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Opinion Preston Manning on reconciling economy and environment: ‘Canadians need a dose of realism’

Possible Canadas is a project created by Reos Partners, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and a diverse coalition of philanthropic and community organizations. For longer versions of these interviews, or to join the conversation, visit possiblecanadas.ca

In a six-week series of interviews, Canadians with a variety of experiences discuss the major challenges our country is facing and how best to address them. This installment deals with our use of natural resources.

Preston Manning, President of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, was interviewed on Sept. 16 by Brenna Atnikov, a consultant with Reos Partners.

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Atnikov: When you look at Canada, what's got your attention?

Manning: I'd like Canada to be the best-governed democracy in the world, with the strongest economy and the highest quality of life. One way to strengthen democratic governance is to raise the knowledge, skill, ethics and capacity of elected officials. Many more think tanks, interest groups and training programs exist for elected provincial and federal officials than for the more than 25,000 municipal officials. Likewise, you need 30 hours of training to be a barista at Starbucks, but you can become a lawmaker in Parliament without one hour of training. Is that smart?

At the highest level, politics is about reconciling conflicting interests. The hardest ones to reconcile are the ones in which both sides are good. As a nation, we've desperately been seeking the middle way right from the beginning, and that's helped keep the country together. It's why we're bilingual; it's why we chose a combination of the British parliamentary system and the American federalist system. We need to continue to seek that middle way on newer fronts, including the economic-environmental front. Otherwise, we could be heading toward another national-unity crisis, prompted by the Western provinces and their sense of "Why are we subsidizing everything east of the Ottawa River?"

Atnikov: What keeps you up at night?

Manning: Canadians need a dose of realism with respect to the economy. The resource sector is the horse that's pulling the current economic cart. We have to give more attention to strengthening those industries and recognizing what they're contributing. To maintain our high quality of life, the economy must be strong enough to pay for the social-services network. As our population ages, the demands on our health-care and pension systems will increase.

We also need to address environmental concerns, particularly as they interface with resource development. We can't continue to engage in a polarized environment-versus-economy argument. Nobody is out to destroy the environment or the economy – you need both – but a lot of people are willing to take one side or the other. There are different ways of reconciling the economy with the environment, some of them on the supply side and some of them on the demand side. Few groups in society talk about constraining demands.

Conservatives can play a big role in reconciling these interests. The words "conservative" and "conservation" come from the same root. Living within your means – something that fiscal conservatives believe in – is actually an ecological concept. You can't take more out of a natural system than goes back into it. Conservatives could make the harnessing of market mechanisms to environmental conservation their signature contribution.

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Atnikov: And if things turn out well over the next 20 years, what will have happened?

Manning: The central doctrine of the Christian faith is reconciliation, whether between people and whoever they conceive God to be; people and others; people and themselves; or people and the physical world. The renewed interest in environmental stewardship – in restoring the relationship between people and nature – has some spiritual elements to it. That spiritual perspective has a role to play in helping people recognize the need to sacrifice immediate satisfaction for something in the future, the next generation, the environment. If we constrained our material demands, we would have more time for our personal, family and social relations. If we spent more time looking after each other, we wouldn't have to go to the government for support. This is an alternative approach to trying to fix everything by regulation or law. It's easy to talk about the future in terms of what it should be economically, environmentally, socially and politically. I would add the spiritual dimension.

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