The Harper Index

Flanagan, Tom – One of Stephen Harper's closest advisors explains and predicts him

Harper's Team provides a manual on Conservative strategy and tactics for friend and foe.

Tom Flanagan is one of the most influential right-wing thinkers in Canada - photo: Univ. of CalgaryOne of Stephen Harper's closest advisors has published a new book that details how Harper rose from lobbyist and policy wonk to Prime Minister and his strategies for doing so. It is striking how much Harper's Team (McGill, Queens University Press, 2007) contains about Conservative strategy and how much daily events reflect Tom Flanagan's advice.

Flanagan has been an important mentor to Stephen Harper. He was Harper's national campaign director in the 2004 federal election and a senior campaign advisor in the 2006 election. He is a senior fellow of the right- wing Fraser Institute and is a member of a group of like-minded ideologues from his university's political-science department known as the "Calgary School".

Flanagan, the ultimate political insider, traces the steps and the personalities involved with the Canadian Alliance Party and its merger with the PC Party. It concludes with a candid "Ten commandments of Conservative Campaigning" that explain what Stephen Harper has done and possibly predict what's in store.

1. UNITY. "The Conservative Party contains libertarians, social conservatives, populists, Red Tories, Quebec nationalists, and Canadian nationalists, plus many people who don't care much about any of these 'isms.' The all need each other. They can never win unless they try to understand each other and reach compromises..." The way Harper has managed to keep his sectarian factions quiet, despite disappointments - such as gay marriage, which has become a fait accompli Harper showed no interest in opposing - is one of the untold stories of his government.

2. MODERATION. "Canada is not yet a conservative or Conservative country," Flanagan warns. "We can't win if we veer too far to the right..."

The new Conservative party was created specifically to contest with the Liberals for power, so overt displays of ideology will be avoided. The Conservatives famous campaign promises of 2006 were almost entirely free of ideology. Opponents will only succeed by exposing true motives and ideology.

3. INCLUSION. "The traditional Conservative base of Anglophone Protestants is too narrow," Flanagan advises. "The key to the long-term success of the Liberals has been their cultivation of minorities. We have to take that advantage away."

The Conservatives have organized effectively in many ethnic communities and have recruited successful visible minority candidates. Several ethnic groups are being courted through policies such as promoting human rights in China or courting Jewish voters through support for Israel. Opponents need to remind new Canadians of what they may not like about the Conservatives, such as militarism and counter-terrorism policies that lead to racial profiling.

4. INCREMENTALISM. "We have to be willing to make progress in small, practical steps. Sweeping visions... are toxic in practical politics." Neither Flanagan nor Harper have forsworn long-held ideals. They have simply accepted these will take time. Their opponents would be well advised to remind the public of those ideals.

5. POLICY. "Politics is less about logic than it is about getting support," he advises. "Polices must be formulated so that they can be communicated to the general public and win the support of voters who spend little time studying and thinking about public policy." Protesting veils in polling places and offering child care credits parents that may only meet a fraction of costs are two very different examples of policies that are emotionally easy to grasp regardless of their logic.

6. SELF-DISCIPLINE. "The media are unforgiving of conservative errors, so we have to exercise strict discipline at all levels," he advises. A complete plan is needed "so the leader is not forced to improvise."

This advice explains the lack of access Harper has allowed reporters. Forcing Harper to improvise has repeatedly hurt him and can again.

7. TOUGHNESS. "We cannot win by being Boy Scouts," Flanagan warns, advising Conservatives to do thorough opposition research and use it to go for the jugular.

The Dion attack ads are good examples. Flanagan says whining looks bad on Conservatives: "leave the whining to the utopians." Getting Conservatives to whine could be a useful strategy for opponents. "People expect Conservatives to be tough. They look ridiculous if they go around snivelling."

8. GRASSROOTS POLITICS. "...The grassroots model of fundraising has built the Conservative Party into a financial powerhouse," he boasts, with justification.

That financial advantage has enabled the party to hone its organizational and technical skills in order to get out supporters and win close races in the last two elections. Opponents need to organize as effectively in ways that get messages directly to swing voters and turn them around.

9. TECHNOLOGY. Flanagan says the Conservatives have tried to stay at the leading edge of every technological trend from predictive dialers to Blackberries, bloggers and podcasting. Dozens and dozens of websites and blog sites inhabit the "Tory Blogger" universe, compared to a small handful on the left. With a few exceptions, and only partially due to expense, the left has rarely used the new technologies as effectively as the right.

10. PERSISTENCE. "Politics is a tough business, and mistakes are frequent. We have to correct our errors, learn from mistakes, and keep pushing ahead," he writes.

Stephen Harper, like his mentor Flanagan, is willing to look objectively at what works and what doesn't, and modify his behaviour accordingly. Harper's tone and rhetoric have become, steadily more moderate. Even his position on Afghanistan has become nuanced in response to his realization that many Canadians do not share his views. And Canadians never hear anything of his opposition to the public sector of which he spoke so frequently in the past; Harper realizes this kind of thing is a mistake.

Unlike many political memoirs, Flanagan's book offers solid useful information from which allies or adversaries can learn, and to which opponents need be mindful. He appears to make it straightforward to predict what Canadians will see from Stephen Harper in the run-up to the next election: moderation, inclusion, focused communications, and the odd sucker punch.

Related individuals, organizations and significant events
Flanagan, Tom – The Calgary School

Posted: September 21, 2007

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