Tom Flanagan has been for many years an academic engagé on the political right. Now, he's about to drop the academic part.
This summer, Mr. Flanagan will leave the University of Calgary's political science department for at least a year and come to Ottawa as Alliance leader Stephen Harper's director of operations.
He's moving because "Stephen asked." And why not, since Mr. Flanagan organized Mr. Harper's victorious leadership campaign? The two had written newspaper articles together. They both had broken with former Reform Party leader Preston Manning for deviating too frequently from ideological conservatism toward issue-by-issue populism. Mr. Flanagan's arrival at Mr. Harper's side in Ottawa further signals that the Alliance has chosen as leader a committed ideological conservative rather than someone ready to modify Reform-Alliance verities to build a wider political coalition.
Academic departments often resemble neutron bomb sites: The offices exist but the professors seldom are around, especially after exams. It seemed natural, however, that Mr. Flanagan would be in his office on a recent weekday morning while the others were empty, because he is nothing if not hard working and prolific.
Books, articles, pamphlets, columns have poured from his pen, incurring the wrath of those whose ideas he has assaulted. He won the $25,000 Donner Prize for the best book on public policy last year for First Nations? Second Thoughts, a searing indictment of aboriginal policy.
His latest paper, published by the Fraser Institute, argues that although one party on the right to contest Liberal hegemony would be preferable, many other democracies don't operate on a two-party model. Given a choice between a party of principle in opposition that could influence policy choices, and one that diluted policy for the sake of winning, Mr. Flanagan would chose the party of principle.
Plenty of other authors, including this one, think the Alliance will never win with sharply ideological policies. Mr. Flanagan, as you might expect, disagrees.
"When we test our principles through surveys we tend to find widespread support. Most of what we stand for is acceptable to the majority," he asserts. Later, he adds, "I wouldn't change policies. I see our best bet for broad support being a new leader and a higher level of professionalism."
Perhaps as an academic, Mr. Flanagan is too impolitic to say things that are patently implausible. So rather than predicting victory, he cheerfully admits, "I'm not making a big promise that we're going to win the next election." But he argues that "in every other country, parties of the right have won elections."
Academics who come to Ottawa sometimes are recruited as policy advisers or researchers. But Mr. Flanagan will be a nuts-and-bolts man, organizing the leader's time and helping prepare for the next election.
"We need implementation. Stephen is himself a brilliant strategist. He doesn't need people to tell him what to do, but to get it done," Mr. Flanagan says.
Somehow that statement does defy plausibility. That Mr. Flanagan will refrain from ongoing policy advice is like imagining that Conservative Leader Joe Clark would take any.
On health care, for example, Mr. Flanagan offers his "personal" view -- that Canada should scrap medicare for a system of medical savings accounts, an idea peddled by others on the far-right side of the political spectrum. That's Mr. Flanagan's long-term preference, but in the meantime he thinks provinces should experiment with introducing more private money into the health-care system, and Ottawa should respect their jurisdiction.
Health care is one of those areas where Mr. Flanagan thinks the Alliance needs to "update" policies. He's right about that, because for three straight elections the Reform/Alliance parties tried to outbid the Liberals by promising to spend even more money on health care.
That policy earned them no extra votes, and was startlingly inconsistent with the parties' stance of smaller government, lower taxes and greater individual responsibility. Under Mr. Harper, the Alliance's health-care policy will definitely change in the direction of more private choice, and Mr. Flanagan will have his say in what emerges.
Policy, though, is not what Mr. Flanagan thinks the Alliance most requires. It needs money -- the party's debt stands at about $2.3-million -- new headquarters personnel, a sustained period of internal calm, an updating but not ditching of policies, and outward competence, goals Mr. Flanagan will leave Calgary to help the new leader accomplish.
"No wet suits," he adds.