Preston Manning

Preston Manning on the failure of right thinking

  • March 13, 2012

Preston Manning had an astringent warning for Canadian conservatives at the annual gathering sponsored by his eponymous think-tank.

“For conservatives, being right must mean more than just being right of centre. It must mean doing the right thing. There is no substitute for rock solid personal integrity,” he told the large “C” and small “c” faithful at the recent Manning Centre conference in Ottawa.

Though the words were delivered with Manning’s characteristic personal geniality and intellectual charity, their sting was palpable, particularly among those Conservative Party members still writhing after being flayed by National Post columnist Andrew Coyne. Coyne had carved the Conservative government’s political, policy and ethical failings with the surgical scrupulousness of an assembly line sadist handling the Friday night crowd at Mistress Cheri’s House of Pain and Shame.

Manning is typically described as having become the conservative movement — if not the Conservative Party’s — elder statesman since his days as leader of the Reform Party and the Official Opposition in the 1990s. He is, in fact, much more.

He embodies prudence and generosity, mixed with an analytical capacity that manages to be both broad and piercing at the same time. It is still possible to find many who disagree with him. It is impossible to find any who dislike his continued presence and contribution.

When he speaks, it matters — at least to conservatives and Conservatives. What he told them, matter-of-factly, was that their ethics are publicly perceived as so woefully wanting that it is time for the federal party to start formal ethical training for both MPs and prospective candidates.

Manning described the current so-called robo-calling scandal as “bordering on contempt” for democracy itself, even though he accepted that all available evidence suggests it was the work of random individuals, not senior Conservatives.

“Lies are deplorable ethically but they are also deplorable for the damage done to the democratic process,” he said.

He did not accept that technological shifts make such things as the abuse of automated dialing systems inevitable. Ethical failures are failures of right thinking, he said, and “that has been true right from the time of the invention of fire to the invention of social media.” The answer is not to blame the demon dialer but to train devil-may-care attitudes out of those seriously engaged in the political process. He pointed out, as an example, that Starbucks baristas get 20 hours of training in how to make various coffees. Federal MPs don’t get a single hour of training in ethical political conduct.

The question that begs asking, of course, is whether 20 or 200 or 2,000 hours of training could ever instill “rock solid personal integrity” in someone who, to borrow a scriptural metaphor, has ethics that are set on shifting sand. More broadly, can a society that has eviscerated the very institutions designed to cultivate ethical conduct expect to recover its capacity for integrity by giving its political class a crash course or two?

As Coyne put it in weighing the odds of the Harper government suddenly reversing eight years of “selling out and buying in” to anything that will let them retain power: “Good luck with that.”

While the kind of “ethics 101 for MPs” that Manning proposes might be a short-term first-step, genuine moral reinvigoration can come only when the Church and her faithful are highly visible and highly active in the citizen square.

The purpose of such a religious presence is not, contrary to the incessant alarms of anti-theist crusaders, transformation of democracy to theocracy. Rather it is, as Pope Benedict XVI articulates so beautifully in the encyclical Deus Caritas Est, to enable the “constant purification” of reason through charity. In that purification, Benedict writes, justice, which properly belongs to politics, can be freed “from the ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests.”

It is not the Church’s role to pursue the political task of achieving perfect social justice, he says. But the Church is fully implicated in forming consciences that are equipped to understand what constitutes true justice.  And while there is no substitute for rock solid personal integrity, as  Manning properly said, neither can anything replace love.

“Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such,” Benedict says.

It’s a warning that holds right, left or centre.

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