Preston Manning: Champion of Parliamentary Democracy?

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Just when it seemed that things could hardly get any more surrealistic after the passing of Brian Mulroney, Canada’s “consequential” 18th prime minister,[i] another astonishing tribute to Mr. Mulroney has surfaced to prove this reader wrong. The only question is what is more astonishing in this case – the source of this latest paean of praise, or the content?

Believe it or not, the author of today’s opinion piece in the Globe and Mail is none other than Preston Manning. And the title? “To honour Brian Mulroney, look to the mediating symbols of our House of Commons.” Mr. Manning first sings the praises of Mulroney as someone who behaved civilly in the House of Commons, (talk about damming with faint praise), and then, quite incredibly, goes on to lecture readers on the many advantages of parliamentary procedure and convention, including the historic origins and purpose of the mace, the two-sword length distance between government and opposition benches and the role of the Speaker. Surely this cannot be the same Preston Manning who spent a memorable nine years in the House of Commons in the 1990’s ignoring almost every parliamentary convention?!   

Recall, first, that Preston Manning was the original angry alienated westerner who so despised Mr. Mulroney and his Progressive Conservative government that he formed a new political party, the Reform Party of Canada. Led by Manning, Reformers then came to Ottawa en masse in 1993, after the federal election that decimated those Progressive Conservatives. Manning and his 51 Reform MPs were full of contempt, not only for the Mulroney legacy, but for the ‘outdated’ and ‘pointless’ set of rules and procedures that governed the ‘archaic’ operation of the House.

Who could forget Manning’s initial decision to allow his MPs to sit anywhere on the Reform benches each day, a chaotic situation that thwarted the best efforts of the Speaker and his aides to correctly identify the MP and their riding before allowing them to speak in the House?  Or his early refusal to appoint specific MPs as critics of portfolios, another bizarre move that made it impossible for journalists to nail down the party’s position on a given issue. Then there was his hilarious decision to delay his official response to the budget tabled by the Liberal government until he had consulted with his constituents. When he returned to Ottawa a week later and tried to take up the role, he was astonished to find he no longer had a specific slot allocated for him to speak and, in any event, the caravan had moved on. Perhaps most importantly, he had also lost the attention of the media he needed to communicate his views.

One of Reform’s most egregious violations of parliamentary procedure came with the issue of committees. First, Manning was ‘outraged’ to discover that Reform MPs would not be chairing any of these committees. When it was explained to him that his party had actually lost the election and as a result a government MP would be chairing them – but, in fairness,  that the number of Reform MPs on the committee would be in direct proportion to their representation in the House – he initially suggested Reform would not participate in any of these committees. Manning’s approach of taking his marbles and going home if he was not in charge of the rules was reinforced by an early statement that no Reform MPs would participate in the travel of any parliamentary association, which he termed a “boondoggle”, thus opening up a platform for the Bloc Quebecois and NDP among other things.[ii]

There was worse to come. In 1995, after the narrow defeat of the second Quebec referendum on separation, Manning attempted to have a motion introduced in the House of Commons ‘impeaching’ the prime minister, Jean Chretien, on the grounds that he had failed to uphold the constitution or protect Canada’s best interests. Parliamentarians and procedural experts were aghast. As renowned political scientist David Smith fumed in a letter to the editor, Manning’s “ignorance of the fundamental principles of parliamentary democracy” was on full display and it was “hard to conceive of so many constitutional misconceptions being harbored in one motion.”[iii]

But the ultimate demonstration of Mr. Manning’s contempt, or ignorance, of parliamentary procedure came nearly five years after he had been sitting in the House of Commons. His attempt to declare unilaterally that a vote on a government money bill was not a vote of non-confidence was met with outright disbelief even among his erstwhile supporters. As John Robson, then deputy editor of the Ottawa Citizen and a well-known right-wing conservative, wrote, “If you want proof that Preston Manning is dangerously clueless about the functioning of our parliamentary system, look no further than his attempt today… Either Mr. Manning’s understanding of parliament is so defective that he doesn’t’ grasp this point, or he is lying.” [iv]

Several years after first coming to Ottawa, BC Reform MP and House Leader Chuck Strahl once admitted to reporters that, despite his initial misgivings, he had learned there was actually a reason why things were done the way they were in the House, and he had come to appreciate them. Apparently, more than twenty years later, so has Preston Manning. Either that or he has an ulterior motive, like trying to improve his image for posterity. Take you pick. 

[i] See blog of March 1, 2024 for more detail

[ii] For more detail on these and other amusing anecdotes, see B. Jeffrey. Hard Right Turn: The New Face of Neo-Conservatism in Canada. Toronto: Harper Collins. 1999. Pp. 324-330.

[iii] Op. cit. p328

[iv] Op. cit. p330  (Robson. “Manning’s Latest Move” Ottawa Citizen, April 1998)