When it comes to the ongoing fiasco in Ottawa and the copycat incidents it has inspired at border crossings throughout the country, it’s easy to look for someone to blame. Is it the fault of the prime minister and his lack of visibility and presence? Sure. Think it’s on Conservatives and their willingness to give cover and encouragement to anti-democracy radicals? You’re right there, too. And we can’t forget the various police forces and their utterly ineffectual and increasingly indifferent approach to tackling the law-breaking going on.
But there’s one name that doesn’t get as much attention here as it should: Stephen Harper.
This probably sounds like a textbook case of partisan derangement. How, after all, could a prime minister who has been out of office for nearly seven years now be responsible for the outbreak of lawlessness and coup-curious behaviour in our nation’s capital?
The answer lies in the arcane world of political campaign finance strategy and the system of incentives Harper helped create. Ironically, a move that was clearly made in an effort to give his party a strategic advantage may have instead become a crippling albatross.
In 2011, fresh off forming his party’s first majority government since 1988, Harper’s Conservatives passed legislation that phased out the per-vote subsidy brought in by the Liberals in 2004 as part of their own campaign finance reforms. That phaseout began on April 1, 2012, and was completed in 2015.
At the time, the Liberal Party of Canada was in disarray and the Tories were relatively strong in the area of small-dollar donations, which became a much bigger factor after the Chrétien government banned unions and corporations from donating to Canadian political parties in that 2004 package. This seemed like a good way to kick the so-called “natural governing party” while it was down. As York University political scientist Robert MacDermid told the National Post in November 2014, “the removal of it will maintain the Conservatives’ advantage over the other parties. The Conservatives have been very good at adjusting to these changes. They’ve gone after various constituencies (of voters), like gun owners.”
Indeed, they did. But as campaign strategist Kyle Olsen explained in a series of tweets earlier this month, their reliance on hired-gun contractors rather than internal party staff for fundraising effectively created a negative feedback loop that pushed the party further and further outside the political mainstream. And because those fundraisers were motivated more by raising money (and getting their cut of it) than pursuing broader strategic goals, they picked the lowest hanging fruit on the political tree: anger.
As Olsen suggests, this structure effectively created power bases outside the leader’s office and made it more difficult for him (or her) to swim against the ideological tide.
“When a leader needs to lead — to try to redirect the worst nature of their base to a consensus, there is a near immediate feedback loop,” he said. “Not only will fundraising drop and other messages be amplified in communications, the consultants have incentive to be vocal back to caucus.”
As podcaster and political consultant Corey Hogan noted in a recent episode of The Strategists, “The rage has taken over the conversation — which is driving further rage.”
Stephen Harper is to blame for the outbreak of lawlessness and coup-curious behaviour in our nation’s capital, writes @maxfawcett for @natobserver. #cdnpoli #TruckerProtests
This doesn’t bode well for the forthcoming CPC leadership race or the chances of anyone from the more moderate wing of the party to derail Pierre Poilievre’s momentum. Neither does the success of the two crowdfunding campaigns that raised nearly $20 million in combined funds for the insurrection convoy before the money was frozen — first by GoFundMe, and then by the Ontario and Canadian governments.
You can be sure that the CPC fundraising apparatus is going to try to scoop up as much of that as it can, and it won’t happen with calming appeals to reason and order. Instead, they’ll probably call Trudeau a dictator, tell supporters their freedoms are in jeopardy and ask them to give until it hurts.
It’s unlikely, in other words, that the Conservative Party of Canada is going to be able to pull itself out of this self-inflicted nosedive. Ironically, that’s where the Liberal government needs to come in. There’s no sense in negotiating with the terrorists who are occupying Ottawa and want to overthrow the government, but the political culture that produced them needs to be addressed.
The best way to do that is by cracking down on the misinformation that helped create their conspiracies and anger and eliminating the financial feedback loop that fertilizes it. Social media companies like Facebook need to be called to account for the role they’ve played here and the profits they’ve made from it.
That’s a longer-term project that all western democracies have to deal with. Cleaning up the mess Harper made in Canada when he eliminated the per-vote subsidy is much easier. By restoring that subsidy and reasserting the link between popular support and political funding, the Liberals can help guide the Conservative Party of Canada away from the darkness it’s increasingly courting.
Yes, this might help the CPC win an election sooner than it otherwise might. But it's going to win one eventually, and Canada will be in a better place if the party is not in thrall to far-right politics and the money that feeds it when it does.