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Preston Manning's talk fest hits Ottawa

Preston Manning's right wing talk fest  its Ottawa this weekend

Ron Paul is a Texan who has made three marginal runs for the American presidency and who is also considered by many to be a godfather of the Tea Party movement that has driven the Republican Party to the far right. The Huffington Post reports that Paul’s campaign in the Republican primaries in 2012 foundered “when newsletters published under his name back in the 1980s and '90s were found to contain anti-gay and racially-charged statements.” Paul says that he did not write those comments even though he acknowledges they appeared in his literature. Paul is a headline speaker at the March 7-9 conference of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy in Ottawa. Paul has already held forth in a series of Canadian interviews in which he says he opposes public health care and all gun registries but wants to see the Keystone XL Pipeline built as soon as possible to deliver Alberta oil to Texas refineries.

Preston Manning and his wife Sandra created the Manning Centre in 2005 to act as a training ground for conservative politicos and a think tank and advocacy arm for conservative causes. Each year Manning holds what he calls a networking conference in Ottawa. Often the guest speakers are those such as Ron Paul, who for the most part have narrowly missed prominence, and others who have now left prominence behind them. A speaker in the latter category this year is former Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

Manning is frank about his intentions in an unusually lengthy article carried in Ottawa’s Hill Times about the conference. The Conservatives have not yet hit their high water mark, he says, and there is much to do “to increase the number of Conservative seats in the next election.” It is toward that end that he has invited a large roster of more than 60 speakers and presenters to his event.

The conservative movement has been quite successful in building a network in Ottawa and across the country in the past 20 years, although less effective in moving public opinion sharply to the right. The list of Manning’s chosen speakers in Ottawa is always interesting for what it reveals. The group comprises conservative politicians, past and present, the usual suspects from public relations and government relations firms, some business people, but also a slice of the media (mostly from the Sun Media television and newspaper chain). There are also academics, pollsters, representatives from right-wing think tanks and advocacy group and elements of the religious right.

These are people who attend each other’s events, and who publish, praise, promote and interview one another in the small canvass of the Canadian right. Here is an abridged look at some of Manning’s speakers and their connections this time around.

Politicians, current and former

The list includes ministers Maxime Bernier, Tony Clement and Jason Kenney. Interestingly, Kenney was a major organizing force on behalf of Stockwell Day when he defeated Manning for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance in 2000. The right saw Manning’s views on populism and his push for citizen referenda and policies allowing for the recall of politicians to be dangerously democratic and impractical. Former politicians at the networking conference include: Deborah Grey, Jay Hill, Chuck Strahl and Monty Solberg, who writes Conservative-friendly columns for Sun Media and appears on Sun TV.

Media

In fact, Sun Media is well represented (indeed over-represented) at the Manning fest. Brian Lilley is an over-heated Sun News host and weekly columnist for the Sun newspapers, and there is always the ubiquitous Ezra Levant. There was a day, not long ago, when any self-respecting journalist would refuse to headline for a politically partisan event. But that was prior to Fox News, which shills for the Republican Party, and its rather comical Sun Media imitator north of the border.

Academia

The cadre of bona fide academics is thin but includes Carlo Dade from the School for International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa, and André Turcotte, a professor at the Clayton H. Riddell Graduate Program in Political Management, at Carleton University. Turcotte’s case is an interesting one. Manning secured money for the Riddell program at Carleton and in turn the Riddell Foundation appoints two of five people to the program’s steering committee -- and in addition Manning acts as the committee’s chair. One of the committee members is Cliff Fryers (also a speaker at the networking conference) who was with Manning at the creation of the Reform party in the 1980s and later served as Manning’s chief of staff. Yet another Riddell program board member was a former chief of staff to Conservative cabinet minister John Baird, and also served as a senior adviser to Manning when he was leader of the opposition. The core faculty of the Riddell program includes Turcotte, who was the official pollster for the Reform Party between 1994 and 2000. Turcotte has also served as academic director of the Manning Centre.

Religious right

Andrea Mrozek is with the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada in Ottawa. The organization was created by Focus on the Family Canada and it provides socially conservative research and advice. Focus on the Family Canada bears the name of its related organization in the U.S., which was founded by Dr. James Dobson. He is old now but has been a popular Christian broadcaster and publisher and an influential Republican. Mrozek’s columns are carried frequently by the Ottawa Citizen and the National Post.

Ray Pennings is director of research at Cardus, a Christian think tank with ties to the more conservative wing of the Christian Reformed Church. Pennings was unsuccessful as a candidate for the Canadian Alliance in the 2000 election. Cardus appears to be well funded (as does the Manning Centre) and Cardus acts as one link between conservative Protestants and Catholics. The organization’s publication, Convivium, is edited by Father Raymond J. de Souza, a Catholic priest from Kingston who uses his columns in the National Post to celebrate his friendship with ministers Jason Kenney and John Baird. De Souza also writes columns for The Catholic Register, as does another Cardus employee Peter Stockland of Montreal, and Sun Media host Michael Coren.

Advocacy groups and think tanks

Michael Binnion and Scott Hennig are the Manning conference on behalf of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which spends much of its time attacking government spending and social programs. Stephen Taylor is there for the National Citizens Coalition, another right-wing advocacy group that was run briefly by Stephen Harper after he resigned as an MP in 1997. Taylor is a frequent guest on Sun News and in the National Post. Over the years, both the CTF and the NCC have seen a number of their employees run for political office as Conservatives.

Israel Ortega is on hand from the Heritage Foundation in the U.S. The foundation is a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. and has long been influential in Republican circles. It describes its mission as one to “formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.” Colin Robertson is with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute in Calgary and that organization’s self-description sounds not unlike that of the Heritage Foundation.

Representation at the networking conference is thin on business types from Central Canada, although there are some from the West. The guest list is noticeably absent figures from Quebec, although again there are some, including André Pratte, the editorial page editor at La Presse, which is owned by the wealthy and influential Desmarais family.

Perhaps the relative lack of Quebec content is not of great concern to Manning who told the Hill Times that there is a “new alignment” between Ontario and the West has “created a new political base for majority governments.” In this equation, Quebec, and its enduring attachment to social democracy, is not needed. Perhaps, after all, Mr. Manning would not have had to spend all of that time studying French when he was leader of the official opposition.

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