OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a controlling leader running a “garrison party” in permanent campaign mode, says his former campaign director Tom Flanagan.
In a paper written for presentation at a conference in Montreal, Flanagan offers an insider’s analysis that draws on his and Harper’s past experience with the Reform and Canadian Alliance parties.
The University of Calgary political scientist and author casts a critical eye on Harper as prime minister, suggesting his leadership style has created a party that is more like the “old-line parties” that Reform and the Canadian Alliance used to criticize.
He says although there is evidence that the Liberals are starting to adopt some of the Conservatives’ tricks of the trade, including centralizing memberships lists, fundraising, and message discipline, the Conservative Party’s continual girding for electoral battle risks turning off grassroots members who view a political party as a way to advance policy, not just win elections.
Flanagan writes that Harper took many lessons from Preston Manning, who was a manipulative leader, saying he learned how to control a populist movement.
“He used to grumble privately about Manning’s manipulations, but he was absorbing the lessons. Indeed, he ultimately ended up with a view of leadership far more aggressive than Manning’s, after he saw the Canadian Alliance experience of how populism could get out of control.”
Once Harper decided the route to electoral victory was to merge the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties, writes Flanagan, he aggressively set out to meld the two, win the leadership, and structure the party’s fundraising, policy development and executive bodies so that he was the ultimate decision-maker.
Flanagan writes that Harper’s shaping of the party structures and determination not to allow “intermediate” groupings such as youth wings, or separate political entities for regional, ethnic, aboriginal or other different groups under the party’s umbrella means that “there are no points of refuge in which opposition to the leadership could coalesce.”
He says the past 10 years, and minority governments since 2004 have “deeply affected” government and political culture in Canada, where there is a permanent election campaign underway.
Federal politicians, he writes, “are like child soldiers in a war-torn African country: all they know how to do is to fire their AK-47s.”
Harper’s government controls its cabinet ministers, MPs, Conservative staffers, and party operatives through rigid message discipline. Staffers are instructed never to talk to the press and risk losing their jobs if they do. MPs must adhere to official talking points, he adds.
“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 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 raises a question about whether the “garrison party will survive the specific circumstances of the present, i.e., the leadership of Stephen Harper and the need for constant election readiness in a period of minority government.”
Flanagan says the Liberals are already following the Conservative example in rewriting their party’s constitution to assert national control over membership rules and grassroots fundraising; enforcing more effective message discipline; running negative ads between writ periods.
“If the era of permanent campaign and its arms race logic continues, the Conservative organizational model may well persist and even be imitated by other parties trying to survive in the Darwinian world of electoral competition.”
But he also says that there is a risk that some party members “may turn away from the party if it becomes nothing but an electoral machine. Thus, it is possible that too long a period of constant election readiness may exhaust a party and undercut its effectiveness even in purely electoral terms.”
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