Understanding Stephen Harper

Welcome to Harperland

Harperland: The politics of control

by Lawrence Martin (Viking Canada, 2010; $35.00)

As politics has shifted to the right since the early 1980s, the left remains sadly flat-footed as neo-liberal policies have proliferated around the western, democratic world. Where the right preached a gospel of smaller government, the left attempted to capture the political imagination by defending the role of the state. It was an important position to take, but as political strategy it has largely been a losing game. How can we deconstruct the neo-liberal rise to power and how do we rebuild a social democratic vision that inspires the country?

That is the central question of today's politics.

Two books on Stephen Harper provide a small window into the rise of the Conservative Party from the ashes of the Reform and Progressive Conservative parties: Tom Flanagan's Harper's Team and Lawrence Martin's Harperland.

"We'll put more money in your pocket"

The right has rather effectively used the mantra of simplified messages like "we'll put more money in your pocket, they'll support the bureaucracy." When the center-left should have been pushing for democratization and local control, they were left defending bureaucracy. It was the very unionized working class members that voted NDP that were now voting for Preston Manning. The NDP became the conservatives and the Reform Party became the radicals in the early 90s. The Reform Party's biggest gains in the 1993 election were not just from Progressive Conservatives, but also from the NDP. They stole populism from the CCF'ers and gave it a distorted, anti-government storyline.

If the center-left wants to recapture the political imagination, it needs to have a critique of government as its beginning point and a defense of the Commons as its follow-up. It also needs to synthesize its policy narrative down to three or four big ideas. The government isn't Santa Claus -- it can't do everything.

The NDP needs a simplified message. Re-energizing the populist base of the NDP while genuinely joining with emerging political and social movements should be the new blueprint for the NDP. At the federal level, social democrats don't need to be the majority government or even the official opposition to set the progressive agenda in the country. They do need to be winning between 50 to 75 seats at election time to have sufficient leverage to influence the policymaking sphere of the country. The NDP doesn't just need to move either to the left or the right in order to grow as a party or be more relevant -- they actually need to do both simultaneously to reach that level of support so it's a rather silly, cyclical debate to be having. The need to reignite their base to show up to the polls and they need to reassure a broader public universe that they can be effective, but principled managers of the economy. The NDP also needs to consistently hit 25 per cent of public support to be an important player in the nation's politics.

In order to do that, the NDP need to understand the Conservative appeal to voters. Stephen Harper, a true believing warrior from that era of the Reform Party, is a fascinating political figure that needs to be understood by the center-left if they want to effectively grow their movement.

The Conservatives get a facelift

Harper, before his rise to the Prime Minister's chair, waited in the wings to give conservatism the facelift it needed at the opportune time. In the process of getting there, he has totally divided Canadian society, polarized the electorate and fragmented the political landscape. The sheer nastiness and bloodsport political practices that have been key features of the Harper team have also helped to lower voter participation across the country. By selecting key political cleavage points on hot button issues like criminal justice, the Conservatives have constantly stoked their own base effectively to get them out to vote. This level of partisanship has never been seen before in Canadian politics. Polling, messaging and communications have been central to that strategy. In 2007 alone, the Harper government spent $31.2 million on public opinion research.

Harper has also centralized leadership in the Prime Minister's Office to a significant degree as Martin documents in his book. The concentration of power in the office of leaders has been a 40 year project in Canadian politics. In provincial politics, Stan Persky wrote about former B.C. Premier Bill Bennett's centralization of power in Son of Socred in 1979. Premier's offices have been particularly ripe for centralized decision-making throughout Canada, particularly the Mike Harris regime in Ontario. Though Chretien centralized power to a greater extent than the Mulroney administration, Stephen Harper's Conservatives have centralized Canadian parliamentary democracy in a truly unprecedented way.

The Harper Conservatives, paranoid and insular to begin with, have also taken the route of the perpetual campaign. Beginning with their populist, anti-establishment roots, Harper has brought a focused discipline based on a 24/7 news cycle. Every media announcement is vetted beforehand. There is two and a half hour preparation for Question Period. This paranoid obsession with communications which is usually a tradition of campaigning, has crept into the style of governance. He has done this so effectively, that it may permanently change federal politics in a way that is truly harmful to democratic discussion in the country.

A window into the war room

In Harper's Team, conservative political science professor and Harper mentor, Tom Flanagan, provides a window into Harper's war room in successive leadership bids for the Canadian Alliance and, eventually, the merged Conservative Party. Beginning as a disorganized, underfunded true believers who had forged ties in the early days of Reform, Harper wanted to modernize the Conservative message and deliver a generational body blow to the Liberal Party of Canada. His personal hatred of Pearsonian and Trudeau policies of the previous era and his anger at the Liberal Party's effectiveness at portraying the Conservative movement as Neanderthal knuckledraggers during the Chretien years, ate away at him for over a decade.

Harper re-entered federal politics by winning the leadership of the Canadian Alliance in March 2002. This followed the merger with the Progressive Conservatives in December 2003. Harper won the ensuing leadership race in March 2004 and eventually knocked Paul Martin down to a minority government in June 2004. By January 2006, Stephen Harper was Prime Minister. Almost five years later, he is still there ahead of the other parties in the polls, flirting with a majority government.

A generation younger than Preston Manning, more ruthless and disciplined than Stockwell Day, the reappearance of Stephen Harper has totally reshaped how politics is practiced in Canada -- his process of practicing politics is certainly a major distortion from the traditions of parliamentary democracy in Canada. By successfully honing U.S. Republican and former Australian Prime Minister John Howard's campaign methods, Harper has constructed a methodology and language that the other parties have not adapted to. By rewriting the rules of the game, the Harper Conservatives have redefined the political landscape while the other parties are still using traditional methods -- by beating the opposition parties to the punch with a reductive, simplified message, he has continued to mobilize his base of support and demolish the opposition at every turn.

Harper v. Ignatieff v. Layton

This dissonance is central to understanding why the Conservatives remain in power despite their policies being unpopular and out of step with mainstream Canadian thinking. Michael Ignatieff seems sorely out of step as Opposition Leader, often too slow to combat the Conservative message. Jack Layton seems to be more adept and agile in conveying a message and has helped the NDP make modest gains, particularly when the Liberals were hurt by Stephane Dion's poor leadership. The NDP has benefited to a large degree by that polarized dynamic between Harper and Layton, leaving the Liberals in the mushy, unidentified middle, unable to define themselves.

The Federal Liberals would have been more wise to choose Bob Rae as their leader as he seems to be more experienced with Opposition politics and is a more effective communicator than Ignatieff. After the next election, it is more likely that the Liberals will go with a new generation of leadership candidates.

The Harper Conservatives also have the previous Liberal government to thank for their financial prowess. Jean Chretien government's well intentioned fundraising rules for political parties in the nineties have also inadvertently given the Conservatives a massive fundraising advantage. According to Flanagan, from January 2006 to June 2008, the Conservatives raised 44.5 million compared to 17.1 million for the Liberals. Those election fundraising limits and methods of collecting donations play well to the Conservatives populist and religious base. Added to that, the Green Party, by getting funded for every vote received, despite having no representation in the House of Commons also gets generous public funding to engage in voter identification on an annual basis to the detriment of the NDP and Liberals.

An elusive majority

Both of these factors help to divide up the center, center-left and left to such a degree, that Harper can flirt with majority territory while being at 35 per cent. That is about 35 per cent of the 50 per cent who vote -- about 17.5 per cent of the total eligible voters. That is exactly who the Harper team are obsessed with being relevant to. They are all he needs to form a majority government in Canada under the first-past-the-post political system, especially with the Bloc Quebecois still popular in seat rich Quebec. By continuing to expand their base of support, including their recent attempts to woo socially conservative minority communities has opened up a new growth area, particularly in urban suburbs. It's not rocket science -- it's brilliant political strategy.

This approach to politics has also created more cynicism and division and contributed to lower voter turnout during elections. By breaking the Liberal brand through successfully smearing Liberal leaders with expensive ad campaigns aided by their built-in fundraising advantage, the new Canadian political reality could be perpetual minority governments at the federal level for at least the next five years, if not an outright Conservative majority.

Harper's rise to power has been methodical. Running a membership based lobby group like the National Citizens Coalition after leaving politics in the mid-90s, Harper built up contacts in key conservative constituencies, honed his public speaking and built up his media contacts.

Rising in power as the sponsorship scandal was hitting full steam, Harper successfully played to Conservatives core values: law and order, limited government, family values', lower taxes and a strong military. Added to that, the Conservatives developed a targeted strategy to reach out to immigrant groups that identified with these values. The picked national issues such as the Canadian North to construct a patriotic narrative and used high profile events like the 2010 Olympics and the G-8 and G-20 summits to promote Harper's foreign policy bona fides.

Defeating the Conservative Party

To defeat the Conservative Party, it is important to deconstruct them. To deconstruct the Conservative Party, it is essential to deconstruct Stephen Harper. Both books provide small, glimpses in to Harper's modus operandi but they are only a beginning. There needs to be a deeper understanding of their communications tactics and the methods that need to be deployed in order to effectively move the country in to a more complicated and complex public sphere. The mediation of politics and the terrain where public conflicts occur need to be recalibrated in order to effectively attack the Conservative hegemony. To model the Conservatives communications tactics and fight fire with fire would only further turn off the public and lead to a continuation of lower voter participation.

Every government and movement eventually goes stale. Centralized administrations particularly begin to fray at the seams. Singing songs by The Who and the Beatles won't gloss over the imperfections of the Harper government. The Opposition parties, particularly the NDP, need to sharpen their campaign tactics and do a much better job of reaching out to new communities and new supporters between elections. The Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois are currently not a realistic alternative to the Conservatives -- but the NDP needs a facelift in strategic planning in order to bring back a vision of social democracy in the country that will inspire the coming generation.—Am Johal

Am Johal is a Vancouver-based writer and rabble.ca blogger.

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