Preston Manning fancies himself a big thinker and his recent networking conference in Ottawa was billed as an intellectual event for the conservative movement. But National Post columnist Andrew Coyne got it right in his column — the Manning conference was “vapid.” The Harper government has swallowed the movement and rather than talking policy the conference attendees showed themselves more interested in shilling for the Conservatives in preparation for the coming election. Coyne says that the Manning event featured no fewer than seven sessions devoted to the use of social media and other campaign tools and tips. By my count nine federal MPs and cabinet ministers, not to mention premiers Jim Prentice and Christy Clark, were given platforms as conference speakers.
The event, however, generated negative publicity when John Williamson, a Conservative MP from New Brunswick, put his foot in his mouth in talking about the Temporary Foreign Workers’ Program. Williamson told the crowd that it makes no sense to pay “whities” to stay home while companies bring in “brown people” as temporary foreign workers. By the next day Williamson was hurriedly posting a series of tweets to apologize for his language. He is a former communications director for Stephen Harper and a former director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
Quebec MP Maxime Bernier, the minister of state for small business and tourism, is a regular speaker at the Manning conferences. One wonders why since he has rarely made the news since being turfed as Foreign Affairs minister for leaving a bundle of cabinet documents at his female partner’s house in 2008. Perhaps Bernier, one of only four Conservative MPs from Quebec, was there as a nod to what has been a political wasteland for the Conservatives. Bernier is hardly known as an ideas man and chose to spend his time at the podium attacking Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and his late father Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a former prime minister.
Finance Minister Joe Oliver was there, too, ostensibly to talk about the economy. He abandoned his script, however, to warn about the dangers posed by Muslim terrorists and the wisdom of the Conservatives’ Bill C-51, which will potentially invade the privacy of Canadians in hitherto unimagined ways in the name of combating terrorism.
In fact, all cabinet ministers are veering off script these days, no matter what the topic at hand, to deliver a pat set of talking points about terrorism and how our fearless leader is the only one who can protect us from it. Welcome to the election campaign and expect to hear a lot more of this.
The terrorism-fearless leader trope has the added advantage of diverting attention from the economy, where the Conservatives squandered the billions of dollars in budget surplus left to them by the Liberals and then cut deeply into programs used by Canadians in order to reduce the deficit they had created. Job growth in Canada has been lacklustre at best and even the banks are saying that since the Great Recession poorly paid and temporary McJobs have replaced what was once full-time and pensionable employment. Inequality among Canadians continues to rise along with alarming levels of household debt. Add that to a burgeoning trade deficit and a meltdown in the oil sector and one can understand why Oliver and the other ministers would sooner talk about terrorism and prisons than about the economy.
The Manning Networking Conference failed to meet its public billing but the event received massive media coverage nonetheless. Several working journalists were listed on the agenda as speakers or moderators. One assumes they were paid for their efforts. The progressive Broadbent Institute will have a conference in Ottawa on March 26-28. Let’s all watch to see how much media coverage it receives.
Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer and a former member of Parliament. His blog can be found at http://www.dennisgruending.ca