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ottawa notebook

Preston Manning is worried about eastern alienation. This, from the Alberta politician who created an entire political movement around the mantra, "the West wants in."

"This will sound funny coming from me. I worry about eastern alienation," Mr. Manning told The Globe.

It does sound odd – especially given his more than 20 year fight to have the West recognized as a political force in the country.

Mr. Manning, however, has come full circle with the West finally in after last May's election that saw the Harper Conservatives win a big majority government. His success has now created this new concern.

"The different thing after this election is this shift in the political centre of gravity of the country," observes Mr. Manning. "It's now an alignment between Ontario and the West, not an alignment between Ontario and Quebec. And that's got positive implications. It's got things to worry about, too."

Mr. Manning, who now runs the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, is putting the final touches on his fourth "Manning Networking Conference", a three-day conference for mostly conservative thinkers that takes place in Ottawa in early March. More than 400 people are expected, including senior Harper Ministers – Treasury Board President Tony Clement, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley and Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose.

The conference's theme is the government acting as a "facilitator." Mr. Manning says polling shows Canadians don't want the federal government to come up with big program solutions to problems. Rather, Canadians want the government to be an "enabler" or "partner" to get things done.

And this fits in with his concerns about eastern alienation.

"I think while there is this danger of everything east of the Ottawa River getting alienated there's things that can be done to cope with that but they lie more in the area of interprovincial agreements and private sector initiatives than some constitutional thing by the federal government," Mr. Manning says.

He does not believe, for example, that "the federal government is particularly the best instrument for keeping Quebec in the fold and addressing its needs."

Rather, he sees "strong interprovincial relations" as the solution, such as a free-trade agreement between Quebec and Ontario much like the one among the western provinces.

In addition, he suggests the private sector "could build more bridges."

"I think the oil patch people and the hydro people in Quebec should be getting together a lot more because our biggest common customer is the United States," says Mr. Manning. "And we ought to get our act together between ourselves before we bargain with the Americans."

The former opposition leader cautions this is not ideological.

"The Conservatives would like to believe everyone has become converted to the idea of limited government," he notes. But it simply comes down to Canadians wanting common-sense solutions to problems rather than big fixes such as "Kyoto" and "some big health care accord," said Mr. Manning.

"It's not ideological. It's just practical," he adds.

And he notes that he must remind westerners about how they felt when they were believed they were being excluded.

"We kind of joke about this eastern alienation," he says. "But then I usually sober them down and say, 'You remember how you felt when you thought you were out of it. ... Nobody in the country should ever feel out of it like that again.' It's interesting, audiences will applaud that ... they remember."

"Near customers"

Preston Manning will be exploring the concept of "near customers" – or near customers of the Conservative Party who don't vote Conservative – at his upcoming networking conference.

Mr. Manning says there are ridings in "particularly affluent urban areas" where the profile of a Green Party voter and a Conservative voter "are almost "identical."

The only difference, notes Mr. Manning, is that voter "doesn't think the Conservatives are positive and proactive enough on the environmental front so they go the other way."

There is also the blue-collar, trade-union voter, who Mr. Manning says believes in law and order. They are family people and they pay a lot of taxes, so they do share many Conservative issues.

"But they don't consistently support Conservative [ideas]" he says. So, the idea is to figure out exactly who they are, where they are and "what do you have to do to appeal to them," Mr. Manning says.