Nowadays, folks think of Preston Manning as a benign force in Canadian politics — possibly because of his scratchy voice and grandfatherly demeanour, and partly because on a personal level he is most certainly an honourable person.

This is a dangerous misunderstanding.

It’s worth remembering that while the former Reform Party of Canada leader may not be a sinner, he is certainly no saint, as the media echo chamber here in Alberta would like to lead us to believe.

Manning is an unflinching market ideologue as dedicated as his sometime protégé Stephen Harper to destroying the Canada we have built together over the past 150 years and remaking it in the brutalist image of Tea Party USA. He is an effective and sometimes sneaky opponent of the great public services like our universal health care system that it has been our particular Canadian genius to build up over generations.

Notwithstanding his grandfatherly image, Manning has been prepared to play politics in the corners with his elbows up over his long political career, which has always been about pushing Canada as far to the right as possible as quickly as possible.

In this, of course, Manning learned at the feet of a master — his father, Alberta premier Ernest C. Manning, who took the Social Credit movement of William Aberhart in one generation from an almost revolutionary uprising and turned it into one of the most regressive and reactionary political parties in Canadian history.

Moreover, despite his undoubted personal rectitude and well-known Evangelical Christian convictions, Manning and his neoconservative followers, many of whom were and are concentrated within the so-called “Calgary School” at the University of Calgary, have been quite willing to use subterfuge and trickery to achieve their political aims.

So, for example, the reverse takeover of the loyal old Progressive Conservative Party of Canada — which traced its antecedents all the way back to John Alexander Macdonald, visionary patriot, Father of Confederation and first prime minister — was steeped in artifice and manipulation. That National Defence Minister Peter MacKay, the last leader of the PCs without whom this takeover could not have happened, can walk in public with his head held upright shows more brass than most of us could muster in such circumstances!

It is also said here that with the benefit of 20-20 historical hindsight, we can see the same tendencies at work in Manning’s effective campaign to derail Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney’s effort to make Quebeckers feel at home in Canada through the far-sighted mechanism of the Charlottetown Accord.

Thus it is fair to say that Sun News Network bloviator Ezra Levant is quite right when he describes Manning as “the Godfather … of conservative successes all across the country today.”

So we should not be surprised by the key role the Godfather played in the secretive attempt to engineer what amounted to a reverse takeover of parts of Carleton University’s political and economic studies programs that has recently been exposed by the Canadian Press.

According to a CP report last week, Manning himself and his so-called Manning Centre for Building Democracy — which really ought to be called the Manning Centre for Making Neo-Conservatism Palatable to Inattentive Voters — were up to their necks in the scheme to create a supposedly non-partisan “showcase school of political management” at Carleton.

There is absolutely nothing non-partisan, of course, about the Manning Centre — which boasts openly its goal is “building Canada’s conservative movement” and sends handpicked students from its summer program to work at such right-wing Astroturf organizations and think tanks as the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Institute for Marriage and Family Canada and Fraser-Institute-spinoffs like the Frontier Centre in Winnipeg, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax and the Montreal Economic Institute.

The Carleton plan, we can now see, was never just to pour a $15-million donation from Calgary businessman Clayton Riddell into a legitimate academic program. Rather, it called for the Clayton H. Riddell School of Political Management’s contributors to enjoy what the Canadian Association of University Teachers has condemned as an “unprecedented and unacceptable” level of control over who the school’s teachers would be, what they would teach and how.

Like the U of C’s “Calgary School” from which it no doubt drew inspiration — which is nothing more than a Fraser Institute-style neoconservative indoctrination centre paid for with taxpayers’ dollars — the Riddell School was clearly meant to continue the process of turning Canada’s public university social science programs into hothouses of far-right ideology and creating an elite corps of neo-Con cadres to serve Canada’s New Establishment under Prime Minister Harper and his successors.

The danger that unbiased empirical research would go on at this supposedly “cross-partisan” institute under Carleton’s roof is extremely slight, to say the least, as would be the chances of students who wanted to pursue it. This is true notwithstanding the presence of a token New Democrat among the organizers.

The plan in which Manning played such a pivotal role has now come a cropper — or at least suffered a serious setback — thanks to the efforts of the CAUT and CP.

Leastways, embarrassed by the public and institutional pressure they applied, Carleton seems to have backed away from the worst of its plans for the moment and insists that it used proper procedures to hire staff at the school, which has been in operation for one academic year.

“Carleton quietly released the donor agreement on the Friday afternoon before Canada Day after stonewalling The Canadian Press for almost a year to keep it under wraps,” CP reported last week. “The contract reveals the Riddell Foundation effectively appointed three of five people on a steering committee. That committee was given sweeping power over the graduate program’s budget, academic hiring, executive director and curriculum.”

The chairperson of the steering committee, naturally, was Manning himself.

So, for the moment it seems, Carleton will run the Riddell School along more traditional lines, although it is likely that its funders have been offered private assurances by the university nothing really will change.

What will not change will be such attempts to take over public institutions by stealth and lead our country down the garden path to the right by groups that draw their inspiration from Manning’s views and career.

Preston Manning remains an influential and key ideologue on the Canadian far right. He is more than just another jolly Calgary grandfather.

For this reason and as his recent involvement in the effort to establish an ideological base camp in Ottawa with the Riddell School both illustrate, Canadians would be wise to view Manning’s activities and enthusiasms with skepticism as unlikely to benefit our country.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.