Preston Manning and the wisdom of serpents

Last week, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy held its Manning Networking Conference, an international gathering of conservative thinkers. And you'll never guess who the keynote speaker was. Oh, you did guess.

Last week, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy held its Manning Networking Conference, an international gathering of conservative thinkers. And you’ll never guess who the keynote speaker was. Oh, you did guess. Yes, it was Preston Manning himself, father of the Reform Party, the little engine that grew into the current Conservative Party of Canada. The MNC is after all Preston’s party, and he’ll talk if he wants to.

In proper speech-giving form, Manning began his address with a personal story to illustrate the question at the centre of his discourse: “Do you tell them what they want to hear, or do you tell them what they need to hear?” He went on to say that he would be sharing some hard truths that conservatives need to hear. But it was later in the speech that the true meaning of the introduction began to reveal itself, although the question might better have been phrased, “Do we tell the public only what we need them to hear?” The answer being a resounding, “Yes.”

Having established his parameters, Manning tore into the tough fabric of green conservatism. Conservatives, he said, can draw an example from ranchers who “believe … property rights and markets … can also be … harnessed … to the task of environmental conservation as an alternative to mass governmental intervention in the marketplace.” (Excisions for the sake of brevity only, Mr. Manning’s speechwriters are big fans of the adverb, and the adverbial phrase).

Manning spoke of “more effective ways” of addressing “global warming, proliferation of plastics, urban sprawl, and the loss of biodiversity” than “treaties, top-down regulations, and other approaches offered by big governments and their dependents.” He offered no specifics on how green conservatives will address global warming in the absence of treaties and regulations, but the solution will involve a “multitude of local and small-scale initiatives.”

The matter became clearer when he rounded out the environmental portion of his speech with the rallying cry, “Green conservatives of Canada, unite! And change the climate of environmental discourse in this country.” It’s simple really, the problem green conservatives face is not melting ice caps and disappearing islands, it’s the overheated climate of discourse. Cool that discourse down and right-wingers can “occup(y) the high ground”- which is good, because that’s also going to be the dry ground.

Having blazed a trail to that high green ground, Manning got down to the nub of his speech, the matter of training conservatives to “win more elections” and to “govern in accordance with conservative values.” Actually, he didn’t say much about the latter at all, but was quite clear on the matter of election-winning. He revealed the results of studies that prove Canadian voters aren’t moved by “ideological politics” or “issue politics,” so much as by “strength of character, industriousness, and civilized conduct.”

This last truth was widely understood as an admonition not to deceive Parliament about defense spending, take a limo two blocks from one luxury hotel to another, or shag the babysitter. But it was when he came to address the “ideological strengths and weaknesses” of conservatism that Manning’s true intent was revealed. The movement’s strength, he declared, is its inclusiveness: social, green, libertarian, “progressive” (Manning’s quotes, not mine), and fiscal conservatives are all welcome in the “Big Conservative Tent.” Its weakness is loose lips. He cited two examples.

Last year, Allan Hunsperger, Wildrose candidate for Edmonton-South West, said that gays “will suffer the rest of eternity in a lake of fire, hell, a place of eternal suffering.” More recently conservative thinker and Manning protege Tom Flanagan told a college audience, “I do have some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures,” even if the pictures are of child pornography. Flanagan went on to volunteer the information that he had once been on the mailing list of the Man Boy Love Association.

“A genuinely free society and the broad conservative movement itself may tolerate such comments out of our commitment to free speech,” Manning told his audience, but in an era of “gotcha journalism” you don’t let outsiders know that, for conservatives, free speech trumps human rights or the safety of children, for fear of

providing “perverse incentives and opportunities for human rights commissions and the courts … to further restrict … freedom of speech.”

To illustrate his point, Manning dipped into the Gospel according to Saint Mathew, and came out with a joke, calling on conservatives “when dealing with value-laden issues, to be ‘wise as serpents and gracious as doves’ not vicious as snakes and stupid as pigeons.” In making his point, the father of modern-day conservatism in Canada seems to have missed the better joke, about a leader who stands up in a public forum and counsels his followers that it’s OK to support hate speech and the freedom to possess child porn among your conservative peers, so long as you keep your mouth shut in public.

He also seems to have missed the fairly obvious extension of his (or Saint Mathew’s) metaphor: that whether you teach a serpent wisdom or simply stitch its mouth shut, when all is said and done it’s still a snake.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.