Manning Centre Roundtable starts tomorrow

I will be representing the Blogging Tories at Preston Manning’s inaugural roundtable this weekend in Toronto. I’ve been invited to speak on the communications panel and I will be describing how Blogging Tories will help enable conservative-minded Canadians elect conservative governments.

Yesterday, Mr. Manning forwarded the following op-ed to me. The opinion piece appeared in Wednesday’s Globe and Mail. I’ve posted it in full.

Building a Better Democracy for Canadians
by Preston Manning*

Democracy, fully developed and vigorously practiced, offers Canadians freedoms and opportunities to shape their own destiny which people in undemocratic countries have never known. And personal participation in democratic politics – as volunteers, voters, political activists, and citizens – is an opportunity and privilege we take completely for granted until we visit countries where democratic freedoms have been lost or suppressed.

But why is it that conservatives who participate in Canada’s democratic processes – especially at the national level – have had less success in commanding public confidence and support than their liberal counterparts? (The electoral track record of conservatives in the twentieth century has been to lose two out of three national elections.)

And what can conservative minded people do to strengthen their contributions to national political discourse, the attainment of national goals, and the revitalization of Canadian democracy – contributions essential to greater electoral success and becoming a governing party?

These are questions which 100 conservative minded people from across the country will endeavor to answer at an informal roundtable this weekend in Toronto. They are questions to which I intend to devote my full attention in the days ahead through a newly formed not-for-profit national organization to be called the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.

Based on an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Canadian conservatism, especially at the national level, much of the work of the Toronto roundtable and the Manning Centre will focus on the need to build “essential infrastructure” to support more vigorous and effective conservative participation in the democratic process.

Think, for example, of a national political party as an aircraft. Of course it needs a competent pilot and crew (a leader and political activists) who presumably know how to fly (run for public office). But to do more than get off the ground – to successfully stay in the air, reach the planned destination on schedule, and do so consistently – requires much more than that. It requires air terminals, runways, loading ramps, hangars, repair shops, fuel supplies, training programs for air and ground crews, administrative and computer support, communications equipment, and navigational aids. And it needs dollars to finance all of the above.

In other words, a contemporary political philosophy such as democratic conservatism needs a vehicle – a party – to participate effectively in the democratic process. But to fly successfully over the long haul it also needs a multitude of think tanks and links with academia to generate ideas and policy analyses; education and training institutions and programs to train political activists from poll captains to potential cabinet ministers; communications vehicles of all kinds to link itself to its own grassroots supporters and to voters; national forums and political trade shows to bring conservatives of all stripes together from across the country; and links with sympathetic interest groups capable of waging issue campaigns on subjects of particular importance to conservatives and Canadian voters. And of course it requires institutions and programs to raise and invest the financing for all of the above.

In the months ahead, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy intends to facilitate the development of such conservative democratic infrastructure, with guidance from the Toronto roundtable and follow-up advisory panels as to where and how to direct our efforts. As a “do tank” rather than a think tank we hope to bridge the gap between conservative idea-generation and the practical implementation of those ideas in the real political world.

Where conservative infrastructure institutions and programs already exist, we intend to encourage them with additional financing and support. For example, Canada already has half a dozen excellent conservative think tanks and organizations which strive to bring conservatives thinkers and activists together from across the country. And all are willing and able to extend and deepen their activities if they had the resources to do so.

Where conservative democratic infrastructure does not exist or is very frail, we will “fill the gap.” One of the most obvious of these gaps is in the provision of practical political education and training for conservative political activists. Canada, for example, has no equivalent of those organizations and programs south of the border which train thousands of political activists each year in how to run everything from policy seminars to election campaigns. In Canada, while we have graduate-level professional schools offering advanced training and degrees in business, law, and medicine, we have no equivalent institutions for providing high-level training in democratic political participation, management, and governance.

Canadians can learn a great deal from the infrastructure-building experience of Democrats and Republicans in the United States and from the efforts of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to build the “new right” and “new left” in Britain. But I worry that we Canadians are becoming too dependent on other countries for policy ideas and political technology. Canada is one of the oldest democracies in the Western world and Canadian conservatives must stand on our own two feet. We should be exporters rather than importers of democratic technology and cutting edge solutions to public problems. Thus the Manning Centre for Building Democracy intends to mobilize Canadian resources to strengthen Canadian political infrastructure so that Canadians are less dependent on other countries for political ideas, training, and organizational techniques.

At the end of the day, every active politician in Canada, every party, and every supporter of a party should recommit themselves to strengthening Canada’s democratic political processes and institutions. We should all be making extraordinary efforts to serve our country by strengthening civil society and the exercise of freedom of choice among real political options. The Toronto roundtable this weekend and the ongoing work of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy represent a conservative initiative to achieve these objectives, and to bequeath to our children a better Canada than the Canada we have known.

*Preston Manning is a founder of the Reform Party of Canada and the Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance, and a former Leader of the Opposition in Parliament. He is currently a Senior Fellow of the Fraser Institute and President of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy (