So it may have come as a bit of a surprise to see the elder statesman of prairie conservatism, the populist and provocative Preston Manning come out swinging against the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, the star of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC). WTF? you may be tweeting (as the Twitterati are fond of adding to their 140 character revelations).
Well, you need to understand prairie politics to make sense of this seemingly strange turn of events. After 40 years in power, conservatism in the west could be considered THE most successful conservative movement in the country, perhaps in the entire Western world.
What conservative party strategists in western Canada understand is that the voter needs a scapegoat. They also understand what brand experts are just now starting to realize. And that is — branding is basically meaningless. Seventy two percent of Coke drinkers also drink Pepsi.
Voters vote for people, not brands. As long as they believe the person is going to make things better, the majority of Canadians don’t give a shit which party they’re from or which brand they represent.
This may sound like bad news for parties, but it’s actually more good news than bad. It means that bad leaders do not necessarily tarnish your party’s image. It means that your party can hang onto power no matter how badly you manage the government simply because you convince the electorate that you’ve reinvented yourself every four years.
Parties are stuck in a rut: some are masters of persuading you they’re not
Sadly though, it’s bad news for democracy, because parties actually do NOT reinvent themselves every four years. Parties of all stripes are overwhelmingly stuck in a rut of stagnant ideas. But some parties are better than others at convincing you of the opposite. Conservatives in western Canada are masters of persuading voters they have learned from past mistakes and have brought in new people with new ideas. This is how they’ve convinced Albertans to give them another chance, time and again. For more than 40 decades.
Think about it. The government in Alberta has been in power before there was an internet – before there were cell phones, Apple computers, soft contact lenses and Prozac. That’s a long time. That’s a major accomplishment worth analyzing further. Unfortunately, there have been no innovative ideas coming out of the party for decades. They stay in power by creating the illusion of change where none exists.
Stop the cycle of incompetence, recognize the pattern
The pattern in Alberta is this…the new party leader slams the previous party leader — promises change for the better, gets elected and makes a few changes in the early days of the mandate. Then, the party starts to feel the pressure and backlash from those changes from powerful lobby groups and backs down. The party then allows the leader to bear the brunt of the criticism.
This is what the CPC is starting to do to Stephen Harper. He’s sinking in the polls so they need to distance themselves from him.
In the meantime, the process of subverting the democratic means to overturn the incumbent government begins in earnest. Consider the so-called “Fair Elections Act.” This is a concrete way for the party to hold onto power. When you have a majority, you can essentially pass whatever legislation you want. Unless someone challenges it in court (which is the only way to really force a change at that point), the worst, most un-democratic bills can be passed. At one time, the Senate may have been the place for sober second thought…but that was before Mike Duffy.
Democracy is washed out by an electorate not keeping tabs
Oh, and any criticism for these anti-democratic measures are hoisted onto the back of the leaders (as per Manning this week). Then, eventually, the party turns on its leadership, publicly flogs them and introduces a new leader touting them as a radical change from the old. Not surprisingly, the anti-democratic measures are never reversed, though. This is the way to maintain power. And the same power brokers are operating behind the scenes.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
The means for removing the incumbent government become more and more difficult over time. There is no repealing of bad legislation and the voters’ memory is short so they get used to the new reality. The bar is repeatedly lowered.
Loss of confidence leads to less innovation
This strategy can keep a party going for a long time. It has nothing to do with brand and everything to do with simply “showing up” (which is half the battle). Opposition parties stop showing up. They don’t appear any longer as a viable alternative because they’ve been out of government for so long. They lose confidence in their own ideas and start to propose less and less innovation or change, assuming the other party must have more appealing ideas because they keep getting elected.
In reality, it’s not about ideas as about perception of competence. It doesn’t matter what they say, because after enough time has passed, simply electing someone who is not a member of the governing party is such a big change and requires such a huge effort, that the possibility becomes ever more remote.
Stop the madness by getting involved now
But before you get discouraged, remember this. You can stop it all by waking up. Understand what is happening and demand better. You can phone your local MP’s office (well, maybe not in Alberta but everywhere else) and demanding that these unfair changes to subvert democracy be reversed. You can threaten to vote for opposition, where they still have a fighting chance. You can signal that you are not going to fall for the tactics employed by “the Alberta school.”
The time to do this is now. Before it’s too late. Get on the phone, send an email or write a letter. Even better, get out there and start working for the opposition in your area. Do not re-elect any party that stands by and allows democracy to be eroded.
Send a signal to this government that you don’t want Alberta-style politics in the rest of Canada. For the sake of the country.
The country’s future is in your hands. Will you learn from Alberta? Or will you repeat its mistakes?