Preston prepares the troops:
Located in a heritage building in downtown Calgary, the Manning Centre officially opened on Wednesday. It’s a considerable departure from the townhalls, ice rinks and converted churches that were once the staple meeting places of prairie politicians. The centre boasts a lecture hall with plush leather chairs, screens that drop down from the ceilings and a strategy room that allows political trainees to compare poll-by-poll results against a map showing the latest Statistics Canada demographic profiles.
We tread carefully here.
This is a wonderful idea that can be very easily turned to horrible purposes. Politics, the old cliche goes, is warfare by less honourable means. For decades right-wing politics in Canada was a pathetic farce. Ramshackle ground games, poor media relations and weak candidate screening processes caused untold headaches for party leaders. Both Brian Mulroney and Preston Manning had to deal with repeated Bigot Eruptions, white supremacists and assorted cranks who would sneak through the nomination process. For all their many sins at the game of politics the Golden Age Liberals were professionals and everyone else was a bunch of amateurs who could win by fluke.
One of Stephen Harper's signature accomplishments is the professionalization of the Conservative Party. High-tech war rooms, mostly well run riding associations and a disciplined cadre of full time operatives keeping everybody on message. All of which is being underwritten by the most sophisticated and successful fund raising operation in Canadian political history. To use an analogy that the PM would likely appreciate, he took the party from a middling OHL team and transformed it into the 1976 Montreal Canadiens.
To many an embittered ideologue, such as yours truly, this is kind of a so-what thing. Stephen Harper & C0. have made themselves every bit as ruthless and spin obsessed as the Chretien-era Liberals. If you measure politics by these low standards that's a sort of accomplishment. But shouldn't politics be about ideas and values? About making Canada a better place. For our children and our children's children?
Yes it should be about that. The UN should also be about resolving conflicts and promoting Human Rights. But North Korea and the Sudan keep showing up on the Human Rights Council. We live in a fallen world and politicians have fallen further than most. Combined with an apathetic and disengaged public we find ourselves with the uncomfortable reality that much of modern politics is about free stuff. When the odd good idea floats up, like getting rid of the wheat board, it must compete for time and attention with the usual vote buying rhetoric.
A good product can be defeated in the marketplace by bad salesmanship. A marginal product can be successful in the marketplace with good salesmanship. A professional political operation can allow parties with thin platforms to win elections. For most of their modern history the Liberals have been about getting and keeping power in a remarkably single minded way. They would steal whatever electorally viable ideas they could find from the CCF-NDP and the Reform-Tories. Because they were the professionals they could get and keep power using other people's ideas.
Now the Tories are the professionals. Thing is that they've run out of ideas. I predicted in mid-2011 that a year after winning power they'd run out of steam. So they have. Note the blizzard of pork barrel announcements, some of which have been covered on this blog, that is now the Conservative Party's substitute for actually governing. Admittedly they suffer from a serious strategy disadvantage: They have no one to steal ideas from. The NDP is hell bent on becoming old-style Liberals with better union connections. The Liberals are currently erecting altars to honour Justin Trudeau's luscious locks.
Canadian politics today is a hall of mirrors filled with pragmatists reflecting off each other's vacuity.
The Tories have a formidable machine. Now Preston Manning has established a state of the art centre to train operatives for that machine. The question is how will that machine be used? The point isn't the process it's the result. An iPhone wielding version of the Chretien-era Liberals, with a worse fiscal record, is not an improvement.
Intrate parati to be disappointed.