OTTAWA – Canadian conservatives are gathering for an annual confab in Ottawa as the federal Conservative party inches ever closer to selecting a new leader.
Today is the deadline to register for the leadership contest and, barring any last-minute entrants, there are 14 contenders for the job – all of whom will be eager to sway grassroots party members among the delegates at the Manning Conference.
Some, including businessman Kevin O’Leary, are running hospitality suites, but all will be on stage this afternoon for a debate on party leadership, the resource sector, social and economic initiatives and Canada-U.S. relations.
The political tumult in the United States is hanging over the Ottawa gathering and also very much on the mind of the man for whom it is named – Preston Manning, founder of the Reform party.
Many have drawn connections between the populist surge of support that saw Donald Trump elected president and Manning’s ability to seize on a feeling of Western alienation in the late 1980s to found Reform. The party would go on to win 52 seats in 1993 before eventually being absorbed into the current Conservative party.
WATCH: Reform Party founder Preston Manning reacts to Canada’s populist movement
Manning likens what he was able to do with the Reform party to drilling a relief well that helps avoid a blowout in the oilpatch. People in the West were angry at the time, and without a meaningful way to express that politically, he says that anger could have easily exploded into a full-blown separatist movement.
The same thing is happening now, Manning argued in an interview. People are feeling increasingly disconnected from governments who make promises they can’t keep and who fail to mitigate the unavoidable negative consequences from policies like free trade or deficit cutting.
The pressure lurks under the surface and if today’s politicians don’t find a way to drill new relief wells, he said the populist sentiment is going to blow up in their faces.
“This country has had experience with this and how to deal with it constructively but you can’t start out by just denying that these populist forces are there or just decrying the negative aspects of them which is 90 per cent of what’s going on now,” Manning said.
While he acknowledges some Canadians are disenchanted enough with the current system to embrace a political outsider to lead the country, he believes there remains a thoughtful element that is looking for political experience in selecting a leader.
But whomever wins the Conservative leadership, he or she will need to focus as well on keeping the party unified, Manning said.
The ties that bind the different segments of Canada’s conservative movement into the federal party are relatively new and each region of the country has different interpretations of what conservatism means to them, Manning said.
“Don’t strain the stitches,” he said. “They haven’t been there for 100 years.”