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Think Big: Adventures in Life and Democracy
By Preston Manning
McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
HC, 452 pgs., C$37.99/US$27.95
ISBN: 0-7710-5675-3

A life in and of politics

By Steven Martinovich
web posted November 4, 2002

Think Big: Adventures in Life and DemocracyPolitical memoirs typically are exercises in self-justification, an attempt to turn mistakes into victories and failures into noble campaigns. They usually fall into either one of two categories: they either engage in revisionism, perhaps best personified by The Memoirs of Richard M. Nixon, or more rarely they reveal the warts as well as the glories of a politician's career. Preston Manning's Think Big: Adventures in Life and Democracy is a member of that later club. Where most would engage in a hagiographic exercise, Manning has authored a frank and compelling account of his years in politics.

Journalists have unfortunately focused their attention on Think Big's criticisms of Stockwell Day and Stephen Harper and missed the more brutal judgments -- it is the rare person who can enumerate publicly their errors and shortcomings -- that Manning directs at himself. Although Manning is blunt in his assessment of his two predecessor’s failures -- particularly those of Day -- he is unusually forthright in cataloguing his own. The man who helped spark a revolution -- at least on the conservative side of the political spectrum -- and influenced debate for over a decade isn't afraid to let you know when he took a wrong step and why. To a point that is.

In a sense the story of the Reform Party began in 1967 when Manning and his father -- then Alberta premier Ernest Manning -- co-authored a book arguing that Canada needed a new conservative movement, one that would combine advocacy of the free market with Christian-influenced social concern. It became the blueprint for a long journey that ended with Reform -- and later the Canadian Alliance -- becoming the nation's official opposition party. In the early days of the movement to create a new political party, as one would expect, it was less a barnstorming trip across Western Canada than it was having the patience to build a network of likeminded reformers until the time was right.

As Think Big illustrates, waiting for the right moment to make a decision may perhaps be the greatest skill Manning possesses. Manning spent much of the Trudeau era -- what he refers to as the "political equivalent of the Dark Ages" --- waiting until the political landscape was ready for a new political party. That day came on September 5, 1986 when he authored a memorandum that captured the West's dissatisfaction with Ottawa and which eventually became one of Reform's founding documents. Within one year organizing meetings were held across the west and only three years later the party's first Member of Parliament was elected.

Think Big takes the reader on a dizzying, and occasionally exhausting, trek through the years that Manning led the Reform Party, battled the Chrétien Liberals and attempted to expand the party outside of his Western base. From the first major election Reform fought in 1993 which saw 52 members elected to Parliament to its participation in the ongoing separation drama in Quebec, Manning does a credible job in explaining his and the party’s motivations and goals. Along the way, he hammers the Liberals repeatedly for what he perceives as their numerous ethical lapses, explains why he didn’t court the Christian vote and his much discussed image makeover in the late 1990s.

Where Think Big does fail, unfortunately, is Manning’s odd decision not to analyze in depth why the Reform Party failed to achieve his goals of capturing power and massively reshaping Canada’s political landscape. While he does delve into some of the mistakes he and the party have made over the years, mistakes that may have cost Reform and the Canadian Alliance enough to prevent extensive inroads into Ontario, any analysis of the bigger issues is missing.

Despite that, Think Big gives a rare insight into the mind of a man that many Canadians unfairly dismissed as a political bomb-thrower. It was only in the final years of his leadership that many realized the depth of his passion and dedication not only to his conservative principals, but to Canada itself. While it’s doubtful that his political enemies would agree that Manning contributed much in the way of positive energy to the Canadian political scene, an unfair judgment regardless of your political leanings, Think Big paints the picture of a man who truly believes that all politics are local. Manning may have departed the political scene but Think Big shows his influence will be felt no matter what happens to the political party he helped give birth to.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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