Preston Manning’s controversial Riddell Program

Preston Manning promotes Clayton H. Riddell Program at Carleton University

Carleton University in Ottawa has received a metaphorical black eye in its attempt to keep secret the details of an agreement that created its one-year Master’s degree in Political Management. The program was brokered by former Reform Party leader Preston Manning and funded by Calgary oil magnate Clayton H. Riddell. After a year of stonewalling, Carleton was ordered by the information and privacy commissioner of Ontario to adhere to a request by Canadian Press to make the agreement public.

It turns out that the Riddell Foundation gets to appoint two of five people to the program’s steering committee. The university also appoints two members and Manning acts as the chair. That committee has what Canadian Press describes as “sweeping power” over the program’s budget, academic hiring, its executive director and curriculum. In publicity surrounding its launch in 2010, the program was described as “cross-partisan” in nature, but people with political connections to Manning are prominent on both the steering committee and the academic staff.

Academic freedom

The deal between Carleton and the Riddell Foundation raises issues of academic freedom and accountability. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) describes provisions of the agreement as “unprecedented and unacceptable.” James Turk, CAUT’s executive director, told Canadian Press, “The integrity of what universities are is at stake.”

“Cross-partisan”

The Clayton H. Riddell Program in Political Management, as described by the university, will give students a solid grounding that will prepare them to work in the offices of MPs, MPPs, MLAs and elsewhere in governments. The program was launched with fanfare in 2010 including comments by Carleton’s President Roseanne Runte who praised Manning’s “vision and determination” and Riddell’s “wisdom and generosity.”

The first students in the one-year program were accepted in fall 2011. Riddell, a Calgary-based oil industry entrepreneur and former chair of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, reportedly provided $15 million for the program, which Carleton said was the largest single donation ever to the university.

Donor agreement

In summer 2011, Canadian Press requested a copy of the donor agreement under Ontario’s freedom-of-information law, but Carleton refused citing invasion of privacy. The information commissioner’s office ordered mediation and in March 2012 Carleton released a copy of the donor agreement but much of it was blacked out. In June, Carleton was ordered to provide more complete information.

The university released the full textof the agreement on the afternoon of Friday, June 29, just before the Canada Day weekend. The contract reveals that the Riddell Foundation can effectively appoint three of five members of the steering committee overseeing the program. Other clauses in the agreement, which had previously been blacked out by the university, indicate that the Foundation can also assess the program’s performance after five years and withhold the final $10 million if it is not satisfied.

News release

On July 12, the university issued a news release saying that the donor agreement “did not fully reflect Carleton’s policies and procedures with regard to budget management and selection of staff.” The university said the agreement will be renegotiated but it is not immediately clear what that means. The release, however, was mostly a defence of the program and its procedures. It said that an “excellent faculty has been recruited, possessing the highest academic standards and practical experience across party lines”.

The release went on to provide a list of those “experts have been involved with the program as staff, instructors, guest speakers and fellows run the gamut of political stripes and professions”.

That is an accurate description of those who have made guest appearances. They include Eddie Goldenberg, and Bob Rae (Liberals), Anne McGrath and Brad Lavigne (NDP) and an array of people with Conservative connections. But let’s look at the shorter list of those who sit on the program’s steering committee and who comprise its academic faculty.

Steering committee

The steering committee is chaired by Manning but also includes Cliff Fryers and Chris Frogatt. Fryers was with Manning at the creation of the Reform party in the 1980s and later served as Manning’s chief of staff. Frogatt is an Ottawa-based managing partner of a communications company called National. His biography on the firm’s website says that prior to joining National he was chief of staff to Conservative cabinet minister John Baird, and that he was also a senior advisor to Preston Manning when he was leader of the opposition.

Core faculty

The core faculty of the Riddell program includes: Paul Wilson, Jennifer Robson, Stephen Azzi, and Andre Turcotte. Three of the four have doctorates and Robson is working on hers. Robson and Azzi have experience as bureaucrats and both have worked for the Liberals.

Wilson has a long history with the Reform, Canadian Alliance and Conservative parties. He was director of policy in the (Harper) Prime Minister’s Office between 2009 and 2011 when he left for his job at Carleton. He had previously worked for Conservative ministers Diane Finley, Monte Solberg and Vic Toews. His Carleton biography doesn’t mention it but Wilson also worked for Preston Manning and Stockwell Day.

Turcotte, who is an associate professor in Carleton’s School of Journalism and Communications, was the official pollster for the Reform Party between 1994 and 2000. He is also the academic director of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, which was created by Preston Manning and his wife Sandra to instruct Conservatives at all levels how to win campaigns and elections.

A pattern

Is there a pattern here? One member of the Riddell program’s five-member steering committee is a former chief of staff for Manning while a second was a former senior advisor to him. Manning is the committee chair. One of the four members of the program’s academic staff worked for Manning when he was leader of the Opposition, and another was his pollster.

There are no members on either the steering committee or the program’s academic faculty who have obvious ties to the NDP. Among Ottawa’s traditional political elite, NDPers are (to paraphrase the late MP Les Benjamin) about as welcome as skunks at a picnic.

Elder statesman or partisan?

Ridell, when asked about Manning’s obvious right of centre political history as it applies to the Carleton program, said Manning no longer has much interest in partisan politics. “He’s an elder statesman and really above some of that at this point in his career.”

Well, not entirely. Manning was widely quoted in June after attacking NDP leader Thomas Mulcair as a hypocrite on CBC Radio’s The House. He said Mulcair, as Quebec environment minister, had not applied the same polluter pay principle as he is now expecting from companies in Alberta’s oilsands.

In Manning’s speeches and his frequently published articles, he almost always finds a way to either praise the Conservative government or at the least to avoid criticism of it. As is clear from his 1995 book Think Big, Manning was bitterly disappointed at his multiple betrayals by Stephen Harper, but it appears that he has decided to put all of that behind him and to remain a good soldier in the Conservative cause.

Ball in Carleton’s court

The ball is now in Carleton’s court. The university’s stonewalling on an access to information request and now its tardy promise to review the arrangement are an embarrassment to the administration. For the rest of us, it is a revelation about how business really gets done.

 

 

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Dennis

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament

3 thoughts on “Preston Manning’s controversial Riddell Program”

  1. There’s an old ‘joke’ about a man who offers a woman a million dollars to sleep with him. The woman thinks it over, and agrees because, when all is said and done, a million dollars is a lot of money. The man then asks the woman if she will sleep with him for $10. The woman is outraged and hollers at the man “Just what do think I am?” The man replies “We know what you are; we’re just haggling over price.” To me, that about sums up the situation at Carleton University – there was some haggling over price, and then the parties came to an arrangement whereby each got what they wanted.

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