Conservative organizations should be prepared to distance themselves with those individuals who "cross the line," Preston Manning, the former Reform party leader, told a group of conservatives gathered in Ottawa.

The founder of the modern-day conservative movement referred to what he called a "questionable" comment made by Tom Flanagan last month, a former advisor to Stephen Harper and long-time professor at the University of Calgary, when he "seemed to imply that the freedom of an individual to view child pornography had no serious consequences for others."

Flanagan quickly found himself ostracized for saying he had "grave doubts" about jailing people who view child pornography, including being dropped from this year's list of speakers at the Manning Networking Conference.

"Conservative organizations should be prepared to swiftly and publicly disassociate themselves from those individuals who cross the line," the president and CEO of the Manning Centre said.

Manning said it is "ill-considered remarks" such as these and made "in fits of carelessness or zealousness" that discredit the conservative movement as a whole.

While it's important for groups to distance themselves from individuals who cross the line "for the sake of the movement or the maintenance of public trust," this doesn't mean individuals should cut ties with people like Flanagan, Manning said.

"Everyone makes honest mistakes. Conservatives believe in second chances and we need to rally around those who have been lured across the line by opponents rather than 'piling on.'"

The former Reform party leader said while the broad conservative movement "may tolerate" such comments out of a commitment to free speech, "in an era of intense partisan competition and 'gotcha journalism'" conservatives "cannot afford to be blindsided and discredited" by such incidents.

"If you can't govern your own tongue, why should we trust you to govern us?," Manning said.

Flanagan later apologized for his remarks.

The environment

Manning also reported on the strengths and weaknesses of the conservative movement in Canada.

He said while Conservatives are "consistently" considered strong on the economy, they are generally perceived "to be weak or disinterested" on the environment.

That "disturbing conclusion," Manning said, has become "a political and economic liability."

This has become "the number one obstacle to getting Canada's petroleum resources to market…  however, this need not be the case."

A growing preoccupation for Conservatives has been the fate of several major pipeline projects including the $7 billion proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would carry Alberta's crude oil to Texas.

Manning said it was time for Conservatives to take a "proactive" approach to the environment. 

"There is a major job to be done in mobilizing grassroots support for environmentalism," Manning said.

The former Reform party leader, who has long sought to connect conservatism and conservation, said there should be room for green Conservatives or grassroots conservationists under the conservative tent.

"We seem to feel like someone else has the high ground but on the environmental front, the truth is, nobody occupies the high ground."

Manning slammed the Liberals for their "hypocritical" record on the environment and said that NDP leader Tom Mulcair's record when he served as a minister in Québec was no better. And while the Greens are strong on the environment, Manning said they are weak on the economy.

"So why don't we occupy that high ground," Manning said.

Conservatism abroad

The Manning Networking Conference, an annual gathering for Canadian conservatives run by the Manning Centre, draws the biggest names of Canada's conservative movement.

Saturday's line-up featured a keynote address by Preston Manning, president and CEO of the Manning Centre, and a discussion about Conservatism abroad with former Prime Minister of Australia John Howard.

In an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio's The House, Howard told host Evan Solomon his main message is "it's always important for parties to revitalize their philosophical message."

"Political parties, in my experience, always get into trouble – in government or in opposition – when they lose sight of what they fundamentally believe in."

"It can happen when parties in government get so use to governing that you forget what you're governing for. And parties in opposition can be so obsessed with scoring points off the government that they can lose sight of the fact that the public really wants to hear from them as to what they're going to do to make the country better," Howard said.

Saturday's panels included former Conservative House Leader and B.C. MP Jay Hill on who should get Canada's oil, and President of the Treasury Board Tony Clement on the data revolution.

Former U.S. congressman and former presidential candidate Ron Paul kicked off Friday's events with a speech that advocated the abolition of central banks, income tax and social programs.

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