Strategy for political wars
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, Sept 22, 2007

In Harpers’ Team Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power, Calgary University political scientist Tom Flanagan draws an analogy between the 2004 federal election campaign and the first of the three Punic Wars. “In the First Punic War, Rome made the comparatively modest gain of taking Sicily from Carthage, which still remained the dominant power in the western Mediterranean. In the Second Punic War, Rome got control of the Iberian Peninsula and much of North Africa, reducing Carthage to secondary status. And in the Third Punic War, Rome defeated Carthage, (razing) it to the ground …’”

Similarly, writes Flanagan, the 2004 election reduced the Liberals to a minority government. This was the Conservative Party’s First Punic War. Its Second Punic war in 2005/6 “reduced (the Liberals) to opposition status, burdening them with inadequate funding and seeking a new leader”.

Flanagan then humbly suggests that what happens next is up to Canadian voters but that was before this week when a Third Punic War became much more viable. Solid gains in the Quebec byelections demonstrated potential for Conservative Party growth that could well leave the Liberal Party razed to ground in the next federal election.

“Waiting for the Wave the Reform Party and Preston Manning” established Tom Flanagan as resident chronicler of western Canada’s rising political clout. Harper’s Team is the latest instalment of a saga that saw a political party fractured then painfully reassembled through the better part of a generation. Conservative or not, Canadians will be reassured their political landscape contains a fully modern and competent alternative to the Liberal Party of Canada. Mostly though, this book, based on the hard won lessons of that saga, is a do’s and don’ts for political survival in a country that is not yet c/Conservative with a bit of swash and buckle thrown in. As serial Harper campaign manager, Flanagan isn’t above a bit of myth-making for the historical records. No harm in a bit of partisan boosterism, of course, but Harper’s Team, while valuable as a teaching tool that sees the ‘stagecraft’ of campaigning as a necessary precursor to the ‘statecraft’ of governing, is surprising for an academic otherwise given to analysis that challenges.

For instance, anyone seeking reassurances the PMO is not run by a small cabal of advisors or that Stephen Harper isn’t a hands-on, centralizing leader will be disappointed by this book. Key players, cast in the best possible light, play musical chairs in key positions around the leader during and after campaigns. Mostly, though, missing from this book is the Tom Flanagan who also wrote the Donner prize winning First Nations, Second Thoughts (2000) or whose Calgary School and Alberta Agenda (“Firewall”) roots challenged the shibboleths of Canadian politics. This Tom Flanagan might have questioned the state of today’s political parties which have been reduced to vehicles for membership sales, fundraising and high flying technologies with little consideration for citizen based government and what effect this has had on the country’s political classes.

To be sure, some form of election machine has always existed if only in the form of free bottles of whisky. But today’s strategic electoral considerations, co-opted in this book, seem determined to create a party-based technocracy that knows a great deal about getting elected and little else. Worse, and unlike previous aristocracies that were also undemocratic or lacked checks and balances, it has no culture of civility to restrain it and thinks nothing of using intimidation and manipulation to achieve its ends - think of the power of the leader’s office vis a vis caucus discipline, candidate selection and media relations. The leader’s office aside, however, the debasement of Question Period and numbing natter of television’s wall-to-wall party ‘strategists’ would be reason enough to challenge at least some premises of the party system, never mind the complications of a burgeoning technocracy.

No political party is immune from strategic electoral considerations. They exist to win elections and arguably the Liberals and the NDP are more technocratic than the Conservatives. And the discipline of power understandably requires the presence of an adept, loyal team around the leader. But for a political party that is putting water in its policy wine and beating the bushes for ideas just as its Third Punic War beckons, rendering the playing of the game more important than the endgame is not, overall, a good sign.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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