Q: Preston, you had a spectacular career in federal politics, you accomplished great things, even changed the Canadian political landscape. Just a few months ago you opened a new centre for political research. You've got lots to do. Why contemplate a return to active politics?
A: Well, it's not really a career thing. As you say, I've got some very interesting things on the go. It's mainly that Alberta's just becoming a huge player in the federation. I do have a number of ideas that have to do with the future of the province and some of the leadership it could provide on the national stage, so that's the basic reason why I'd even contemplate this. But as I've said, this initiative hasn't come from me. I've been badgered by people for the last year saying, "Why don't you think about it?" and so what I have said is, "Well, I would have to be convinced that this is a good idea for the province, that it's a good idea for the Conservative party in Alberta, and that it's a good idea for Sandra and me." So I've basically put the ball back in other people's courts and I've said, "Well, if you think that's a good idea, convince me."
Q: On the surface, the Alberta Tories don't look like the kind of organization you've usually been associated with. They're four decades in office, they're tired and a little bit adrift. This is the sort of organization I'd expect you to want to supplant, not join.
A: Well, I think that was one of the main reasons why I was asked to speak to their convention. I've lectured and spoken on this for a long time, that in Alberta there are these periods of long one-party government, and if you're the governing party you have to rejuvenate yourselves periodically. And basically the way you do that is you anticipate some of these big new ideas that from time to time grip the province, and you refine them and embrace them and embody them, and if you can do that, that's how you get a new lease on life. If you can't do that, eventually the clock runs out. When I say, "Convince me that I would be a good idea for the party," I'm saying, "Is the party prepared to do that?" Is the party prepared to reinvent itself around some new idea, not giving up everything it's done - particularly fiscal responsibility - but embracing the next set of ideas.
Q: Have the Alberta Tories really achieved fiscal responsibility?
A: Well, I think Mr. Klein's biggest contribution was getting the budget balanced and the debt down and the taxes down, but there's the question now of continuing to practise fiscal responsibility, which is hard when you've got the revenues Alberta has. But I presented about two or three ideas to the convention. One is on building democratic infrastructure - is the party prepared to endorse that type of thing? All Conservative parties need that, not necessarily directly, but indirectly. And I particularly raised this idea that I think Alberta's ripe for a real, concrete marriage between genuine conservation and market-based economics.
Q: Where do you see evidence for that? Where's the demand?
A: Well, first of all, the environment for the last five years has shown up as the No. 2 issue, right behind health care in Alberta. Secondly, the growth of these environmental groups - and these are not all left-wing extreme groups, many of them are very conservative-type groups - and the numbers of them, the budgets of them, the meetings, the attendance at their meetings, exceeds those of all the provincial parties put together. The fact that the Green party, without much money and really much of a campaign at all, gets 3,000 or 4,000 votes in my old riding, finished second in Wild Rose federal riding, which is one of the most conservative ridings in the country, these are all signs in the wind. And also when I speak to younger audiences - as I do particularly at the universities - one of the few issues that seem to motivate younger people to actually consider getting involved with either interest groups or political parties is the environmental one. The example I used at the Tory convention was the ranchers in southwestern Alberta. These people are, as I say, rock-ribbed fiscal and economic conservatives, they've resisted government intervention in their industry more than any other portion of the agricultural sector, and yet they love that land, they're committed to preserving the eastern slope rivers. I say the key question isn't are they red Tories or are they blue Tories, I think they're green Tories, and if someone could articulate that, that's an idea I think whose time has come. And again my question, more to Albertans, was, "Would you be interested in pursuing and refining and developing that idea?"
Q: The big clash is inevitably going to be in the oil sands, isn't it? You're either going to use most of the water in northern Alberta for those operations or you're not. How do you deal with that?
A: Well, at least pose the questions. Is there a way to deal more responsibly with, first of all, how we energize the oil sands extraction? We can't continue to use a high-premium clean-burning fuel like natural gas to energize the production of oil sands, so the faster the scientific community, the technological community, the industry - and people are working on this night and day - can improve that situation the better. We can't continue to use the volumes of water Alberta is using at the rate we're doing, and is there a place for market mechanisms there to start valuing that resource at its true value and measure our use of it and price it correctly? There are no simple answers to these questions, but I think they're ones that should be front and centre.
Q: Am I wrong in suggesting that, historically, Alberta leaders have won office more by running against Ottawa than by talking about Alberta's internal issues? I haven't heard you speak about federal-provincial issues yet.
A: Well, in the old West, I think, particularly when the West was not as strong as it is, and certainly Alberta wasn't as strong as it is, a lot of provincial politics centred around grievances that could only be dealt with - or people felt should be dealt with - by the federal government, but that's now one of the differences between the old West and the new West. Alberta's able to take care of most of its domestic regional problems very well itself, so there's not that list of grievances to be dealt with, but there are new challenges. As you get to be a bigger, more responsible player in Confederation, people ask, "How are you going to use that influence on the national stage?" Alberta's got a lot to contribute to continental energy security and it's important that the national government communicate that properly in Washington. Alberta's capable of entering into these memorandums of understanding with other provinces - it's done quite a bit of that already - and finding things it has in common with other provinces and doing some things together. It's doing that more and more with British Columbia - I think it should do it with some other provinces as well. So Alberta's role in the federation is changing from more of an aggrieved party, the old western alienation West-wants-in theme, to a potential leader in Confederation. And again, my question to Albertans is, if you wanted me to be involved with the Alberta government, does Alberta want to lead, or does it want to put the wagons in a circle and say, "To heck with the rest of the country." I'm not interested in the latter option.
Q: An inevitable criticism of a Preston Manning premiership would be that you and your old protegé, Stephen Harper, are going to work together to further fracture Canadian federalism and transform Canada into a loose coalition of provinces. How will you respond to that?
A: Well, that's a caricature of what our position's been. We've argued for a rebalancing of the federation. Strengthen and respect the provinces and their traditional areas of jurisdiction, but strengthen the federal government in areas where nobody disputes that it has a primary role - foreign affairs, international trade, defence, the Criminal Code - and I actually think that's the paradigm for the future, that rebalanced federalism. And the fact that Stephen HARPER, talking about that under the more general heading of flexible federalism, got some very good receptivity in Quebec in the last federal election I think is an indication that that is a better way of holding the country together than Liberal centralization.
Q: What did you think of Stephen Harper's so-called "firewall speech," in which he suggested that Alberta should pretty much opt out of federalism and use its abundant revenues to look after itself on its own terms?
A: Well, I think that was a product of the frustration at the time, particularly when you had a central government that was hostile to every initiative Alberta took, even positive ones to help strengthen the country. I think now that the Liberals are out of office and you have a federal government that's prepared to be more respectful of provincial jurisdiction, that speech belongs to another era. And I can't speak for Stephen, but I think he would say that too.
Q: The premiership of Alberta is a job you're very familiar with. Your father held the office for about 25 years. You virtually grew up in the premier's office. In following your career, I've assumed that you saw it as your mission to take some of the family experience and the knowledge you've acquired about how Canada works and the problems with our federation, and use it on the federal stage, building on what your father accomplished provincially. If you now return to provincial politics, is it a homecoming or is it a retreat?
A: That's hard to answer. I did everything I could do on the federal scene to try to apply our view - sort of an Alberta-based view - of federalism and fiscal responsibility and democratic reform. Now there is this Alberta opportunity. There's no better province in the country - and here I do sound like a homer, if you were going to end up with a provincial government there's no better one in the country than that one! - but I also do see Alberta as having a responsibility that goes along with that wealth that includes a national responsibility, and that maybe some of my national experience would be helpful in helping Alberta play that role.
Q: You put a lot of years into the Reform party and reshaping the conservative alternative to the federal Liberals. You infused the conservative movement with new ideas, new energy, new people. You carried the ball a long way down the field and then Harper, some might say, took it the last 10 or 15 yards over the goal line and into office. Is that bittersweet for you?
A: No. I don't think you can ... if you start thinking or worrying about those things, Ken, I think it just poisons your relationships and your attitude. Yes, I would have liked to have carried it all the way. My objective was to get to 155 seats by the year 2000. And looking back, I still think we might have been able to do that if we'd done a few things differently. But the fact that there now is a Conservative government there, and the Prime Minister's a person I've worked with for a long time and have a high regard for, I'm nothing but pleased with that.
Q: You're 63 years old. How do you present yourself as a candidate for renewal and the future of an Alberta Tory party that's already been in office for almost four decades?
A: Well, that's why you have to hear from other people, too. Is that something that worries them? I really can't change in that area. I've been an advocate of new ideas. I'd argue I've had more ideas in a month than the Liberal party of Alberta's had in 30 years.
Q: Did you and your father ever talk about you getting involved in Alberta politics?
A: Not really. He retired in 1968 when I would have been 26. There was a little movement among some of the younger guys who thought I should have tried to succeed him, but he felt there was real wisdom in doing something else and then bringing that expertise back to the political arena. He worried about political professionals, and he very strongly encouraged me to get some experience in business. We had a consulting firm for 20 years where I did communications and strategic planning, mainly in the energy industry, and he was much more encouraging me to get that kind of experience. So we never talked much about Alberta. Plus, we'd had a pretty good dose of Albertan politics up to that point, and needed a little refreshing change!
Q: What's the biggest change in Alberta since your father left office in '68?
A: Well, of course the revenues. When my father was first elected in 1935, Alberta was $161 million in debt. This is 1935 dollars. This was compliments of the first Liberal administration in Alberta. The budget of Alberta was $15 million - $8 million paid for debt service, and you ran the province of Alberta on $7 million. When he left, of course, the budget was getting close to $1 billion a year. Now the revenues are up to $30 billion, so that is a big transformation.
Q: Does Sandra have any misgivings about a possible return to politics?
A: Well, we'd have to be convinced that this is a good thing for us. When I was a federal - particularly Opposition - leader, it was compounded by trying to build a new party or new parties at the same time. I spent 200 days a year on the road, and a lot of it apart from Sandra, and we just don't want ... we can't do that again, we don't want to do that again, so I've said to these people who want us to look at provincial politics, "I've got to be absolutely assured that we don't have to make that kind of commitment." Now, they argue back, "Well, it's a lot smaller a geography," but I also know those jobs just expand to exceed your capability no matter what, so that's an area we would ... Whatever we do in the future we want to do it together, and we don't want to be apart.
Q: Is that not an argument - sorry if this sounds harsh - is that not an argument that the job should go to somebody who's at a different stage in his or her career?
A: Yeah, it could very well be, although Sandra's given a lot of counsel to candidates for public office and she's much more concerned about politicians who have younger children exposing themselves to those kinds of demands, not so much for the strain on the marriage as for the strain on those child-rearing years, so arguments can be made both ways. I just think for us it's important to say we just can't sacrifice our own time together, and if the kind of commitment that's being asked for would require that, we wouldn't be the people to do it.
Q: What kind of a timeline are you working on?
A: Well, I think Ralph Klein has sort of outlined the timeline now. He's said he's going to resign in September, and presumably the party would hold a convention before the end of the year, so that doesn't leave a lot of time. I haven't set an exact date, but I'd have to know fairly soon. I'd have to be convinced fairly soon in order to even ...
Q: This spring?
A: Oh yes, I would think a reasonably short period of time.
Q: A few weeks?
A: I really haven't nailed it down, but I can't leave it too long.
Maclean's April 17, 2006
Author KENNETH WHYTE