The Liberals’ problems with SNC-Lavalin have led to a considerable drop in their polling numbers. While supporters seem to be scattering in all directions and not just moving to the Conservatives, a Conservative return to power in 2019 is, for the first time since the 2015 election, a realistic possibility. Will that happen? As I often say to my students, if I could foretell the future, I wouldn’t be just another retired professor. But it does seem worth thinking about what a Conservative government could do if it is elected. I want to focus here on Indigenous policy and politics, an area where the Liberals made great gains in 2015 but have now lost much of their advantage as a result of Mr. Trudeau’s feud with Jody Wilson-Raybould and his thoughtless taunting of Grassy Narrows protestors.

Even if they win the next election, the Conservatives’ room to manoeuvre may well be limited. At present levels of party support, a victory would probably result in a minority government, meaning that passing legislation in the House of Commons would require the support of at least one other party. Also, Justin Trudeau’s appointments to the Senate have created a progressive, though not necessarily Liberal, voting majority in that body, and the reformed Senate has shown several times that it will not simply rubber-stamp bills coming from the Commons. Forget about visionary legislation like replacing the Indian Act, which the Liberals tried to accomplish but could not in spite of a much stronger position in Parliament. A Conservative government will have to rely on policy tools such as appointments, orders-in-council, control of the administration, strategic litigation and budgeting, while pursuing more modest goals.

But modest does not mean unimportant. Current events will give a Conservative government a chance to reorient policy toward greater independence and prosperity for First Nations. The beginning, but not the end, of the reorientation should be the Trans Mountain pipeline.

After Trans Mountain became trapped in a quagmire of opposition from a number of quarters – the government of British Columbia, environmentalists opposed in principle to the use of oil, coastal First Nations with other opportunities for economic development – the federal government bought the existing pipeline as well as the expansion proposal from Kinder-Morgan. It is now redoing one phase of the consultation process according to directives from the Federal Court of Canada in the Tsleil-Waututh decision. But if the new consultation leads to a recommendation to proceed with Trans Mountain, the result is likely to be challenged in court again by the same coastal First Nations who litigated the first time. Hence a Conservative government will inherit this mess – wherein lies opportunity.

On the political front, the Conservatives should go forward with the current government’s proposal to sell Trans Mountain to a consortium with majority Indigenous participation. This will highlight the reality that most First Nations want to take part in natural resource development. Forty-three First Nations accepted the Mutual Benefit Agreements offered by Trans Mountain, as against 12 that were opposed. And behind these 43 supportive First Nations located along the Trans Mountain route lie the approximately 200 members of the Indian Resource Council, who produce oil and gas, transport these products in pipelines and sell services to other players in the industry. The Trans Mountain pipeline furnishes a unique opportunity to demonstrate that most First Nations are not opposed to resource development; indeed, those not favoured with an urban location see it as their best opportunity to achieve prosperity and independence.

But to sell the pipeline, the Conservatives will also have to proceed on the legal front, for no consortium, Indigenous or otherwise, will buy it until construction is assured. The jurisprudence surrounding the “duty to consult” was mainly developed around individual development projects – mines, oil wells, forestry clearcuts and ski resorts – that affected the traditional territory of only one First Nation. In these cases, the courts often ruled that consultation had been inadequate, but also insisted that the right to be consulted was not a veto. Once consultation had been carried out adequately, said the courts, development could proceed, even if the First Nation remained opposed to the project.

However, things get more complicated with long, linear projects such as pipelines, which affect dozens of First Nations. So far the courts have ruled that consultation was inadequate in the Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain cases, but have not yet had to face the more difficult question of what to do when consultation has been ruled adequate but the dozens of First Nations affected by the project remain divided. Advocates for the coastal First Nations opposed to Trans Mountain are in effect claiming an individual First Nation veto. But if that position is allowed to prevail, corridor projects over any extensive span of territory will become virtually impossible to build in Canada.

In the wider economy, such issues are resolved by governments’ power of expropriation, with compensation being negotiated for easements or outright takings, but existing provincial legislation does not apply to the rather nebulously defined concept of Indigenous traditional territory. Federal legislation would be desirable, but a Conservative minority government will not be able to pass legislation in this area, especially without a majority in the Senate. The government will have to apply the Supreme Court’s theory of infringement of Aboriginal title and defend it in court. If it does not have the stomach for that battle, it probably cannot build the Trans Mountain pipeline, no matter how many First Nations support it and want to acquire a share of ownership.

Trans Mountain is the current issue, but the implications go far beyond that one project. The same questions could arise in relation to a revival of Northern Gateway, Calvin Helin’s Eagle Spirit proposal for an energy corridor in northern British Columbia and the additional pipelines that will be necessary to feed liquefied natural gas exports from the west coast.

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of making progress on this file. Canada’s oil industry, previously our largest export earner, is now under virtual quarantine impeding future growth. International investors have been selling Canadian assets and running for the exits. Talk of separation is once again fashionable in Alberta. For now it is just talk, but it could become much more dangerous if nothing is done to lift the pipeline embargo. The best way to break the blockade is through a new grand alliance of energy producers and development-oriented First Nations. That alliance has been growing on the ground in western Canada through a long series of meetings and conferences, but it needs buy-in from the federal government to become effective. A Conservative government will have a historic opportunity to drive that alliance forward, and in doing so shift the policy matrix of Indigenous issues in the direction of economic development and self-sufficiency.

While moving on that front, a Conservative government should also trim back the federal apology-and-compensation agenda, which has spiralled out of control under this Liberal government. Compensation is being offered to those who were adopted out as children (the “Sixties Scoop”) as well as to the “survivors” of Indian hospitals set up to deal with endemic tuberculosis. The most expensive reparations concern schooling. First it was the residential schools apology announced by Stephen Harper, costing an estimated $5 to $6 billion for compensation payments to anyone who ever attended a residential school. Now the government has announced a similar compensation program for all who attended day schools on reserve. The price tag for reserve day schools may be even higher than for residential schools because more claimants are involved. In view of this development, a demand is sure to follow to compensate those who attended public day schools off reserve.

Think a minute about the implications. Residential schools were said to be uniquely horrible because they destroyed Indigenous languages and cultures while permitting physical and sexual abuse. But now we are moving to compensate all First Nations people who ever attended a school of any type. What is the message here? That their children should never have gone to school at all? Someone in government needs to call a halt to this policy of piecemeal reparations under the guise of reconciliation.

Ironically, our contemporary policies for the education of First Nations children will probably also be condemned by future historians as a failure, in view of the dismal statistics for achievement and graduation. Prime Minister Harper, working mainly through former Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl, tried to strike a new funding deal with the Assembly of First Nations, but it fell apart when National Chief Shawn Atleo could not deliver the support of the more radical chiefs. Since then the Liberal government has delivered increased funding without the accountability measures that Mr. Harper demanded.

It is probably too late for a Conservative government to revisit fundamental legislative reform strengthening First Nation reserve schools, but it could perhaps undertake worthwhile initiatives off reserve, where more than half of Indigenous people now live. Big public systems always have difficulty accommodating small, culturally distinct minorities. Alberta’s successful experiment with charter schools might provide a model for combining public funding with Indigenous parental control and cultural distinctiveness. Publicly funded vouchers for attendance at private schools with an Indigenous flavour might be another model worth pursuing.

The extensive American experience with vouchers and charter schools for racial minorities might provide some guidance. It’s an area where conservatives and libertarians mistrustful of state-run education might find common ground with liberals and social democrats concerned about outcomes for minority populations. Of course, rent-seeking teachers’ unions will be opposed, but they will oppose a Conservative government in any case. Why not fight over something worthwhile?

There’s a lot of chatter at the moment about abolishing the Senate. The NDP, which has always favoured abolition, put on a “Roll Up the Red Carpet Tour” in summer 2013 for its leader, Thomas Mulcair. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who used to favour the election of senators, suddenly announced his conversion to abolitionism. Alberta’s Ted Morton, formerly an elected senator in waiting, now says the existing Senate should be abolished as a preparatory step toward designing a new one. Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, along with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, is calling for a national referendum in which abolition would be one of the options. And both Preston Manning and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have said that the Senate should be abolished if it cannot be reformed.

The new abolitionists are all influential people whose opinions deserve respect, but none of them has yet said how the constitutional and legal barriers to abolition can be overcome. These are essential questions to ask, because Canada is governed under the rule of law. No matter what the people might say in a referendum, constitutional and legal procedures would have to be followed, as the Supreme Court established in its reference opinion on Quebec separation.

Let’s look first at the constitutional problems. In 2014 the Supreme Court of Canada, in reply to the federal government’s reference question, will tell us what it would take to abolish the Senate. I see zero probability that the Court will say the Senate can be abolished by ordinary legislation. The choice will be between unanimity (resolutions by both houses of Parliament, plus resolutions by the legislatures of all ten provinces) and the general procedure (resolutions by both Houses of Parliament and the legislatures of seven provinces that together have at least 50 per cent of the population of all the provinces). Although a persuasive argument can be made for unanimity, my money is on the general procedure. Superficially, this might look like good news for the abolitionists, because the 7/50 threshold seems possible to meet as it gives no single province a veto.

But when we move from the constitutional to the legal level, we have to factor in the Act Respecting Constitutional Amendments, passed by Parliament in 1996 in response to the near-victory of the separatists in the 1995 Quebec referendum. This legislation created the so-called “regional veto,” which in context was really a veto for Quebec on future constitutional changes. Under the Act, a member of the federal cabinet cannot introduce a constitutional amendment into Parliament without getting the prior approval of Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, at least two Atlantic provinces with half of the population of that region, and at least two prairie provinces with half of that region’s population. Since Albertans make up more than half the population of the prairies, this means that Alberta also has a veto.

The 1996 legislation requires prior approval from the provinces before the cabinet can bring the question of abolition to Parliament. If Quebec is onside, the process might work; but it seems more likely that Quebec would wield its regional veto, not because the Senate is so important in itself but because it was a crucial part of the compromise that created the Canadian Confederation in 1867. Quebecers would reason – and I would be on their side – that if the Senate can be abolished, none of their constitutional privileges are safe from being taken away by a coalition of other provinces.

The federal government’s options for overriding Quebec’s exercise of its regional veto are not attractive. It could ask a backbencher, rather than a cabinet member, to introduce the constitutional resolution; but that would rightly be seen as an end run around the 1996 legislation and an unprecedented abrogation of cabinet responsibility. Or it could try to amend or repeal the act that created the regional veto. But that would require strong majorities in both the House of Commons and the Senate, for some Quebec members of Parliament might balk at reneging on the promise made to Quebec in 1996 that future constitutional amendments would be not be made without its consent. Any of the three legal possibilities – using a backbencher to circumvent the Act, amending the Act or repealing it altogether – would be a godsend to the separatist movement in Quebec, perhaps even allowing it to mobilize the energy to stage another referendum on separation.

I can understand the desire for abolition. If we were designing a constitution from scratch, we might consider the unicameral model. Countries such as New Zealand, Denmark and Sweden, as well as all ten Canadian provinces, function quite nicely without a second house in their legislatures. But we are not writing on a blank slate. As Marx wrote, “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”

Fortunately, there is a feasible reform option other than election of senators or abolition of the Senate. We could look to the Mother of Parliaments, the original source of our own constitution. For two decades, Britain has been struggling toward an elected House of Lords, but hasn’t yet gotten there. In the meantime it has developed mechanisms for appointment from which we could learn a great deal.

Some members of the House of Lords are partisans, chosen by the party leaders under a mechanism which keeps party membership in the House of Lords roughly balanced. But Britain also has an independent House of Lords Appointment Commission, which recommends crossbench (nonpartisan) members for appointment to the House of Lords. This helps to reduce partisan warfare in and around the upper house, which is so much in evidence in Canada at the moment. We can’t copy the British appointment system exactly because the British House of Lords differs in key respects from our Senate. It doesn’t have a definite size, it still has some hereditary members and it doesn’t have the function of regional representation that the Canadian Senate is supposed to provide. But we could draw inspiration from the British system and apply it to Canadian realities.

A Canadian prime minister could announce that he will seek advice for all future Senate appointments before recommending them to the governor general. That wouldn’t raise a constitutional problem because the appointment mechanism would still be the same, just with an advisory layer added beneath it. It would be legally similar to what is now done with senators from Alberta, where the prime minister follows the advice of voters in a senatorial election but still makes the actual nomination himself.

Alberta and other provinces that wished to adopt that model could give their advice through popular elections. Other provinces, if they wished to have a voice in senatorial appointments, would have to set up advisory committees. To maintain consistency across the country, the structure of these committees and the procedures they would follow would have to be negotiated among the provinces themselves and with the federal government. The committees might have some members appointed by the prime minister, some by the provincial premier, and some from other sources, such as the Senate itself, or civil society organizations such as the Order of Canada.

Once constituted, the committees might operate much as judicial advisory committees do now. In preparation for Senate vacancies, they could seek out possible candidates and accept applications. When a vacancy did appear, the committee could recommend, say, three names for the consideration of the prime minister, as is now done with appointments to the Supreme Court of Canada. But having nominees appear for hearings before a House of Commons committee would not be appropriate, as the Senate is a separate body from the House.

These details are only meant as an example of what could be done. I’m not offering a full-fledged plan, just trying to start a conversation about alternatives. Many different approaches could work, as long as the goal was to depoliticize the appointment process. The prime minister would have to renounce his patronage power of choosing senators, but that should not be so hard, because senatorial patronage has become as much a curse as a blessing.

When he became prime minister in 2006, Stephen Harper vowed to appoint only elected senators, and he introduced legislation to make election possible. Then, after it became clear that the opposition parties would not give the bill the support required to pass in a minority Parliament, he started to make Senate appointments in the traditional way. Like prime ministers before him, he appointed a sizable number of campaign workers and fundraisers of his own party; but, again following precedent, he also chose some people who had never been active in the Conservative Party but who had achieved distinction in some walk of life. Perhaps unwisely, he did not follow the tradition of appointing a few members of opposition parties, e.g., Pierre Trudeau’s appointment of Ernest Manning and Paul Martin’s appointment of Hugh Segal. Thus Harper’s appointments came to be seen as purely partisan and, fairly or not, the contrast with his earlier pledge to appoint only elected senators seemed jarring.

The power to choose senators was once a cherished prerogative of the prime minister, allowing him to reward faithful servants and allies. But the scandals that have surrounded a few of Harper’s chosen senators, compounded by the clumsy attempts of the Prime Minister’s Office to make these scandals disappear, have turned senatorial appointment into a poisoned chalice. It would now be in the political interest of Harper or any other prime minister to depoliticize the appointment process through reliance on advisory committees.

I have long favoured an elected Senate and still do as a theoretical proposition. In a democratic age, election is the best way of conferring legitimacy on a legislative body. But it’s good to have at least the outlines of Plan B in case the Supreme Court says that Senate elections cannot be made mandatory without a constitutional amendment. It could be a classic Canadian compromise, untidy but workable. Those provinces that want to elect senators could do so, while those that don’t want elections could get a voice in a depoliticized advisory process that would gradually make the senate a less partisan body.

For better or worse, Quebec drove the agenda of Canadian politics throughout the second half of the 20th century. Prime ministers Louis Saint-Laurent, Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin were all from Quebec. Just as importantly, Quebec MPs were often pivotal in the caucus of the governing party: without its Quebec seats, the government of the day would not have been in power, or at least not with a majority government. That was true as much for the Conservative governments of Diefenbaker and Mulroney (except in the landslide years of 1958 and 1984) as for the Liberal governments of Saint-Laurent, Pearson, Trudeau, Chrétien and Martin. And ever since the Quiet Revolution, there was the threat of separation, used by Quebec provincial politicians of all parties to put an edge on their demands.

Since 1993, however, things have changed. By swinging to the Bloc Québécois and more recently to the NDP, Quebec voters have given up much of their leverage with the federal government, a trend that has only accelerated in 2008 and 2011. To form a government, Quebec seats might have been necessary to Paul Martin in 2004 and Stephen Harper in 2006, but not to Harper in 2008. And now, after the 2011 election, Harper heads a Conservative majority government with only five Quebec seats, and the Conservatives would still have a majority even if they had no seats at all from that province. Moreover, the separatist movement is in disarray, with the electoral collapse of the BQ, internal feuding within the Parti Québécois and the appearance of new separatist parties and organizations.

When Stephen Harper became leader of the new Conservative Party of Canada, he thought that, in order to win, it would be necessary to recover at least part of the francophone vote in Quebec that Brian Mulroney had brought over to the Progressive Conservatives in the 1980s. This was part of the “Three Sisters” theory that he first articulated at the Winds of Change conference in Calgary in 1996: a Conservative majority had to be built on the support of populists in western Canada, traditional Tories in Ontario and Atlantic Canada and francophone nationalists (but not separatists) in Quebec.

When he became Conservative leader, Harper acted consistently on the Three Sisters theory. He worked on his French, spent a lot of time in Quebec and, when he became Prime Minister, placed several Quebec-oriented policies in the window, such as fixing the “fiscal imbalance” and recognizing the Québécois as “a nation within Canada.” For a while it seemed to be working, as the Conservatives won ten seats in Quebec in 2006 and were on track to win as many as 30 seats there in 2008. But then the tide went out in the middle of the campaign, and the Conservatives were lucky to hold their ten seats. And then they were reduced to five Quebec seats in 2011.

In the meantime, however, the Conservatives had begun to cultivate a valuable new source of votes: new Canadians concentrated in major metropolitan areas, above all in and around Toronto. With Jason Kenney leading the charge, this effort paid off in a clutch of new seats in 2011, far more than enough to compensate for losses in Quebec. It is not that the Conservatives rejected Quebec to appeal to ethnic voters; there was no clash between the two groups. Rather, when Quebec rejected the Conservatives, they now had somewhere else to go to build the majority they were seeking. The Conservatives do not dominate the ethnic vote: the Liberals and NDP still get large parts of it. But the Conservatives have improved their share to the point that they are competitive in many ridings that were previously out of reach.

It’s all rather curious. From 1867 onward, the conventional wisdom of political science was that Quebec voters had a nose for power, almost always ending up on the side of the governing party, whether Liberal or Conservative. But starting in 1993, Quebec voters tended to prefer the BQ, which had no chance of governing, and now the NDP, which has little chance. Such behaviour might make sense as a prelude to separation, but separatism seems to be growing weaker rather than stronger within the province. I’ll leave it to others to psychoanalyze Quebec voters and predict what they may do in the future, but I will make some comments about how these developments may affect the course of federal politics.

The Conservative government is now freer, if it wishes, to ignore demands from Quebec without fear of a politically costly backlash. It has shown this by proceeding with its plan to give more House of Commons seats to the fast-growing provinces of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. This will not reduce Quebec’s total of 75 seats but will lessen Quebec’s relative weight in the House of Commons. Despite cries of protest from Quebec’s NDP MPs and from provincial politicians, the government is moving ahead on this file. The government has also ignored demands, resonant in Quebec, to require that all judges of the Supreme Court of Canada be bilingual before appointment, and it is moving ahead to abolish the long-gun registry, even though that has always been a popular institution in Quebec, having been established as a response to the “Montreal Massacre” of 1989.

This should not be interpreted as a wholesale abandonment of Quebec’s interests. Shortly after the 2011 election, Prime Minister Harper hired former PC MP André Bachand as his Quebec adviser. He recently fulfilled a Conservative campaign promise by announcing that the federal government will pay Quebec $2.2 billion as retroactive compensation for the province’s 1992 adoption of the HST. The government also announced that it will, over a ten-year period, build a new Champlain Bridge over the St. Lawrence River (the Champlain Bridge is wholly owned by the Federal Bridge Corporation Ltd.).

If the Conservative government had wanted to turn against Quebec, it could easily have done so on these two issues. After all, why should Canada pay compensation almost 20 years later for a decision that the government of Quebec made voluntarily, in its own interests, in 1992? And why should the federal government own and build expensive bridges in Quebec when it does not do so in other provinces? (FBCL owns the Champlain, Jacques Cartier and Mercier bridges in Montreal, the Seaway International Bridge between Ontario and New York state at Cornwall and the Sault Ste. Marie International Bridge between Ontario and Michigan. The fact that the Cornwall and Sault Ste. Marie bridges are international make them more logical candidates for federal ownership.)

The Prime Minister, it appears, wants to leave room for future attempts to rebuild support in Quebec. This makes political sense from two points of view. First, as Joe Clark learned in 1979, it is difficult to govern the country without some Quebec MPs who can serve in the cabinet. The present number of five is already too small to furnish an adequate choice, so the Conservatives would like to get back up to at least the ten that they had before the 2011 election. Also, nothing is fixed in politics. The Conservatives won a majority government in the last election with the new support of ethnic voters, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area. The party will try as hard as it possibly can to keep those new supporters in the fold, but it makes perfect political sense to try to keep options open in Quebec in the face of an uncertain future.

There is also a deeper issue involved, as expressed by Reform Party founder Preston Manning at a recent dinner held in Edmonton to honour Ted Byfield and his now-defunct newsmagazine, Alberta Report. Manning spoke about how for many years the interests of western Canada were ignored by both Liberal and Conservative governments. Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program devastated the Alberta oil patch in the name of keeping prices low for eastern consumers. Brian Mulroney decided “in the national interest” to give the CF-18 service contract to a Montreal consortium rather than a Winnipeg firm, even though the adjudication committee considered the Winnipeg bid both cheaper and technically more advanced.

Fortunately, said Manning, the days of the west’s oppression are over. Evoking Reform’s old slogan, “The west wants in,” Manning emphasized that the west is not only in but has a dominant voice in the federal government. But he went on to caution the hundreds of Conservative activists in attendance about how wrong it would be to seek political revenge for the years of systematic exploitation that the west suffered. People in the west, he said, understand better than anyone what it means to be “out,” and should strive to ensure that no other region of Canada suffers the same fate again. It was inspiring to hear not only Manning’s words but also the loud applause that they evoked.

Prime Minister Harper was not there that night; he was represented by “Minister of Nationalities” Jason Kenney. But I’m sure Harper’s view of the situation is the same as Preston Manning’s. A country as regionalized as Canada can only be held together by evenhanded treatment of all regions. There are bound to be future arguments about the treatment of Quebec, as there always have been, but do not look for Harper to make any dramatic turn away from Quebec because of a couple of disappointing election results.

On the other hand, there is no going back to the way it was. Quebecers will have to understand that evenhanded treatment does not mean holding the country hostage. The time when Quebec voters could drive the political agenda of the federal government is over.

While the organization of the Conservative Party of Canada has inherited traits from both of its predecessor parties, the Progressive Conservatives and Reform/Canadian Alliance, it also has some novel features. These features stem from the personality of Stephen Harper, the party’s founder and only leader so far, from his experience with Reform Party and Canadian Alliance populism and from the all-pervasive state of “permanent campaign” that has existed in Canadian federal politics since 2004.

The result is a unique configuration of organizational features amounting to a virtual fusion of political party and campaign team. This powerful and effective organizational model helped the Conservative Party bring the Liberals down to minority status in 2004 and defeat them in the elections of 2006 and 2008. Only the future can say whether the Conservatives will continue with this model of organization after Stephen Harper retires, and whether other parties may choose to imitate it.

The populist impulse

Preston Manning deliberately cast the Reform Party as a neopopulist revival, imitating such western predecessors as the Progressive Party, the United Farmers and Social Credit.1 This meant adoption of direct-democratic policies such as referendum, initiative and recall, as well as a quasi-delegate theory of the MP’s role according to which the elected member was supposed to vote according to “the consensus of the constituency,” at least on controversial moral issues.

Manning’s populism also involved a novel approach to party organization. In comparison with other Canadian parties of the late 1980s, Reform exhibited a number of specific characteristics that could be interpreted as populist. Thus, Reform put great emphasis on formal party membership. Of course, other parties also sold memberships, but Reform kept all membership records in a centrally controlled database held in the national party office in Calgary.2 The national party employed direct mail to persuade members to renew annually, and also pushed constituency associations to conduct membership renewal drives.

In addition, because the Reform Party’s populist character had little appeal to big corporations and wealthy donors, it became almost entirely reliant on small donations. Partly this was done face-to-face through the legendary Colonel Sanders Kentucky Chicken bucket passed at every Reform public meeting. Larger amounts of money were raised through direct mail based on the nationally controlled database. Reform took the Progressive Conservative heritage of grassroots fundraising and made it even more productive – in effect, the lifeline of the party.

The first Reform Party constitution put control of all party affairs in the hands of a so-called “Executive Council.” This was not advisory to the leader, as were national councils in other parties, but a full-fledged management body. The leader was a member of the Executive Council but did not have any independent authority over party affairs.3 At the same time, the constitution did not provide for any intermediate bodies between the constituency associations and the Executive Council – no regional or provincial councils, no special-interest associations for youth, women, seniors, First Nations or ethnic groups. It was the ultimate in flat organization.

Another populist provision of the Reform Party constitution was approval of important decisions by membership referendum. The party actually held three referendums – one in 1991 to authorize expansion east of the Manitoba border, and two in 1999–2000 as part of the transformation of Reform through the United Alternative into the Canadian Alliance. There was also a Canadian Alliance party referendum in 2003 to approve its merger with the Progressive Conservatives. Election of the leader by membership ballot would have been a logical procedure for the Reform Party, but since that was still a relatively new and experimental idea when the party was founded in 1987, Preston Manning was elected by a delegated convention.4 However, leadership election through membership voting was adopted when Reform transformed itself into the Canadian Alliance in 2000, and that method was used to select Stockwell Day in 2000 and Stephen Harper in 2002.

Finally, the “Statement of Principles” adopted at Reform’s founding meeting in Winnipeg in October 1987 affirmed that “political parties should be guided by stated values and principles which are shared by their members and rooted in the political beliefs of Canadians.”5 Guided by this principle, Reformers treated their policy manual, or Blue Book, almost as Holy Writ. Once adopted at an assembly, wording could only be changed at a subsequent assembly, and enormous energy went into debates over wording. If Reform had ever been in government, that creedal attitude toward policy would probably have been relaxed, but the party never got that opportunity.

Preston Manning’s tight grip

Reform, then, was more populist – in the sense of having a flat organization combined with membership control of business – than the other parties with which it competed in the 1990s. The true situation, however, was far more complex, for behind the scenes Preston Manning exercised a remarkable level of control over the Reform Party, using his prestige as the founder and only leader of the party to structure decision-making processes and control the agenda for discussion.

Thus, Manning drafted key documents, such as the “Statement of Principles” embedded in the Blue Book, and took a personal hand in wording all important resolutions. In addition, even though according to the party’s constitution members of the Executive Council were to choose their own officers,6 in effect it was Manning who chose these officers. The election took place at a Council meeting in which Manning led a discussion of responsibilities and then recommended names for the various positions. Dissenters were isolated and, if necessary, expelled. Later, Manning used similar methods in caucus, and ended up expelling more members than any other national leader that I can remember.7

Manning also managed the organization through “chosen instruments” whom he supported unconditionally. Cliff Fryers became his indispensable chief organizer, assisted by Rick Anderson and Gordon Shaw. Titles and job assignments sometimes shifted, but these three formed a stable core around Manning, supplemented at various times by others. And working with Chief Policy Officer Stephen Harper, Manning provided careful guidance to policy development. Grassroots members were indeed asked to submit policy resolutions for consideration at assemblies, but Manning and Harper would edit and consolidate the resolutions, introduce their own to fill voids that they perceived, and intervene at crucial points if floor discussions seemed to be going askew.

Especially in his early years of leadership, Manning often described the Reform Party as a populist movement expressing “the common sense of the common people.” Yet his real view as expressed in private was more nuanced. I often heard him say, “The function of the political party is to mediate between expert and public opinion.” Although he attributed that saying to Vaçlav Havel, for whom he had tremendous respect, I could never find the source in Havel’s writings, even after much searching.8

I argued in Waiting for the Wave that Manning’s behind-the-scenes leadership was an essential complement to his populism. As William Riker showed in his classic Liberalism against Populism, populism is intellectually incoherent.9 There is no such thing as “the will of the people.” When I was working for Manning, we had some interesting arguments on this issue. He seemed to believe that the will of the people was something real, not just an artifact of the decision-making processes. But, following Riker, my view is that what exists in reality is a large number of people with divergent preferences. For democratic decision-making, everything depends on the processes by which those preferences are revealed and aggregated. The same set of preferences can often give rise to very different decisions, depending on how those preferences are weighed and counted. Agenda control – the formulation of questions for decision and the structuring of processes for making decisions – is the key to managing populist movements.

I don’t think Preston Manning had ever read Riker’s book or any similar works, but he had an intuitive flair for agenda control. Even as he spoke about “the common sense of the common people”, “the consensus of the constituency”, “the will of the people” and other populist shibboleths, he was masterfully managing consultative and decision-making processes within the party to give him the results he was aiming at. While at least in certain settings he could persuade listeners with his long, carefully reasoned speeches, his real mastery was not in rhetoric but in what Riker called heresthetic – the art of dividing, of setting up alternatives for decision-making.10

During his invaluable apprenticeship to Manning as Chief Policy Officer of the Reform Party, Stephen Harper learned how to manage a populist movement. He used to grumble privately about Manning’s manipulations, but he was absorbing the lessons. Indeed, after he saw the Canadian Alliance experience of how populism could get out of control, he ultimately ended up with a view of leadership far more aggressive than Manning’s.

Under the leadership of Stockwell Day, who lacked Manning’s manipulative abilities, populism dissolved into factionalism, and the Alliance seemed on the verge of tearing itself apart. Harper saved the Alliance by winning the leadership race in March 2002, but he now had to deal with a National Council most of whose members owed nothing to him and some of whom were quite suspicious. Party president George Richardson’s philosophy seemed to be that his job was to protect the party and its constitution from the leader. Matters came to a head in fall 2002 when, as Harper’s chief of staff and acting on his orders, I fired George Richardson’s son Adam as a regional organizer in Atlantic Canada. The firing precipitated an all-out power struggle on Council that lasted for about four months until Harper was able to put together a coalition to depose Richardson and take control under the presidency of (now Senator) Don Plett.11

Little got into the media about this power struggle, but it was a draining, time-and-energy-consuming experience for Harper. It convinced him that he, as party leader, should never again be subject to a governing council and led, I believe, to many features of the constitution adopted by the Conservative Party of Canada after the 2003 merger. This desire to exercise unhampered control over the party was also congenial to Harper’s basic personality, which is dominant and controlling in all matters in which he is personally involved.

Stephen Harper’s revision

The merger of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives was Stephen Harper’s project.12 He conceived the idea, raised it first in public and hounded Peter MacKay for months until the deal was consummated. The merger was done on the basis of an interim constitution, and approval of the final version was put off until the March 2005 convention in Montreal, which meant that Harper had a great deal of influence over its drafting once he won the leadership of the new party. As the Conservative Party’s only leader to date, he has exercised the same sort of sway over it as Preston Manning did over the Reform Party in its early years.

With respect to populism, the Conservative Party bears some important resemblances to the Reform Party. Thus, grassroots fundraising is still paramount. Of course, all parties have had to renounce high-end personal contributions, as well as corporate and union donations, as a result of Jean Chrétien’s Bill C-24 (2003); but Harper turned the screw even further by using the Accountability Act (2006) to reduce the limit for personal contributions from $5,000 to $1,000 (adjusted for inflation). In effect, he imposed a populist model of grassroots fundraising on all parties (though highly tempered by the public-support provisions of C-24). Under the new regime, the Conservatives raise far more money than any other party, partly because of the earlier Reform experience in grassroots fundraising, and partly because of technological advances.13

In addition, the national organization is still flat, consisting only of the Electoral District Associations and the national-level entities (National Council, Conservative Fund and National Office). With the exception of Quebec, there are still no regional or provincial layers of organization, and no Conservative youth wing, women’s organization or commissions for special interests.

However, the differences from the Reform era are more profound:

  • The financial side of the party has been taken away from Council and given to the Conservative Fund Canada. Unlike the old Progressive Conservative Fund, which was a large body with dozens of members, recruited mainly for their ability to contribute to corporate and high-end personal fundraising, the Conservative Fund has only a handful of members, all of whom are appointed by the leader, subject to the ratification of Council.14 In practice the Fund is dominated by the chairman, (now Senator) Irving Gerstein. Despite challenges to this arrangement (which some saw as giving too much unchecked power to the leader) at the party’s 2005 and 2008 conventions, the arrangement has remained essentially intact.15 The reality is that the leader controls the party through the Fund, especially its chairman, and through the national director of the party, who reports on budgetary and fundraising matters to the Fund, especially to its chairman.
  • The Reform Party’s “Executive Council” has been replaced with a “National Council,” as indeed had already happened in the Canadian Alliance. The significance of the name change is that Council is no longer a true executive body, responsible for running the party. As described above, the party is run largely by staff accountable to the national director, the chairman of the Conservative Fund and the leader. The Council is now more of a governance than an executive body. Unlike the Reform Executive Council, it does not have a formal role in establishing party policy (except indirectly through the conventions that it helps organize), conducting communications, raising money or planning election campaigns.
  • Like the Reform Party, the Conservative Party of Canada has a policy book approved by membership delegates at national conventions. Called the Policy Declaration, it was first adopted in Montreal in March 2005 and amended in Winnipeg in November 2008.16 Like Reform’s Blue Book, it is a mixture of general principles and specific policies, but it has nowhere near the same hold over members’ imaginations. It is available online but not in pamphlet form for members to carry around and distribute. I joined the Reform Party in 1990 after a graduate student gave me the Blue Book to read, but I doubt that happens very often today. Members no longer regard the Policy Declaration as sacred writ. Both in government and in opposition, the leader has been accorded wide latitude to develop policy for strategic purposes. In that respect, the Conservative Party is very much like the “old-line parties” that Manning and Reformers used to criticize.
The permanent campaign

This tendency toward centralized control of the Conservative Party stemming from Harper’s personality and his experience of Reform-style populism has been reinforced by the emergence in Canada of the permanent campaign, in which political parties seem at all times to be as much preoccupied with campaigning as with government and opposition.17 Canada has seen an extraordinary amount of campaigning in the first decade of this century, as shown in Table 1.

In fact, campaigning has been even more prevalent than the bare facts of the table indicate, for there has been a persistent sense that the minority governments elected in 2004 and afterwards were liable to be defeated at any time. Thus federal parties have had to maintain nonstop election readiness since early 2004, when Paul Martin became Liberal Prime Minister and indicated he would soon be asking for an election. The last ten years have deeply affected Canadian government and political culture. After so many years of continuous campaigning, federal politicians are like child soldiers in a war-torn African country: all they know how to do is fire their AK-47s. In short, we are living in a period of “permanent campaign,” to borrow the phrase first coined in the United States to describe the nonstop interweaving of politics and government.18

Political campaigning has many resemblances to the military campaigning of warfare, one of which is the importance of unified command and discipline. The permanent campaign environment has thus led to centralizing innovations in Conservative Party organization.

Perhaps the most important of these is the creation of a permanent position of campaign manager reporting directly to the leader. The older pattern for Canadian parties, when elections happened only every four or five years, was to appoint a campaign committee a year or so before an election was expected. There might also be a separate committee or task force to prepare the platform, as Paul Martin and Chaviva Hošek did with the Liberal Red Book to prepare for the 1993 election.

In the Conservative model, however, everything is centralized. There is no campaign committee. The platform is developed by the leader’s policy advisers, who report directly to him. Other aspects of the campaign are prepared under the direction of the manager, who again reports directly to the leader. Fundraising is carried out by direct-mail and telemarketing contractors working with the national director and the chairman of the Conservative Fund. Because there is no need to network with corporate and high-end individual donors, there is no semi-independent corps of well-connected fundraisers who might exert their own influence on the structure of the campaign.

In this situation of always being prepared for political warfare, message discipline is naturally carried to great lengths. Loose lips sink political ships. Conservative staffers and operatives almost never talk to the press and risk loss of employment if they do. MPs religiously follow official talking points. Even, maybe I should say especially, ministers are carefully controlled through the PMO.

Policy development within the party also has had to take second place. The 2005 Montreal convention was all about policy because it was necessary to have a policy manual for electoral purposes, to deflect opponents’ charges that Harper was pursuing a “hidden agenda.” But after that, national conventions were repeatedly postponed because of electoral exigencies. When one was finally held three and a half years later in Winnipeg, there was some discussion of policy, to be sure, but it was a secondary feature of the event. Election readiness has largely replaced policy development as the party emphasizes fundraising, campaign training and building grassroots teams for signage, door-knocking and phone banking.

The garrison party

Just as chronic warfare produces a garrison state, permanent campaigning has caused the Conservative Party to merge with the campaign team, producing a garrison party. The party is today, for all intents and purposes, a campaign organization focused on being ready for and winning the next election, whenever it may come.

Some populist aspects remain in the current Conservative model of organization, especially reliance on grassroots fundraising and a flat organization with no intermediate structures between the national office and the Electoral District Associations. But these populist relics don’t confer membership control over the party leadership; in fact, they work in the opposite direction. The national office and Conservative Fund control the grassroots fundraising, which tends to give the national party fiscal leverage over the Electoral District Associations. And the absence of intermediate structures means there are no points of refuge in which opposition to the leadership could coalesce.

By any standard, the party is highly centralized. The leader appoints the Conservative Fund, which oversees all the party’s business affairs. The leader appoints the campaign manager, who reports directly to him rather than to a campaign committee. There is an official policy manual, but the leader is free to adopt virtually any policy he wishes for strategic purposes. In any case, the party is focused on election readiness rather than policy development. Message discipline is carefully enforced at all levels, and a high level of secrecy surrounds internal deliberations. The overall atmosphere is almost military, as befits an era of permanent campaign.

The biggest question for the future is whether this “garrison party” will survive the specific circumstances of the present: the leadership of Stephen Harper and the need for constant election readiness in a period of minority government. The Conservative fusion of political party and campaign team has been extraordinarily effective in doing what all the pundits thought was impossible – overthrowing the Liberal dynasty and installing a Conservative government. The Liberals have already started to follow the Conservative example in several respects, such as revising their constitution to assert national control over membership rules and grassroots fundraising, enforcing more effective message discipline and running negative ads between election campaigns. If the era of permanent campaign and its arms race logic continues, the Conservative organizational model may well persist and even be imitated by other parties trying to survive in the Darwinian world of electoral competition.

And yet the garrison party model is not without its own internal problems. In all parties, some members are happy with nonstop electoral activity, but others see the party as an organization for representing their views and developing policy. Members of this latter type may turn away from the party if it becomes nothing but an electoral machine. Thus, it is possible that too long a period of constant election readiness may exhaust a party and undercut its effectiveness even in purely electoral terms.

Continue reading “Something Blue: Conservative Organization in an Era of Permanent Campaign”

Stephen Harper’s rise to power

May 26, 2006, was the tenth anniversary of Stephen Harper’s speech to the Winds of Change conference, held in Calgary to discuss a possible merger of the Reform and Progressive Conservative parties. That speech turned out to be Harper’s roadmap to power.

What Harper said that day now seems like common sense, but it was novel at a time when political analysts were still struggling to make sense of the 1993 election. In that election two new parties, Reform and the Bloc Québécois, had taken over most of the formerly Conservative ridings, and the PCs had been reduced from a working majority to a mere two seats in the House of Commons.

Winds of Change, organized by David Frum and Ezra Levant, was a failure in the short term. It was well attended by Reformers and provincial PCs from Ontario and Alberta, but senior PCs from the federal party stayed away. At that time, they were still hopeful that their new leader, Jean Charest, could restore their party’s fortunes. Charest’s veto of a proposal to try a joint Reform-PC candidacy in the Ontario riding of Brant was an indication of their lack of interest in cooperation.

In the medium term, Winds of Change was a partial success inasmuch as it began the discussion leading to formation of the Canadian Alliance in 2000. It was a step toward unity on the right, but only a tentative step. The federal PC Party, now led by Joe Clark, again refused to cooperate. In the long term, however, the strategic ideas Harper set forth in his Winds of Change speech led to the unification of the political right and a change of government in Canada.

Harper marshalled historical evidence to show that all winning Conservative coalitions in 20th-century Canadian history had consisted of three factions: a populist element, strongest in the West but also present in rural Ontario; traditional Tories, strong in Ontario and Atlantic Canada; and francophone nationalists in Quebec. The electoral disaster of 1993 was not a random event: it represented the splintering of Brian Mulroney’s grand coalition along ancient fault lines. Conservatives, Harper said, would never win another national government until they brought these factions back together.

The speech made a deep impression on me. I called Harper’s wife Laureen that afternoon and said, “Stephen sounded like a prime minister today.” Ten years later, he is the prime minister. I wish my record of picking winners could always be so good!

Afterwards, when I helped Harper write up his proposed strategy for publication, I dubbed it “The Three Sisters,” after a prominent mountain lying between Banff and Canmore. Initially, it seemed impossible to bring the three sisters back into a single party, so we speculated on various ways of forming a coalition among sister parties, but that turned out to be even harder to achieve than simple unification.

In 2001, Harper started the active implementation of his plan by running for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance. His victory in that race won him the western populist sister. Political junkies will remember that his first act after becoming leader of the Alliance was to seek a meeting with Joe Clark to discuss cooperation with the Progressive Conservatives, but again that party was not interested.

For Harper, however, it was only a detour on his roadmap. He successfully wooed the second sister, the traditional Tories, in the fall of 2003, when he and Peter MacKay negotiated a merger of the Alliance and the PCs. The results in the 2004 election confirmed the strategy of the three sisters. The new Conservative Party won more seats than the sum of the Alliance and PCs had in 2000, but unable to win any seats in Quebec, it could not yet beat the Liberals.

Immediately after the 2004 election, Harper set out to court the third sister. He decreed that the Conservative policy convention be held in Montreal; he appointed Josée Verner to the caucus to act as a Quebec representative; he hired new francophone staff in the party and leader’s office; and he visited Quebec as often as he could. In the longer term, he recruited lead candidates, such as Lawrence Cannon, Derek Blackburn and Maxime Bernier, to showcase Conservative strength across the province.

For an agonizingly long time, the dam containing Quebec Liberal voters held, but in December 2005, following Harper’s rousing campaign speech in Quebec City, it broke. Yet breaking the dam was not just one speech: it was the culmination of months of patient, often frustrating work to resurrect the party’s fortunes in Quebec.

Obviously, more remains to be done. Ten seats in Quebec is a marriage proposal, not a wedding. It is hard to visualize a Conservative majority government until the third sister is fully brought home, with at least 20 or 30 Conservative seats in Quebec.

For those who ask how Harper will govern, there should be no surprises: just look at how he came to power. He developed a plan and stuck to it. The 2006 campaign platform, which he is now methodically implementing, is a plan for growing the Conservative Party into a majority governing coalition, and he will stick with it. Now there’s a novel idea – that you can predict the government’s behaviour by reading its election platform!

Harper’s attempt to forge a national governing party means not just quantitative expansion in popular support but also a qualitative change in the party itself. The Reform Party appealed intensely to a relatively small slice of the Canadian electorate – populist conservatives in Western Canada and rural Ontario – and it took clear ideological positions popular with those voters. As such, its base was too narrow to govern, so it ended up exercising influence in the political system rather than authoritative power. Reform’s accomplishments were far from trivial – blocking the Charlottetown Accord, changing the conventional wisdom on deficit financing and forcing the Liberals into cutting taxes – but they were inherently limited. There is only so much a party can achieve if it eschews that which goes with government – if it is never in a position to draw up a budget, to initiate legislation, to appoint judges and members of regulatory bodies. The Canadian Alliance aspired to be a governing party, but it never really departed from the Reform model of being a “party of influence,” not of government.

Governing is not a right; it is a privilege earned by building a large coalition of voters, donors and activists. In the course of building such a coalition, compromises inevitably have to be made in the realm of ideology. The Conservative Party made many of those compromises at its Montreal convention in March 2005, when the delegates voted to endorse bilingualism and the CBC, to jettison direct democracy, to defend supply management in agricultural markets and to support the Canada Health Act. These were, it should be emphasized, voluntary decisions; if not unanimous, they were certainly endorsed by solid majorities. The desire to build a governing party is not just Harper’s; it runs throughout the Conservative grassroots.

In the jargon of political science, this means moving toward the position of the median voter – the only position from which, at least in normal times, it is possible to win control of the government in a two-party or two-party-plus configuration. Reform throve as a party of influence by positioning itself to the right of the Progressive Conservatives, just as the NDP exercised influence over the years by positioning itself to the left of the Liberals. But such positioning will never win a government unless the system is in the midst of crisis; and contemporary Canada, while it faces many challenges, can hardly be described as a system in crisis.

A well-known proposition of political science is that, as parties converge ideologically, they have to put more emphasis on nonideological competition. Adscam came along at just the right time to allow Harper to portray the Conservatives as the party of accountability and integrity. He has also been working hard to differentiate himself from the executive style that led to Paul Martin being tagged, perhaps a bit unfairly, as Mr. Dithers. Harper’s now-famous “Five Priorities” are meant to be evidence of a decisive, well-focused mind in command of the government. By branding himself and the Conservatives as honest and efficient, he may be able to win over voters whose natural positioning is closer to the Liberals (or in Quebec to the Bloc), but who value competence in government.

Being a party of government rather than one of influence also involves a change of style. Both Reform and the NDP have been famous for their outspoken members, who never hesitate to challenge the conventional wisdom, official party policy and even their leader. From the beginning, Harper understood that that style would never succeed for a governing party in a parliamentary system, so he has worked to establish discipline and control, both internally over staff, caucus and cabinet, and externally over media relations.

As an early Reformer, I miss the exhilaration of a party that expressed my own views with clarity, of being able to challenge all the conventional wisdom and gore all the sacred cows of Canadian politics. I am proud of what Reform accomplished; without the Reform Party, or something like it, Canada might never have escaped the vicious circles of deficit spending, high taxation and appeasement of separatism. But it was also obvious that Reform was never going to govern.

“Paris is worth a Mass,” said Henri of Navarre, as he abandoned his Huguenot Protestantism and converted to Catholicism in order to become Henri IV, King of France. It was not a purely self-seeking change of “brand,” as we might say today. As king, he established religious liberty with the Edict of Nantes and ended the wars of religion in France. It was France’s loss that subsequent monarchs were not as wise and drove the Huguenots out of the country.

If Paris was worth a Mass, Ottawa is worth some ideological compromises – as long as worthwhile changes come out of it in the end. That is Harper’s personal and political challenge: to move the country gradually and incrementally in a conservative direction, building a wider coalition around a moderate conservative consensus.