Q&A: Preston Manning on green conservatism and political ethics

Since retiring from politics, in 2002, Reform party founder Preston Manning has taken on the mantle of public intellectual, and has surprised many with his commitment to green conservatism in Alberta. This spring, he dashed speculation over a political comeback when he announced he would not seek the leadership of the provincial Progressive Conservatives. Instead, he is focusing on his think-tank, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. Staff writer Jeff Sanford spoke to Manning, 64, about the looming race and about his environmental concerns. Excerpts:

Canadian Business: I've heard a lot of people express disappointment that you're not running for leader of the Progressive Conservative party of Alberta.

Preston Manning: [Laughs]. I've heard that to. But, you know, I decided against it, for a variety of reasons. Family was one reason. The Manning Centre for Building Democracy is another.

CB: What are the big issues in the party leadership race?

PM: One of the biggest issues will be the question of how much of current revenue from non-renewable resources should be saved and how those savings should be invested. More needs to be spent on conservation, human capital, education and training. And a portion has to be invested in non-renewable energy so that, if the day ever comes that oil and gas isn't as significant as it is now, there's something to replace it.

Another issue is whether or not Alberta is going to form more strategic alliances with other parts of the country so that the province's increasing influence is of a benefit to the country as a whole and not just to itself. Can we marry a genuine commitment to conservation, which is an increasing concern in Alberta and across the country, to Alberta's market based approach to economic development, and energy development?

These are a couple of the big questions that have to be answered. And it'll be up to the next leader of the province to provide answers to those questions, not just for Alberta, but also for the country.

CB: I assume you've seen Al Gore's movie. What is the sense in Alberta about the environment and where that file needs to go?

PM: Well, first of all, Albertans feel — a majority feel — that neither Ottawa nor Washington should lose sight of the importance of energy security. We live in a cold climate and we're the second largest country on the face of the earth. We can't take our energy supplies or our energy security for granted. We shouldn't lose sight of that in a debate on how we develop those resources.

But there is a growing concern about environmental conservation and I think the question is not whether you make a major effort to improve environmental quality and environmental conservation but how is it to be done? Do you rely increasingly on government regulation and intervention or do you rely more on the marketplace? And if you rely on the marketplace — the approach which Albertans tend to favor — what has to be done that the market takes into account these other factors? How do you internationalize the cost of greater conservation measure? How do you internalize or get that into the price of the product? I think that's the bigger question. Albertans don't dispute that the environmental concerns are huge, and in particular with oil and gas development. But how are you going to handle that? Are you going to do that through government or are you going to do it through adjustments to the marketplace?

Alberta tends to be skeptical about federal intervention in oil and gas. In the petroleum sector from 1905 to 1930 the resources were managed by the federal government. It was under their jurisdiction that billions of feet of natural gas were flared at Turner Valley — they didn't know what to do with it. But if the government wants to count its contribution to greenhouse gas it might want to go back to Hell's Half Acre, which is what they called the flaring pond there.

Albertans are very skeptical, or feel, that the [federal] government was not sincere in its negotiation of Kyoto. There was a feeling that at the highest levels the government had no intention of ever implementing it. Because if it had intended to implement it — you can't implement it without the concurrence of the provinces and the private sector. When the government went ahead and signed that thing without the concurrence of the biggest hydrocarbon producer, Alberta, or the biggest consumer, Ontario, to us it said they had no intention of implementing the program. So to come back to the basic question, the concerns that Gore and others raise have legitimacy to them. The biggest question is, how are they to be addressed?

CB: The federal Conservatives talk about a made-in-Canada replacement for the Kyoto accord. What would you like to see?

PM: I would like to see it include real and meaningful consultation from the provinces. I think there is room for an inter-provincial agreement between, say, Alberta and Ontario, the biggest producer and consumer of hydrocarbons. They could get together and say, “Here's what we're going to do to reduce the negative effects.” It would be the Kenora accord instead of the Kyoto accord.

Secondly, we need full-cost accounting. When an economic development such as an oil-sands plant is proposed, we should take into full account the environmental impacts? and integrate that cost into the price of the product.

There is another side to this, which is, if anybody proposes an environmental protection measure, like Kyoto, or something more specific, that the economic consequences are calculated and taken into account in the program. Full cost accounting cuts both ways; I think that ought to be an increasing policy of government generally and particularly its approach to the environment.

CB: With massive oil sands investments going into place and an apparently new and permanently high price for a barrel of oil, Alberta can look forward to a long, steady stream of revenue. That can be a danger. Many oil-producing areas of the world succumb to corruption because of the sheer size of the revenue streams involved. Does Alberta need to worry about this?

PM: It has to be something the new leadership has to be worried about. Alberta has a remarkable record among the oil producing areas of the world, including North America, for having a regulatory and political system has thus far not yet been corrupted by these resource booms. There is an ethic here that is in the government and the civil service, and the regulatory regimes have worked very hard to keep [corruption] out. But it's an area where vigilance has to continue to be exercised.

It really comes down to the ethics of the individuals involved. When Leduc was discovered American oil fellows who came to Alberta had two questions: Where is Leduc and who do you pay? These guys came from Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas and California, where the way you got drilling rights was that you paid someone in the political system.

Fortunately in Edmonton they ran into a couple of people. And this comes down to a couple of people. One was a top political executive and the other was a civil servant, not even a high civil servant because oil and gas wasn't considered a big thing. When that pitch was made they resisted it. They said, 'If you ever ask that again of us or any of our people we'll make sure you never, ever get exploratory drilling rights in Alberta again.' A few people saying the right thing at the right time on an ethical level saved this province who knows how much grief and money. That ethic has to prevail. In my observation ethical tone comes from the top of an organization, so that's gong to be a real big obligation of whoever is the next leader of the province.