Tom Flanagan’s Harper’s Team hits the sweet spot for political junkies of all stripes. It is a crisply written behind-the-scenes lesson in winning power. Other than Stephen Harper himself, there is no better person to tell this story than Tom Flanagan.
Harper and Flanagan connected in early Reform Party days. However, both had the insight to split from Preston Manning well before the futil- ity of the Reform experiment was widely recognized. After Reform, they advanced conservative reconciliation by co-authoring articles, such as ”œOur Benign Dictatorship: Can Canada Avoid a Second Century of Liberal Rule?” They attended the 1996 ”œWinds of Change” conference where conser- vative unity was the goal. Flanagan admits to being ”œmesmerized” by Harper at the conference, thinking he was looking at a future prime minister. More critical to the period of the book, Flanagan ran Harper’s successful cam- paigns for party leadership of the Canadian Alliance in 2002 and the reunited Conservative Party in 2004, and was at or near the top of the Conservative Party’s 2004 and 2006 election teams.
Flanagan reveals himself to be a lib- ertarian and small-government conser- vative, but not stridently so. He offers few remarks about his involvement with the Reform Party, but mentions he was fired by Manning in 1993 for publicly objecting to the hiring of Liberal strate- gist Rick Anderson. His public rant about the hiring was a clear violation of at least two of Flanagan’s own 10 commandments of successful politics offered up in the final chapter of the book: unity and self-discipline. We can conclude that Flanagan has matured.
When Manning tried to reposition the Reform Party by changing the party name, Flanagan and Harper sat on the sidelines. Their plan was to mar- shal the ”œthree sisters” of Canadian con- servativism (western populism, Quebec nationalism and traditional Tories from Ontario and the Atlantic). While they did not anticipate a full-scale institution- al merger, they nonetheless showed themselves to be coalition builders rather than narrow-minded ideologues.
Flanagan is likely correct when he states, ”œAs far as I know, I’m the only political science professor, perhaps the only academic in Canadian history, who has had the opportunity to participate at this level in national campaigning.” However, for the most part Flanagan for- goes academic flurry in favour of the mechanical side of political campaigns.
Flanagan sheds his image of being a right-wing populist ideologue dis- comfited by the political establish- ment. Indeed, having watched his career and read his 1995 book Waiting for the Wave: The Reform Party and Preston Manning, I find he is not the man I thought he was. In Harper’s Team, Flanagan reveals himself to be a political strategist, even opportunist. The underlying theme in the book " and in Flanagan’s evolution over the last decade " is that winning matters. Policy and principle take a back seat to coalition-building and clever electioneering. He also strips away the notion of Harper as an ideologue. ”œ[Harper] told me after becoming leader of the Canadian Alliance that he always wanted to position himself in the middle of the party…to preserve a balance between dif- ferent factions and tendencies.” Harper has clearly come a long way from his days of rebellion during Brian Mulroney’s first term as prime minister.
What is fascinating about Harper’s story and Flanagan’s involvement is how the Conservative rise to power was accomplished with a small group of inexperienced political operatives. Harper’s Team proves that well-mean- ing, loyal, intelligent, creative, ener- getic and neophyte political activists can out-politic the best of the well- worn, overrated warhorses from either the conservative movement or the Liberal establishment. Flanagan believes in a small and tight organiza- tion with people he knows and trusts. ”œWe adhered to this model in all sub- sequent Harper campaigns, thereby avoiding the organizational problems that plague many campaigns: overpaid consultants giving advice but not tak- ing administrative responsibility; fac- tional warfare between cliques; lack of clear lines of authority; everybody interfering in the business of everyone else…We always aimed at a lean, nim- ble organizational structure and clear lines of authority, employing a cohe- sive and dedicated group of workers.”
Although few political operatives were as close to Harper during the critical periods as Flanagan, there is no evidence that Harper was interviewed for this book. There are many instances where Flanagan reports on what others have written about Harper, but these stories are neither confirmed nor denied. There are no fresh quotes from Harper. It leaves us to speculate whether Harper and Flanagan have had a falling out. The fact that Flanagan does not occupy a position of influence in the government remains unexplained.
There is some humour in the book, and Flanagan pokes fun at some leading media commentators. Jeffrey Simpson of the Globe and Mail is quoted as say- ing, ”œHarper was too ideological to suc- ceed in Canadian politics.” And we are reminded of a quote from Chantal Hébert of the Toronto Star that in the race for the Alliance leadership ”œthe smart money is on [Stockwell] Day.”
Where Flanagan goes overboard is on the minutiae of electioneering. The intricate systems to identify Conserva- tive supporters and get them to the polls on voting day are belaboured and repeated to the point of boredom. Flana- gan is fascinated by auto-diallers, profes- sional phone banks, volunteer phone banks and constituency information management systems. Flanagan’s attempts to demonstrate the efficacy of such systems simply falls flat. Amusing- ly, Harper once referred to these expen- sive, complicated and cumbersome systems as ”œthe Conservative Party’s own gun registry,” and even Flanagan admits that in the 2006 campaign resources were shifted away from direct voter contact and into advertising.
Harper is shown to be a coalition builder and a moderate. He also succeeds in another of Flanagan’s ten commandments: toughness. When finances were tight at the slow outset of the 2002 Alliance leadership cam- paign, Harper insisted that he be the one to fire the paid staff. As Flanagan notes, ”œThis willingness to handle the unpleasant side of things has contin- ued to be one of his strengths in his subsequent political career. Even when he has to replace people, they appreci- ate how he delivers the bad news personally, and they often remain sup- portive and willing to work in other capacities in the future.”
He can also be tough in dealing with adversaries. Flanagan reveals numerous instances where Harper’s team leaked stories to the media to sus- tain or advance an agenda. This was especially the case during the negotia- tions to merge with the Progressive Conservative Party. Anyone dealing with Flanagan and Harper should assume in advance that there are no secrets. If it is in their interests to break a promise of confidentiality to achieve an important goal, consider it done.
Flanagan admits to learning on the job and remains a novice when it comes to doing politics in Quebec. He laments the influence given Quebec ridings without an active membership. But as a political strategist and serious cam- paigner, Flanagan should see this as an opportunity, not a problem. Flanagan bemoans weak ridings, the ”œrotten bor- oughs,” with insightful statistics and analysis. But he is not beyond directing a supporter to recruit members of a soc- cer team to produce bodies for a cam- paign. It may not be the occupants of the Old Brewery Mission, but it’s a start.
Flanagan was unprepared for Quebec politics. The campaign co-chair, now Senator and Public Works Minister Michael Fortier, surprised Flanagan in 2004 by asking, ”œHow much money are you going to get to Quebec?” Flanagan instinctively replied ”œNone.” Wrong answer! As Flanagan notes, ”œI wasn’t happy about it, but it quickly became apparent that there would be no cam- paign in Québec unless the national party helped pay for it.” Flanagan also learned of Quebec’s distinctiveness; that you could not effectively campaign in Quebec by translating the messages and policies from other parts of Canada.
There are a few jarring revelations in the book involving Chrétien loyalist Warren Kinsella (who helped the Tory cause by suppressing damaging material) and Alberta Premier Ralph Klein (who did not). Flanagan speculates that Klein may have been deliberately mischievous in the dying days of the 2004 campaign by musing about radical changes to medicare in retaliation for Harper’s writ- ings about an ”œAlberta firewall.”
Flanagan credits Jack Layton and the NDP for helping the Tories over- come their so-called hidden agenda in 2006. Layton feared that Paul Martin would hit the replay button from 2004 and scare NDP voters into voting Liberal to avoid a Conservative victory. Layton turned his guns away from Stephen Harper and on Paul Martin in 2006. Flanagan concludes that ”œno matter how well designed our campaign had been, it would have been hard-pressed to win if the NDP had not held up its end.” This is what should bug Liberals most; they lost the centre to Harper, in part because Jack Layton moved his party to the right. Layton, like Harper, played his cards for power rather than principle and ended up looking more Liberal than NDP. This leads us to con- clude: if there was not enough room for two parties on the right, with Harper occupying so much room in the centre it’s inevitable that Liberal and NDP forces will at some point combine.
Flanagan’s 10 political command- ments are hardly biblical and could just as easily have been written by Sir John A. Macdonald 140 years ago. The only head-scratcher in the list is incremental- ism (making progress in small practical steps). Incrementalism would never have delivered a free trade agreement or the GST. Preston Manning, whose second autobiography is titled Think Big, must be saying, ”œI told you that firing Flanagan in 1993 was the right thing to do”!
Flanagan demonstrates that Harper and his team have from their learned more from their failures than successes. On this score, there is prob- ably more value in this book for Liberals than for Conservatives.