Thou shalt not lean too far to the right

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

CALGARY — Admit it – you'd love to see a federal election. Governments may be boring, but campaigning is so much fun. Sadly, this week's Quebec by-elections make a quick call for a national vote much less likely. After doing so badly, neither the Liberals' Stéphane Dion nor Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois will be in a hurry to pull the plug.

That's because the results were a dream come true for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Not only did the Conservatives gain a seat while their main opponents each gave up one, the Liberals' loss was right in their leader's backyard. Mr. Dion imposed his candidate on what had been the safest of ridings and then hyped the Outremont race by spending so much time there that he must have damaged his already shaky reputation.

As a result, political junkies waiting for Parliament to reconvene on Oct. 16 can forget about seeing the opposition parties defeat the government right after the Speech from the Throne and spark an election this fall – Mr. Harper's fifth campaign in six years. Much as he might like an early race, election dates are now fixed by legislation and he can't just ask the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament. The opposition must pass a no-confidence vote, and that just got a lot less likely.

And why would he want to go to the polls? Because Stephen Harper is trying to do what no Conservative leader since Sir John A. Macdonald has been able to do – build a viable, long-term political coalition with a broad enough appeal to win elections and, if it falls short, enough strength of character and self-discipline to avoid immolating itself on a bonfire of recrimination. In other words, he wants the Conservatives to replace the Liberals as the natural governing party of Canada.

By winning the last election, Mr. Harper's campaign team demonstrated its ability to learn from experience and to correct its mistakes. And there were plenty of them. When the team came together in 2001, its members were more like “friends of Stephen” than professional campaigners – although passionate about getting their man elected, they had a lot to learn.

For example, at the beginning, the Canadian Alliance campaign's organization was simply unworkable (too many people who didn't know each other in too many cities) and the plan for selling and processing of memberships was inadequate. In 2003, several months were wasted in the Perth-Middlesex riding's by-election (although the loss led directly to the merger with the Progressive Conservatives) and, in 2004, there was a failure to respond to negative ads, poor communication of the platform and the absence of an indigenous campaign in Quebec. As well, there was the late lapse that caused a Conservative slump and a devastating Liberal counterattack at the end of the race.

But the team learned – in politics you have to, or you won't be back – and the learning process has continued since the party came to power. For example, Mr. Harper has seen first-hand how difficult it can be to make good on some campaign promises.

But there are certain things the party still must do if it is to forge the political dynasty the Prime Minister has in mind.

I am no longer directly involved with the party's campaigns; after managing three of them and helping to organize a fourth, I've gone back to my day job as a political-science professor. However, from this tranquil perch, let me summarize what I learned before leaving – my Ten Commandments of Conservative Campaigning.


1. UnityThe party contains libertarians, social conservatives, populists, Red Tories, Quebec nationalists and Canadian nationalists, plus many people who don't care much about any of these “isms.” They all need each other. They can never win unless they try to understand each other and reach compromises that they can all live with.

2. Moderation Canada is not yet a conservative or Conservative country. The party can't win if it veers too far to the right of the average voter.

In times of perceived crisis, a conservative party can win by positioning itself further to the right, as shown by the victories of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Ralph Klein, Mike Harris and Gordon Campbell. But Canadians don't perceive themselves in crisis right now.

3. InclusionThe traditional Conservative base of anglophone Protestants is too narrow to win modern Canadian elections. While preserving that base, we have to appeal to francophones, Roman Catholics (44 per cent of the population, according to the 2001 census) and other racial and religious minorities. The key to the long-term success of the Liberals has been their cultivation of minority groups. Conservatives have to take away that advantage.

Conservatives will not win a majority government simply by adding seats in Quebec, although that will be part of the formula. They also must add seats elsewhere and that means doing better with ethnic voters. The suburbs of Toronto, Vancouver and, to a lesser extent, other cities are now filling up with new Canadians who, based on their social values and capitalist work ethic, should be natural Conservative voters, but who are still emotionally tied to the Liberal Party.

Conservatives must break the Liberal hegemony over Italian, Chinese, South Asian and other ethnic voters. That doesn't mean getting all their votes, but it does mean getting a bigger share, in order to win the suburban ridings that a conservative party would ordinarily expect to win.

4. IncrementalismConservatives must be willing to make progress in small, practical steps. Sweeping visions have a place in intellectual discussion, but they are toxic in practical politics.

Incrementalism is the twin of moderation. Small conservative reforms are less likely to scare voters than grand conservative schemes, particularly in Canada, where conservatism is not yet the dominant public philosophy. In any case, incrementalism is intrinsically the right approach for a conservative party.

Modern conservatism has its origins in Edmund Burke's critique of the sweeping radicalism of the French Revolution. “We must all obey the great law of change,” he wrote. “It is the most powerful law of nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation. All we can do, and that human wisdom can do, is to provide that the change shall proceed by insensible degrees.”

5. Policy We have to develop well-thought-out policies and communicate them effectively. Since conservatism is not yet dominant, our policies may sometimes run against conventional wisdom. The onus is on us to help Canadians understand what they are voting for.

A political campaign is an extended exercise in rhetoric, mobilizing ethos (character), pathos (emotion) and logos (reason) to persuade millions of people to vote for the candidates of your party. People don't vote just for good ideas; they vote for potential rulers whose character they can trust and who inspire passions of loyalty and support.

Conservative statecraft has to be more than the logical deduction of policies from philosophical premises if it is going to succeed. It has to be an artistic combination of sound policy with the deft communication of conservative values, such as integrity, reliability and fortitude.

6. Self-discipline The media are unforgiving of conservative errors, so we have to exercise strict discipline at all levels.

There must be a complete plan for the campaign, so the leader is not forced to improvise. Staff must avoid the limelight and let the communications department deal with the media. Candidates must talk about the platform, not their personal beliefs, and (except for designated spokesmen) concentrate on local rather than national media. Members and supporters must be careful and dignified in all their communications, even e-mail and Web postings.

The media can be savage with any party that lacks discipline, but they are particularly suspicious of conservatives. There is no point complaining about it; the situation is the same everywhere in the democratic world. But it means that conservative parties must put special emphasis on self-discipline to win elections.

7. Toughness You cannot win by being Boy Scouts. Conservatives have to conduct thorough opposition research and make use of the results, run hard-hitting, fact-based negative ads, and do whatever is legally possible to jam our opponents' communications and disrupt their operations.

The Conservatives were ambivalent about playing hardball in 2004. In 2006, however, Tory advertising went for the jugular and it paid off. Their war-room messages also scored heavily against the Liberals (especially with their campaign jet's “beer and popcorn” rejoinder and the income-trust investigation).

Another point for consideration is how to respond when other parties play hardball. Mr. Harper set the right tone during the last campaign in a squabble with the Liberals' Paul Martin about who was in bed with the separatists. When the media asked him if he wanted an apology, he said simply, “I don't go around demanding apologies. I can take a punch.”

8. Grassroots politicsVictories are earned one voter at a time. Door-knocking, voter identification and Get Out The Vote programs make up the holy trinity that wins close races. Conservatives must extend their lead over other parties in ground-level campaigning and grassroots fund-raising.

All political parties need to raise money, identify supporters and mobilize volunteers, so they all make use of the same methods, to varying degrees. But grassroots politics is particularly critical. A conservative party stresses individual choice and responsibility in a competitive marketplace. That gives it a special responsibility to deal with voters as individuals, to find out what their concerns are, and to give them a stake in the political process by making it easy for them to donate time and money.

Moreover, the Conservative Party draws heavily on the legacy of Preston Manning. His vision of the Reform Party as a neo-populist revival did not lead to forming a government, but it triggered an ongoing organizational revolution of political parties. As Mr. Manning's heirs, Conservatives have to be in the forefront of creating a party that is easy for individuals to join, encourages donation and volunteerism and is committed to winning elections one voter at a time.

9. Technology We are living in the biggest, fastest-moving communications revolution in human history. Each election campaign features new technologies. We must continue to be at the forefront in adapting new technologies to politics.

Right now, Conservatives are the grassroots party of Canadian politics. They have to keep using technology to mobilize the grassroots in ways that no one has ever dreamed of. As students of German philosopher Friedrich Hayek, they believe in the market as a process of discovery. It is only logical for them to be in the forefront of applying to politics the technological marvels produced by human ingenuity in a market economy.

10. Persistence Campaigning is a tough business and mistakes are frequent. We have to correct errors, learn from experience and keep pushing ahead.

The Harper team certainly has no grounds for complacency. The Liberals are cunning and experienced and have enormous bench strength. They are the best-established brand in Canadian politics and the Conservatives still have a lot to learn from them.

The New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois are not national parties in the same sense, but they are equally tough competitors on their own turf. The next election will be not just a street fight but a brawl, as the other parties go all-out to recapture ground taken away from them.

But even if complacency is not in order, the team should have a little confidence, based on its achievements. In just a few years, they were able to stop the supposedly unstoppable Mr. Martin. The next time out, they have a chance to make Mr. Harper the one who is unstoppable.

Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager. This essay for The Globe and Mail is drawn from his new book Harper's Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power, published today by McGill-Queen's University Press.


Our commentary in the Globe and Mail

September 22, 2007

  1. You (Ottawa Mens, from Ottawa Home of Ottawa's corrupt family court, Canada) wrote: The Feminist Drift to the far right has permeated Canadian society. The right drift means children no longer have an equal right to both parents. There is NO legislative presumption that Canadian children are entitled to equal parenting from both parents after divorce. Take right drifting Ontario Superior Court Denis Power, he issues restraining orders literally at the drop of a hat, without any evidence of any threats or violence, he does what any abuser of power does, if he does not like someone for any non legal reason, he simply issues a draconian restraining order banishing them from court for ever, no, not a vexatious litigant order, that has legal rights, he issues "restraining orders" to stop litigants from litigating simply because he has a severe anger management problem and a propensity to flagrantly abuse his judicial discretion. Justice Denis Power did not get to be a judge simply because of his legal ability, not only was he a civil litigator without any family law experience, he had his political connections as did his law firm which seems to be a prerequisite for getting into politics or becoming a judge. The trend to draconian government control , draconian control of citizens and a draconian abuse of charter rights is all part of the rightward drift of politics an law which seems to be ever increasingly dictated to by feminist doctrine. Right wing feminist lawyers don't care about their duty as officers of teh court. Take Lesley Kendall of the Kingston Ontario firm Cunningham, Swan, Carty, Little & Bonham. Lesley Kendal fabricated an affidavit that she was threatened by a father to get a restraining order against a father to banish him permanently from the city of Kingston "to end the litigation" that was actually ordered by a Justice W.G. Beatty because he was presented with evidence of F R A U D. Its time for an end. its time for a legal presumption of equal parenting after separation. 613-797-3237