The Green Conservative: Interview with Preston Manning
With just an idea and some burning passion rooted in feelings of western alienation and opposition to big government, Preston Manning started up a marginal grassroots political movement in Alberta that gathered momentum, grew its base into a national profile, and has now morphed into the Government of Canada. His new passion: the environment. He calls himself “a green conservative rather than a blue environmentalist,” and wants to install a water metre in his house that is connected to his home computer, so he can track his water use in real time.
Corporate Knights caught up with the reinvigorated statesman on September 11 at the Manning Centre for Building Democracy’s Calgary office.
Most people didn’t associate your old party with environmental leadership. How did you get green?
The Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance—you had to pick your issues. We were brought into being with the fiscal responsibility issue in the days when they were running $50-billion deficits, and that was our main focus and we had to stick to that—we had pretty limited resources. Then the Quebec secession referendum came up quickly; it made these constitutional issues huge. So that was our focus.
[My interest in the environment] came mostly from my association with younger people. I’m a small ”D” democrat probably before I’m a conservative. When I see the younger generation whose participation in the democratic process is not heavy, I keep asking myself: well, these people are interested in something; they’re just not interested in what the parties in power are doing.
When I got out of Parliament I spent time at the University of Calgary and the University of Toronto. I found the two issues that would engage young people. One was the international stuff, but the other was the environment. I have an interest in that issue myself. Seeing this gave me a political interest as well.
My oldest son is quite interested in and concerned with the environment. He did his Master’s degree at Louisiana State University and he believes that people’s attitudes towards the environment are shaped more by culture and their sense of history and place. His studies have been on how we can use literature to get a stronger environmental ethic.
His influence on me has been a big one. And our grandkids—we’ve got nine grandkids under 10. I was helping one of them clean his teeth the other night and when I turned the tap on, he said, “You’re wasting water” [laughs].
This from a seven-year-old! This reflects into the next generation. A lot of messages coming through: you’d better pay more attention to these issues.
Why is the Green Party so popular in Alberta?
Because the environmental ethic is so high here. And Albertans will do something. Albertans are not afraid of supporting a new party. That’s more the culture here than in the older parts of the country—Alberta is willing to try something new.
If you were a consultant to the Green Party, what tips would you give them?
First, decide whether you’re going to be a political party or whether you’re going to be an interest group. A political party that aspires to govern—and I think that should be the aspiration of any party—can’t settle for “We’ll have a position on this and we’ll have a crusade on this but we’ll never have to do it.” I think that makes a party irresponsible.
Then, start doing the things you have to do to be a governing party. One of those things is to be really strong on the issue that’s brought you into being, which is the environment, but recognize there is a bunch of other issues that you’ve got to be just as strong on.
The big task for modern political parties is not championing one interest; it’s the reconciliation of conflicting interests that is ultimately the job of a governing party. And the hard decisions are never between something that’s obviously bad or good. It’s the tradeoffs you make.
I think it’s those kinds of issues and questions that the Green Party needs to come to grips with if they aspire to govern. I see a very slow progress. Maybe they can learn more from the Green Parties in Europe. At least they’ve been part of coalitions, which gives them some sort of responsibility.
Do you think the hype around the environment is a passing fad?