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Preston Manning, president and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy

Chris Bolin/Chris Bolin

What can the federal Conservatives, Canada's governing party, learn from the decline of the federal Liberals from "natural governing party" to third-party status?

One lesson worth considering is this: When you're the governing party, especially for a long time, you begin to rely more and more on the civil service and taxpayer dollars for everything – including the key elements required to keep your party vigorous, strong and relevant.

Does your party need intellectual capital – a steady stream of policy analysis and ideas? As the governing party, you can always expropriate some of it from your political opponents. But the longer you are in office, the more likely you are to get an increasing proportion of your intellectual capital from the civil service or by the use of taxpayer dollars to fund research projects and policy studies on any subject.

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Does your party need trained human resources to help guide and run your political machinery as well as the government? You can get and maintain those resources by placing persons sympathetic to your partisan cause in political staff positions within the government and funded by the taxpayer. You can upgrade their knowledge and skills from time to time by sending them on courses or bringing in training consultants, again at taxpayer expense.

You can even use the civil service itself as a reservoir of potential candidates for elected office – the Liberal Party of Canada, for example, drawing two of its most prominent leaders, Mackenzie King and Lester Pearson, from the civil service.

Does your party need ever-expanding communications capacity to get out its messages? The party itself will have a small communications staff, but, if you're the governing party, you can increasingly draw on the communications offices of 30 government departments and dozens of Crown corporations and agencies to help craft and deliver your key messages, again all at taxpayer expense.

But then, alas, the fateful day comes – as it did for the Liberal Party of Canada – when you're no longer the governing party. No longer do you have access to the intellectual capital-generating capacities of the civil service. No longer do you have access to the human resources and training budgets of a $265-billion-a-year taxpayer-funded enterprise. No longer do you have access to the hundreds of communications personnel and vehicles that were once at your beck and call.

To make matters worse, during the long years as government, most of the alternative sources of these resources were neglected and allowed to atrophy. Thus, the Liberals now find their federal party intellectually bankrupt, lacking in the ability to attract and nourish talented people, and its once-loud voice reduced to a whimper because of drastically reduced communications capacity.

Our advice to our political friends? Build and maintain your "democratic political infrastructure" – the intellectual capital generators for politicians, the training programs for political activists, and the political communications vehicles – when in opposition but continue to build and maintain it, outside of the civil service and through private donations, even after becoming the governing party.

To fail to do so is to court eventual political collapse and impotence from which it may take years, even decades, to recover – witness the current state of the federal Liberals.

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Preston Manning is president and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.

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