In a recent guest column for the Calgary Herald, I characterized Ernest Manning, the late Social Credit premier of Alberta, as the Barack Obama of his day because he was chosen party leader at a young age (34) without previous executive experience.
Now I can discern an even stronger connection between these two ideological opposites: Manning the social conservative and Obama the liberal. A recent column about Obama in the New York Times puts it into perspective for me. Written by the paper’s conservative op-ed columnist David Brooks, it says that for the past two years the American public has watched Obama making his bid for the presidency, and in all that time he has never lost his cool. “This has been a period of tumult, combat, exhaustion and crisis,” writes Brooks. “Yet there hasn’t been a moment when (Obama) has displayed rage, resentment, fear, anxiety, bitterness, tears, ecstasy, self-pity or impulsiveness.”
Brooks could well have written the same words about Manning after he took over as leader from Social Credit icon William Aberhart in 1943. For the first several years of his premiership, Manning inspired confidence among nervous Albertans by keeping a steady hand on the tiller while the province negotiated the turbulent economic waters left behind by the Great Depression. If he was worried about the fact that almost half the taxes then collected annually from Albertans had to be used to service the province’s accumulated debt of $219 million, Manning never showed it in public. Calm, self-controlled and supremely competent, Manning eventually kept Alberta from sinking by engineering an imaginative debt refinancing deal that still stands as one of the great achievements of his political career.
There are lessons to be learned from that political achievement. Some might be applied to the current global financial crisis. Manning, as a dyed-in-the-wool free-marketeer, firmly believed in laissez-faire economics. But he also knew that in exceptional times and exceptional circumstances governments have no choice but to intervene.