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Tom Flanagan, professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former federal Conservative campaign manager
Tom Flanagan, professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former federal Conservative campaign manager

Tom Flanagan

Polarization, ad hoc alliances, fear of election Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's latest prorogation of Parliament is an example of hardball tactics, similar to Jean Chrétien's prorogation in December, 2003, which allowed him to avoid Quebec sponsorship questions until Paul Martin could take over. Of greater long-term interest is the higher-level political strategy that has allowed Mr. Harper to stay in power for four years.

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The 2003 merger of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives turned the tables in Canadian politics. Before then, the Liberals formed majority governments by winning 38 to 41 per cent of the vote against a divided right. Now, the Conservatives form minority governments by winning 36 to 38 per cent of the vote against an even more badly divided left. As long as the Liberals, New Democrats, Blocquistes and Greens fight among themselves for the left-of-centre vote, the Conservatives continue to win.

The Tories follow three strategic principles to stay in power.

The first is polarization, which allows them to divide and conquer. They seize issues on which the opposing parties are all on the left of the debate, so they can have the right to themselves. For example, the long-gun registry, whose dismantling the other parties oppose; global warming, where only the Conservatives espouse the economically grounded approach of tracking American policy; and Afghan detainees, where the Conservatives stand by the Canadian Forces, while the other parties ask whether General Walt Natynczyk, Chief of Defence Staff, and Rick Hillier, his predecessor, are war criminals. Such polarized positioning is perfect for the next election.

But politics is more than the stagecraft of campaigning; it also involves the statecraft of governance, which includes passing legislation through Parliament. Here things become complicated for Conservative minority governments, for they have no natural partners. The NDP and Bloc Québécois are too remote ideologically to be more than occasional allies. The Liberals under Michael Ignatieff's leadership are close enough on many issues, but, as the Conservatives' main rival for government, they are not reliable partners.

Thus arise the two other strategic principles for the Conservatives' management of Parliament.

They must compromise when necessary to form ad hoc alliances to preserve power. Mr. Harper found a rapprochement with the NDP in the fall, after Mr. Ignatieff's disastrous announcement that he would seek an early election. Now that the chastened Liberals will probably support the next budget, the Conservatives can veer away again from the NDP.

Put differently, the principle of forming temporary alliances means that the Conservatives must never provoke the three opposition parties to gang up on them in the House of Commons (except for minor stakes such as unenforceable resolutions). This rule must be seared into the Prime Minister's brain after he violated it in December, 2008. He threatened to cut off public subsidies for political parties and was almost turned out of office by a short-lived coalition of Liberals, New Democrats and Blocquistes.

But tacking back and forth among the opposition parties, forming tactical alliances as required to keep power, cannot work long if those parties are spoiling for an election. Hence arises the third principle of Conservative political management: Always keep at least one of the three opposition parties afraid of an election, so that you don't have to wage a campaign except at a time of your own choosing.

So far, the Conservatives have been successful in this. Remarkably, in almost four years of Tory power, the three opposition parties have never voted together to deny confidence and force an election. Someone's always been afraid.

Implementing this principle has meant adopting the strategic doctrine of "permanent campaign," the most visible manifestation of which has been the waves of paid advertising directed at Liberal leaders and policies. Traditionally in Canadian politics, advertising has been a campaign weapon, but it has proved just as effective in avoiding campaigns as in winning them.

Yet paid advertising is only the most visible manifestation of the Conservative doctrine of permanent campaign. There is much, much more behind the scenes: a campaign manager always on duty and reporting directly to the Prime Minister; contracts for planes, buses and war-room facilities; grassroots fundraising and voter identification 363 days a year (no calls on Christmas and Easter). Indeed, the fundraising makes it possible to maintain all the other aspects of the expensive model of permanent campaign.

Permanent campaign is the equivalent of the military concept of deterrence. In the words of the old Roman adage, if you want peace, prepare for war. It's not always pretty, but it works.

Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager.

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