who profess to favour government in an enabling or facilitating role. Something to think about – an idea to ponder!
The Training Challenge
But now let me turn to another area where the development of conservative political infrastructure is particularly important. I refer to the need for training to raise the knowledge and skill levels of political practitioners – from constituency and campaign volunteers, to political staff, to campaign managers and official agents, to candidates for public office and even elected officials.
Illustrations of the Need
To work for Starbucks as a barista you need at least 20 hours of training so that you can tell the difference between a tall, non fat, one shot mocca and a triple grande, extra hot, no water chai.
But you can become a lawmaker in the Parliament of Canada or a provincial legislature without one hour of training in law making. Is this wise? Should this situation be allowed to continue?
The old idea was that political practitioners could “learn on the job.” But in this modern age of immediate demands and instant communications “learning on the job” is no longer sufficient.
We need to heed the advice of the Roman Senator Cicero to the ambitious young politicians of his day – all in a great hurry to enter the Roman Forum. Cicero’s advice? “Intrate peratus” – “Enter prepared” – which means “get some training before you get here.”
When I was on the political speaking circuit I was sometimes invited to address constituency meetings held in hockey rinks. On the way in, I would sometimes see on the bulletin board an advertisement for the position of Rink Manager, and on one occasion I tore it off and used it as my text on the need to think more deeply on what knowledge and skills are required at the constituency level to recruit and support good candidates – good conservative candidates.
“I see you people are looking for a Rink Manager to run your hockey rink. I see you have a job description for the Rink Manager – good for you, that’s important. And I see you have even defined what knowledge and skills your Rink Manager should have, e.g., he or she needs to be able to drive and care for the Zamboni.” Very important, you’ve done your homework.
“But now tell me. Where is your job description for your MP or MLA? Where is your carefully thought out list of the knowledge and skills required for someone to serve you well in your parliament or your legislature?
“Don’t tell me – oh please don’t tell me – that you have put more thought and effort into hiring your rink manager than you have into hiring the person who will represent you in a democratic assembly.”
Far too often we provide no guidance or training at all to our constituency people on “candidate recruitment” prior to an election or on “candidate support” after an election. But if we did so, if we could raise the knowledge and skill levels of these dear volunteers without whom our democratic system couldn’t function, would not our conservative parties, our democracy, and our country be better off?
Time does not permit me to describe what is being done and proposed to raise the capacity of the conservative movement to better train its people at all levels. But I encourage you to check out the training sessions provided by your federal and provincial parties. And if you can, please attend the session later this afternoon to be conducted by Darrel Reid and Mike Martens on our efforts to establish a School of Practical Politics based in Calgary and supported via the Internet.
The Ethics Challenge
You will have seen, again from the polling data presented yesterday, and at previous conferences, the continued downward slide in public respect for politicians and parties. You will also have seen that this disrespect – virtually contempt – is not so much rooted in antipathy to the policies of politicians as it is in a perceived lack of ethics – the opinion (unfair in many respects but nevertheless real) that most politicians are unprincipled, dishonest, self-serving, and untruthful.
In the public mind, this judgment is reinforced every time unethical conduct by someone in the political world makes the headlines, as in the case of the sponsorship scandal and now the more recent robo-calling affair, to cite only two examples.
Any political strategy, tactic, or technology which deliberately employs a lie to misdirect or mislead a voter is deplorable ethically and for the damage it does to the democratic process and public confidence in all parties and politicians.
Stricter surveillance by election officials and campaign managers may be part of the answer, but I think the more important question is how to prevent such tactics and technologies from being employed in the first place.
The federal government is to be commended for the measures it put in place after the sponsorship scandal, through the Public Accountability Act, to try to prevent such occurrences in future, notwithstanding the administrative difficulties and dangers of ove kill which legislation of that type involves. And the federal party is also to be commended for its provision of an independent accountability officer in its election war room to guard against illegal or unethical activity.
But on the well-founded assumption that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” I come back again to the need for better training of political practitioners – in this case, training in ethical politics and the ethical use of the new political technologies from automated voter calling to the use of social media.
Almost every major science project in the country now has an EEELS unit attached to it – people especially tasked with monitoring the Economic, Environmental, Ethical, Legal, and Social implications of that science and technology to safeguard as much as possible against its abuse.
Every business school in the country now teaches business ethics – as a response to the Enron, Worldcom, and Bernie Madoff scandals that shook public confidence in business the world over. Journalism schools are now doing the same, partly in response to the involvement of media in the British phone-hacking scandal.
The political science departments and party campaign schools need to follow suit with explicit ethical training for political practitioners. Voters have a right to ask where are the Ethical, Legal, and Social units attached to political organizations and campaigns to safeguard against the abuses of political science and technologies.
On the bright side, it is encouraging to see that the newly created Riddell Graduate Program in Political Management at Carleton University has incorporated an ethical dimension into every one of its core courses for training political staff. We intend to do the same in the courses taught by our School of Practical Politics and would welcome suggestions as to how to make such ethical instruction effective.
We need advice in this area because it is a difficult task. There is no place in this kind of instruction for a “holier than thou” approach or for moralistic lecturing that is hypocritical and devoid of legitimate moral authority. And in this post-modern age, younger people will often ask “who gave you or anybody else the authority to tell me what is ethical or unethical behaviour?” Yet somehow, someway, we need to reintroduce the teaching and practice of ethics into the public square.
In closing, changing the ethical tone of something as big and as complicated as the arena of partisan democratic politics may seem like an insurmountable challenge. But I am encouraged by an experience that happened in my home province of Alberta many years ago where just a few individuals – the right people in the right place at the right time – set the ethical tone for an entire industry and political administration for a generation.
I tell this story because you might well be the person to do the same thing for your party or constituency or organization, depending on your role in the conservative movement.
The experience I refer to took place just after oil was discovered at Leduc in 1947. At that time, there was a very real danger that the provincial government of the day, and its political wing, might be corrupted by the sudden influx of “oil money” and the intense jockeying for drilling rights which accompanied the new discovery.
This was precisely what had happened to the governments and governing parties of a number of American states like Texas when oil was first discovered in their territories.
As the oil prospectors, many of them from US oil producing states, streamed into Edmonton, most had only two questions: “Where is Leduc? And who do we pay?”
Fortunately for Alberta, two individuals with rock-solid personal integrity, one a civil servant and the other a political organizer, happened to be in the right place at the right time to give the right answers.
The civil servant was Hubert Somerville, an official in the Department of Mines and Minerals with responsibilities for petroleum at the time of the Leduc discovery. The political organizer was Orvis Kennedy, president of the governing political party association whose responsibilities included political fundraising.
Both when asked “Who do we pay?” had the same answer. “If you ever offer me or any of my people a payment such as you are suggesting, I will guarantee you one thing: Neither you nor your company will ever get drilling rights in the Province of Alberta.”
Both Somerville and Kennedy could have profited handsomely from an “arrangement” with their oil patch suitors but neither chose to do so. Somerville was guided by his sense of professional ethics as a genuine civil servant, and Kennedy by his religious beliefs that he was ultimately accountable to God for his behaviour and not just to his employer or community.
Both died relatively “poor” by oil patch standards, but rich in personal integrity and reputation. But had either of them chosen to do the unethical thing, it would have cost Alberta millions of dollars plus all the grief and turmoil that political corruption of any kind invariably brings in its wake.
Codes of ethics, ethics commissioners, political watchdogs, regulatory and accountability legislation all have their place in endeavouring to raise the ethical tone of governments, political parties, and politicians. But if the aim is corruption-free, ethical politics there is still no substitute for rock-solid personal integrity on the part of those involved.
For conservatives, being “right” must mean more than adherence to right-of-centre policies; it should also mean “doing the right thing.”