Preston Manning’s fiction made real in his Alberta pandemic report

Preston Manning’s report on the government’s COVID response concluded that emergency management agencies should lead over the health department, demanded economic impact assessments for any health protections and criticized the courts’ deference to “demonstrably justifiable” limits on freedoms.

You might think we’re referring to the panel report Manning was commissioned to lead for Alberta’s government. You’d be partly right.

The former Reform Party leader had also made these recommendations before.

Last year, before Premier Danielle Smith appointed him to study the pandemic response, Manning dabbled in creative writing on the topic. And covered much of the same ground, albeit in fiction.

Before Manning’s real Public Health Emergencies Governance Review Panel of 2023, there was his imagined COVID Commission of 2023. 

To read both is to behold the fantasy evolve into reality. Although the Smith government gave him a panel and a $2-million budget for research and support — they also endowed him with the restraints of reality, one supposes — many conclusions essentially remained the same.

Part of the cover for the former politician’s fictionalized recap of an inquiry into Canada’s pandemic management. It came out in May 2022, but he set it in an imagined ‘future’ of mid-2023. (Frontier Centre for Public Policy)

In mid-2022, Manning wrote his Report of the COVID Commission, June 5, 2023 for the conservative-leaning Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a think tank that’s been largely critical of governments’ handling of COVID.

This first report was 46 pages — once promised as an audiobook — billed as a “fictional, futuristic description” of a public investigation of pandemic management, and the imagined events that both led to that commission and followed it. But he was explicit that his objective was “non-fictional”: to explore the likelihood citizens would demand such an inquiry, and to “imagine in considerable detail the conclusions, recommendations, and lessons which would result from such an investigation.”

The former politician envisaged an inquiry into the federal response, rather than by any provincial government. This adds to how striking it is that there’s such overlap between the imagined national review and the actual provincial one. 

You can make this stuff up

It’s one thing to have thematic similarities in terms of Manning’s criticism of dominant scientific viewpoints and public health approaches — his Alberta panel bemoans governments and the media for “disregarding and censoring other narratives,” while his work of non-taxpayer-funded fiction says those groups “ruthlessly and systematically censored and ‘cancelled'” such perspectives. This is rhetoric and conjecture, of the sort Manning was using on this topic well before he penned either document.

It’s another matter, however, for the actual findings to be consistent between real report and make-believe.

Before delving into them, let’s go through an admittedly weird exercise of comparing an actual commission’s methodology with a fantasy one. 

Manning’s fictional panel, not sanctioned by the Trudeau government and composed of never-named experts, had a broad mandate to probe the pandemic and “freedom convoy” protest, and held public hearings.

The one Alberta’s premier commissioned was chaired by Manning and boasted former Supreme Court justice John Major and economist Jack Mintz. It was assigned to appraise the legislation and government practices surrounding health emergencies, and was conducted without any open hearings but did offer a one-question online survey as public engagement.

Different jurisdiction, different approach, different plane of reality. Nearly the same endpoints.

Preston Manning imagined the federal review would emerge with 75 recommendations, while his real-life provincial review overshot that with 90.

In both, the primary determination was that a health department shouldn’t lead in a health emergency, leaving that to the emergency management agency that typically oversees wildfire and flood response.

two excerpts; one from a fictional report, one from an actual report

This is thematic and determinative overlap, not verbatim repetition from one report to the other. It isn’t undergrad-style plagiarism (I ran it through a checker, and came up empty) — rather, the same basic points made in reports written before Manning was given a $2-million budget to study pandemic governance, and after.

Manning’s imagined and real inquiries both emphasize the virtue of routinely measuring the impact of potential and actual restrictions, in part to help courts measure whether infringements on rights struck a proper “balance.” 

  two excerpts; one from a fictional report, one from an actual report

Indeed, there was much scrutiny in the fantasy and actual reports about how courts tended to side with governments rather than the individuals and businesses that sued to fight against pandemic policies.

Both fictional and actual Manning reports prescribe a rebalancing of the court system to potentially find less often that restrictions were justifiable and reasonable, to tip the balance more toward those pleading their rights were violated during a health emergency.

  two excerpts; one from a fictional report, one from an actual report

One of the real-life Manning report’s most controversial recommendations was more consideration of “non-scientific” factors and “alternative scientific narratives” — which the ex-politician claimed in interviews referred to Indigenous ways of knowledge, something never mentioned in his 114-page report.

That’s not mentioned in his fantasy commission’s conclusions, though Manning doesn’t spell out all 75 of its imagined recommendations.

Fictional and real reports both also come to conclusions about the necessity for politicians to more rigorously debate emergency rules in the legislature and pursue major reforms of health-care systems.

Through a spokesperson, Manning declined an interview to discuss the non-differences between reality and fiction.

Political scientist Lisa Young marvelled at what she called Manning’s “fever dream” fiction when Smith first appointed her old political ally as Alberta’s panel chair. 

A woman wearing a dark blue blazer standing on a podium, giving a speech on a stage with a blue background.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith appointed Manning to lead a review into health-emergency management several months after the conservative movement’s elder statesman wrote a fictionalized account that most likely didn’t cost $2 million to produce. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Looking at the two reports side by side this week, Young calls the resemblance “troubling” because the fictional report’s conclusions “were based on an assessment of facts that was entirely Manning’s invention.” Consider, she points out, his Frontier Centre report’s depiction of a reality in which the convoy movement sweeps Canada and a broad-based, mass coalition rises to question pandemic restriction — “it’s Manning’s fantasy,” Young says.

The University of Calgary professor also observes: “Looking at the similarities between the Frontier Centre ‘fictional’ report and the Alberta report, we’re left to wonder whether Manning and the other panel members made any effort to seek out information or analysis before starting to write their conclusions.”

(The panel did produce appendices of a handful of reports it commissioned; three of them are by former Frontier Centre researcher and Wildrose candidate Gerard Lucyshyn, who was credited as an assistant on Manning’s last nonfiction book.)

Any which way, Manning’s priors were largely confirmed after he added a panel and research budget to his own hypothetical musings.

Could it be that some of Manning’s pretend-world conclusions were simply so obvious that any reasoned panel would have reached them? Consider that the B.C. government commissioned its own review by former bureaucrats and health consultants, and they also prescribed an expanded coordinating role for a provincial emergency management agency. It discussed considering “unintended consequences,” too.

But that’s largely where similarities end; B.C.’s review did not propose a massive expansion and codification of individual rights to help critics fight future health protection measures, as the real Alberta report did.

Back to the future

Manning’s fictional report imagined that this commission would lead to a massive toppling of the Trudeau government in 2023, and a new government’s throne speech promising to implement several of the commission’s findings.

Given recent polls, that prediction may well come a year or two early — and not necessarily for the reason he believes, though Manning’s recent letter to Conservative Party MPs signals he’d love his real report to factor into the Liberals’ political demise.

Premier Smith, who hired Manning months after his fictional composition came out, has not committed to implementing any of the ex-politician’s actual panel recommendations.

Doing so would, of course, have real-world consequences.

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