The other, far more subtle nod in Harper’s direction will be taking place in Winnipeg, when Liberals hold their own gathering this weekend.
Yes, you read that correctly. Some of the events in Winnipeg this weekend will amount to an endorsement of the more enduring changes that Harper made to politics in this country while the Liberals were languishing in opposition — the Conservative legacy that isn’t going away easily, or quickly.
While Liberals have been busy dismantling Harper’s policies in government during the past six months, this weekend will show that they’re less keen to shrug off the shifts Harper brought to the way political campaigns are run in Canada.
In fact, the proposed overhaul of the Liberal party constitution — up for debate and a vote this weekend in Winnipeg — is in large part a compliment to how Harper turned his party into a winning electoral machine over the past decade or so.
No one is likely to say that on stage at the Liberals’ biennial in Winnipeg, obviously.
Still, it’s possible to draw some strong, connecting lines between Harper’s brand of political organization and the big changes that have been under way in Trudeau’s party over the past few years.
Start with big-data politics. It wasn’t too long ago that former Liberal party president Alf Apps was lecturing Liberals about their woeful inadequacy — relative to the Conservatives — on obtaining the data tools needed to fight modern elections. Harper’s Conservatives were pioneers on this front, and their Constituent Information Management System (CIMS) was a formidable machine.
Apps, in his post-mortem of the 2011 election defeat, didn’t mince words when he wrote about the Liberals’ data disadvantage. “LPC is flying half-blind and well behind when it comes to campaign technology and digital know-how,” Apps wrote.
Not anymore. Earlier this year, I spent some time updating my book, Shopping For Votes, to add new material on how the Liberals upped their game in political marketing and won the 2015 election — in no small part because they finally joined the big-data revolution. (An excerpt appeared in the Toronto Star last weekend, highlighting some of the ways the Big Red Machine got a digital overhaul.)
The Liberals’ data-rich ‘console’ was apparently a wonder to behold, and reportedly pretty accurate in predicting the majority victory looming in the days before the Oct. 19 vote. Like CIMS, it was a huge database of voter information, filled with charts and algorithms for micro-targeting potential support.
Gerald Butts, a chief Trudeau adviser during the campaign and now his principal secretary, bluntly acknowledged that the Liberals were taking a page from the Conservatives in modernizing their campaign machinery.
“The Tories’ methodology wasn’t the problem,” Butts told me earlier this year. “It was what they were putting it in service of. They used it to pull people apart, but it could be used to bring people together.”
Similarly, if they were being candid, Liberals also might admit that the wholesale revamp of the party’s constitution owes at least a little of its inspiration to Harper — especially the part about draining the provincial associations of power.
When Harper helped lead the merger of the old Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance in the early 2000s, he didn’t just weld the two organizations together — he formed a whole new party, streamlined, nimble and governed from the top. The new Conservative party wasn’t encumbered with provincial associations or local commissions; all power flowed to and from the top. It was a lean, mean, election-fighting machine.
New Democrats, seeing how this worked, embarked on their own, similar streamlining operation while Jack Layton was leader, as Brad Lavigne wrote in his book, Building the Orange Wave. In the 21st century, parties that operate as federations are “unworkable,” Lavigne wrote.
I remember talking to senior Liberals in those years, as they looked enviously on the Conservatives and New Democrats and the lithe, battle-ready organizations they had built. Up until about a decade ago, Liberals didn’t even have such a thing as national memberships; belonging to the party was a matter strictly in the hands of the provincial and territorial associations. Wresting power away from those associations was not easy.
Trudeau, however, has clearly decided to use his considerable current power within the party to make the changes that others before him couldn’t make. He’s a Trudeau with a majority government and he wants a brand-new, modernized constitution.
That may make some people think of his father in 1980, but it’s a more recent prime-ministerial example — Harper — who really blazed this trail. Make no mistake: The overhauled Liberal constitution will put more power in the hands of Trudeau and the people around him in Ottawa. And unlike his father, Trudeau won’t be sitting down for prolonged chats with the provinces to deliver this new constitution: It is being presented as a fait accompli to the delegates in Winnipeg.
Some Liberals aren’t happy about this, as the Hill Times reported this week. Over at a website called ‘Liberal Members Matter’, various members of the rank and file are bristling and suspicious. There are suggestions that the party is putting the machinery in place to do a merger (with the New Democrats?) and that it’s all a plot “to centralize the party and all its decision making.”
I’m not sure about the prospect of a merger, but the centralizing objective seems about right. Political realists would tell you that this is a crucial ingredient of winning campaigns in modern politics.
So, if the Liberals do end up with a streamlined party after the weekend gathering in Winnipeg (and while they’re unlikely to say it out loud), they’ll have Stephen Harper to thank for pointing the way.
Author: Susan Delacourt