Tom Flanagan has done it again.
For the second time, the libertarian University of Calgary political scientist has exposed the political theories and strategies of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives just as he did in 2007 with his bestselling chronicle of the 2006 federal election titled, “Harper’s Team, Behind the Scenes in the Conservative rise to Power”.
The two erstwhile friends and ideological soulmates haven’t spoken since its publication seven years ago. Flanagan’s new book, “Winning Power: Canadian Campaigning in the 21st Century”, will likely prolong the chill indefinitely.
Flanagan sums up his – and Harper’s – political theory and tactics on Page Six: “The basic strategy for winning power remains what it has always been – a triage of voters. Keep your core supporters loyal, ignore hard-core opponents, and concentrate your resources to appeal to soft supporters who need to be reassured and to soft opponents who can be won over,”
It all sounds so, well, mild and mundane. In fact, it’s anything but. Underneath this moderate and democratic prescription lies political total war. Anything and everything is justifiable. The most recent example is the Conservatives’ infamous Fair Elections Act, almost every word and section of which has been written with the single purpose of advantaging the current governing party. Anything goes, up to and including numerous sly tactics to suppress the votes of opponents as actually happened in 2011 and is now openly embraced and legitimized in clause after clause of this Orwellian distortion of democracy.
In Winning Power, Flanagan takes pains to point out the already massive – and growing – muscle of the Harper juggernaut. He cites former U.S. Defense Secretary Colin Powell’s doctrine of “overwhelming force,” perhaps hoping to cower into submission the Conservatives’ political opponents before they even climb into the ring.
“Harper’s team never rests,” he writes. “A campaign manager reporting directly to the Conservative leader, not to a committee, is always on the job. Voter ID linked to fundraising goes on 365 days a year (Christmas and Easter excepted). With the cash flow from such aggressive fundraising, the party can afford to spend millions on advertising, even years in advance of the writ, and to train candidates and workers…All parties do some of these things some of the time, but the Conservatives are unique in the scale on which they operate and the degree to which everything is coordinated. They have produced a campaign equivalent of Colin Powell’s doctrine of ‘overwhelming force’, applying all possible resources to the battleground where the election will be won or lost.”
The Conservatives – who clearly take their cue and campaign techniques straight from the U.S. Republican playbook – have consigned Canada and Canadians to almost a decade of another dubious and destructive American political import: the permanent campaign.
“Just as chronic warfare produces a garrison state, permanent campaigning has caused the Conservative party to merge with the campaign team, producing a garrison party. The party today is today, for all intents and purposes, a campaign organization focused on being ready for and winning the next election, whenever it may come,” Flanagan writes.
He continues to revel in the supposedly hapless circumstances of the enfeebled and divided opposition parties, a condition he not only endorses wholeheartedly but advised Harper to impose by doing away with any and all public subsidies as of the end of this year. Public subsidies for registered parties had been a feature of Canadian federal policy and politics for decades.
He further taunts his opponents that, flush with cash in 2007, the Conservatives were able to rent “state of the art premises in Ottawa” for a “war room”, the “command and control centre of a national campaign.” It was sufficiently large and well-equipped that it included a studio so the party could stage its own press conferences under its own rules- .
Intimidation and overwhelming force – again.
It’s clear Flanagan believes the next election could simply be a “mopping up” operation by the Conservatives. The divided and dispirited Liberals, New Democrats, Greens and Bloc Quebecois, bickering over the deck chairs on an electoral Titanic, will surely simply succumb to the Conservatives’ overwhelming financial and electoral superiority.
“The 2015 election will be decisive for the future of the centre-left in Canada,” he writes. “Unless the Liberals, reinvigorated by Justin Trudeau’s leadership, are able to resume their leading position in federal politics, the parties of the centre-left are likely to face serious financial problems…(They) will confront an unpleasant reality – there may not be enough financial room for three centre-left parties in Canada…
“If the Liberals under Justin Trudeau do not win in 2015, the centre-left parties will have to become more realistic about the Conservative nightmare they face – a well-funded, cohesive party of the centre-right (sic), commanding about 40 per cent of the popular vote. In Canada’s first-past-the –post electoral system, such a party wins every time against three underfunded, bickering opponents, running against each other to determine who will become the official opposition. There may have to be a merger or an electoral coalition or one or more of these parties may have to go out of business if the centre left can ever hope to win again.”
For the 60-plus per cent of Canadian voters who are neither Conservative nor conservative, it’s a deeply sobering thought. Flanagan’s frank and incontestable analysis – and warning – should finally propel the three feuding centre-left parties – and Canadian voters – into action before it’s too late.
No wonder the prime minister and Prof. Flanagan are no longer on speaking terms
Frances Russell was born in Winnipeg and graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and political science. A journalist since 1962, she has covered and commented on politics in Manitoba, Ontario, B.C. and Ottawa, working for The Winnipeg Tribune, United Press International, The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun and The Winnipeg Free Press as well as freelanced for The Toronto Star, The Edmonton Journal, CBC Radio and TV and Time Magazine.
She is the author of two award-winning books on Manitoba history: Mistehay Sakahegan – The Great Lake: The Beauty and the Treachery of Lake Winnipeg and The Canadian Crucible – Manitoba’s Role in Canada’s Great Divide. Both won the Manitoba Historical Society Award for popular history.
She is married with one son and two grandsons and lives in Winnipeg.