People and Places

POLITICS CHATTER: Perhaps the PM’s decision to change political financing rules may be a blessing in disguise for the Opposition

Contributing editor Mark Bourrie gets philosophical about the hand of fate — and the future of the federal opposition parties

Cheap Trick was the Bluesfest headliner on the night the main stage collapsed
Cheap Trick was the Bluesfest headliner on the night the main stage collapsed

My wife’s a big Cheap Trick fan. I enjoy them too. She when we heard they were coming to Bluesfest, I bought a couple of tickets and a new copy of their best album, Live at Budokan.

But puppies reared their ugly head. Our kids have been haunting the Internet looking for a dog. Sunday night, we were in Outer Vanier, waiting for a dog owner to come home. We stuck around until 7 p.m., knowing that doing anything else would result in tears and sobs.

By the time we gave up and went home — we live right across from the Bluesfest site — the storm had come and gone. Thousands of people, most of them texting, were scuttling up the streets. There were sirens and ambulances, flashing lights everywhere. My weird luck had struck again.

I skipped a meeting in Barrie in May 1985. The building was wrecked by a tornado that afternoon. Once, I decided not to tackle the big waves washing up on an empty beach on an island in Georgian Bay. The TV news that night carried a story about a guy who drowned at that spot in an undertow. And there have been other moments — jobs I didn’t get, only to find that the places I’d applied to were snake-pits or headed into nasty strikes.

Politics. What does this have to do with politics? I think the Liberal Party, and to some extent, the Greens, are entering the same kind of luck phase. Stephen Harper is making this luck for them. Actually, it’s luck with a side order of hubris.

Time for Change: Bourrie says the Prime Minister's decision to change political financing rules may actually be a blessing in disguise for opposition parties

In his campaign to remake Canada into Alberta, Harper has cut the federal stipend to political parties. (Jean Chrétien brought in these payments when he banned political donations from big business and big unions.) Cutting the stipend, Harper believes, will hobble the opposition, which has a much less sophisticated grassroots fundraising system than the Tories.

At the same time, Harper is doing the barbecue circuit, making speeches writing off the Liberals as dead.

Fearless Leader is supposed to be the smartest guy in the room, but I’ve noticed something about his political instincts. They are all frozen in the “now.” He simply cannot extrapolate the results of his actions.

So let me give it a try.

Since the federal party funding came along, the political parties, especially the Liberals and the Greens, have allowed their grassroots fundraising machinery to wither away. Ridings and national headquarters didn’t feel the pinch to tap people for $50 of $100 because they knew the government cheques were coming.

Money had always been an incentive to keep the organization in good shape. Everyone hates fundraising, but before the Ottawa lolly, it was a dirty job that had to be done.

For the Greens, it became a jackpot that enticed a whole tribe of political fixers and operatives to roll into Ottawa and make the Greens a very centralized, leader-focussed party. Now, we’ll see the professional fixers pushed out and a struggle by True Believers to save their party, doing it the old-fashioned way by knocking on doors, sending out mass-mailings, and other old and proven methods of raising cash.

The Liberals used the party funding to hire lots of urban kids to play War Room, indulge in their little family feuds and to disconnect the national party structure from its ridings. But that’s on the way out. I don’t believe the Liberal Party is dead. As I’ve written here before, I’ve seen too many political parties, including the Conservatives, both in Ontario and nationally, rise from the grave. The Tories may win re-election in 2015. They could govern for years, but eventually all governments get old and need to be put out of office for a while.

Liberals, like Tories, are ambitious people. They will do what it takes to rebuild, though the process may be slow sometimes and quite unpleasant. Knowing they must  raise cash to survive and mount credible campaigns, they’ll develop a new fundraising system that taps their grass roots support.

And they’ll do it spurred on by the Prime Minister’s ill-advised boasting that Canada is now a conservative country governed by Conservative politicians. In fact, Canada is a country that, right now, has very little enthusiasm for any political party or leader, and has given the Tories the barest of majorities.

Canadians are still struggling with recession and loss of earning power. Since they can’t pry more money out of their employers, they’d like to reduce their tax bill so they don’t slip back any farther. That seems like a reasonable reaction to me, though I doubt, knowing the state of the country’s finances, it will work.

If I were a young professional with hopes of making a mark in politics, I’d join one of the opposition parties and learn the latest fundraising technology and techniques. I’m not, but I’m sure there are plenty of bright young people who realize, like me, that what seems like bad luck can actually be the hand of fate, holding out opportunity.