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Friday, March 02, 2007

Manufacturing a False Grassroots Appearance

During the last federal election I wandered over to the Conservative stronghold of the East Kootenays hoping to discover for myself why that particular region is so intent on electing right wingers.
The first realisation I came to was that the region is hugely influenced by Alberta. Most of the visitors I met over there were from Alberta. The stores were full of goods originating in Alberta, and there were nearly as many Alberta plates racing down the backroads as there were BC plates.
It makes sense. Alberta is a lot closer than Victoria. Its a half day ride to downtown Calgary, but an overnight journey to the coast. There’s one mountain range between Cranbrook and Lethbridge, but no less than four between Fernie and Vancouver. What’s more, they’re on Mountain Time, not Pacific.
Economics were another factor. The East Kootenays is like a mini-industrail zone. There’s lots of logging and mining, lots of big trucks, big wide highways, and the Rockies. Simply put, the East Kootenays have a lot more in common with Alberta than with the rest of BC. It is only logical this would result in a closer political association with Alberta.
But it wasn’t until I walked into a laundromat in Fernie that I really got a sense of why the politics over there are so right compared to here on the western edge of the Purcells.
In the laundromat I found a letter tacked to the bulletin board. It was from a guy who claimed to be a single male, mid 40s, self employed. In the letter this person claimed to be non-partisan, and to be fed up with federal politics. It went on at great length to explain how consecutive Liberal governments in Ottawa had ruined the country, although a lot of the things it complained about, such as the GST, Free Trade, cuts to hospitals, the decimation of the railroads, etc. were the results of the Mulroney era. At the end of the letter, the author said he was looking for change and would therefore be voting Conservative.
As I read the letter I got the impression this guy was going to wind up telling me to vote NDP. It was, afterall, a letter that complained about big money, big industry, cuts to social programs, hospitals, schools, all NDP platform subjects. So I was quite surprised that a person complaining about such issues would suggest voting for Harper.
It was a well crafted letter, one that accurately described the state of the working people of this country. However, the end comment, urging folks to vote Tory, seemed to defy the logic of the text. I would have understood if the letter urged me to vote NDP, Green or even Independent, but Conservative! Who is this fool, I wondered to myself, going on and on about the plight of the working man, then promoting a Bay Street lawyer.
I checked the name of the author then went down to a local cafe to see if anyone knew of the guy. Turned out he was the owner of the laundromat, and secretary of the local Conservative Party riding association, and had been for years. One nice lady explained to me that he was in fact, one of the best known rednecks around, and had been an unsuccessful candidate for the riding in the past.
Then I remembered by experience as a reporter in the Yukon back in the early ‘90s when the Reform Party was making big inroads. I’d witnessed the same tactic up there, people who’d always voted on the right, pretending to be disillusioned ex-Liberals and NDPers, writing letters to the editor, claiming to have finally grown tired of liberal and centrist governments.
At the time I recall thinking it was a pretty clever idea, to pass oneself off as a discontented Liberal who had woken up, smelled the roses, and shifted cheeks.
Then one night I went out to hear the one and only Preston Manning speak. Despite his squeaky voice and nerd appearance, he was quite the charmer. During a question-answer period, I recall him urging his supporters to write letters to the editor, and to talk about their disatisfaction with the ruling parties. He asserted that such letters, if written properly, would be a magnificient tool in convincing the undecided to vote Reform.
The tactic worked, in many respects. It helped to win the Yukon Territorial election for the Yukon Party, a reform type movement, and earned the Reformers a rather strong showing in the federal election of the time, which routed Kim Campbell and put Jean Chretien in power, while reducing the ruling Conservatives to two seats, and sending a couple dozen Reform candidates to Ottawa.
Preston Manning did an incredible job, using tactics like the one described above, to manufacture an apparent grassroots movement. Over the next few years it would grow by leaps and bounds and become the official opposition. Trouble was, it also split the right and secured successive majority governments for the Liberals.
The federal Reform Party Candidate in the Yukon at the time was an affable fellow named Short Tompkins. He was a life long Yukoner, a grandpa, a miner, only moderately educated, and a guy who’d worked hard all his life. In many ways he was typical of the type of person who bought into Manning’s plan. I got to know Short, and quite liked him. I could not say the same for many of his party supporters though.
One election night I was assigned to his party headquarters. There were a lot of people there, mostly male, mostly single, mostly labourers. During the course of the night, whenever the TV showed Jean Chretien’s face, several of the Reform supporters would start hooting “Frog, Frog, Frog.” It was the same when then NDP leader, and Yukon MP, Audrey McLauglin was shown. The crowd would start chanting “Dyke, Dyke, Dyke”, or “Commie, Commie, Commie.”
Short seemed disturbed by this. It wasn’t his way to mock people, he was a huge cut above such activity. I could see in his face that the racist and sexist remarks of some of his supporters troubled him. So I asked him about it. I’ll never forget what he told me.
He said; “Preston Manning is like a bright light, and like any bright light, he attracts lots of bugs!”
Short went on to explain that the people engaged in this activity were not part of his campaign, and called them “hangers around.” We both knew he was just trying to distance himself from them, and that some of those partaking in the ridicule had been out stumping for him, a few had even turned up at my door.
We all now the story. The Rerform was successful. Lots of new folks joined the party. They would eventually toss Manning in favour of a more rightest leader, Stockwell Day, and eventually they would elect Stephen Harper, a Bay Street lawyer, with a right wing ideology, a man ideologically light years away from the more moderate Manning, but apparently more palatable than the born again Christian, Day. Eventually they would grow so strong the Conservatives were forced to join them and they would meld into what is today, Canada’s minority Tory government.
As the Reform moved away from Manning, it kept many of his ideas, especially his methods of creating or manufacturing a grassroots movement. However, while Manning’s Reform was actually a grassroots movement born from dissent towards the Mulroney Conservatives, the modern day Conservative Reform is more heavily dependent on the appearance and manufacturing of a seemingly “grassroots” movement than they are on actually being a grassroots movement. Today, the Reform and Conservative parties are one, financed by big oil, big corporations, Bay Street, US interests, and of course the fledgling reformers who really have nowhere else to go. For all intent and purpose, the Mulroney Conservatives have swallowed up the Reform, made a sharp turn to the right, in order to fully digest all the fringes of the old Reform party, the hooters and the chanters, and now present themselves to the Canadian people as half reform, half traditional Tory, and the only alternative to the Liberals.
They’ve kept what they consider to be the best of the two previous identities. They’ve kept the name “Conservative” because of its history and tradition, and they’ve also kept some of the more successful Reform Party practices, like the one where they pretend to be non-partisan in order to put up the appearance of being a
‘grassroots” movement.
Its quite a balance to maintain, being the party of Canada’s inception, the John A MacDonalds, while also holding on to their Preston Manning, rebel with a brain, persona. On one hand they must appear to be the compassionate Tories of Robert Stanfield, and on the other the dirt farm revolt of the Reform. They rail against the Liberal machinery like they just stepped off the combine, and at the same time portray themselves as the founders of confederation.
But the fact is, the current Conservatives and their leader, are neither the party of John A, nor the party of Manning. And they most certainly are not a grassroots movement, but an entrenched psuedo-Republican party financed by big money.
Still, whenever a story hits the news, and wherever the public are allowed to comment, Conservative Party insiders are there, passing themselves off as everyday people, not necessarily connected to any party, writing letters, offering opinions, and basically trying to influence the polls by appearing to be something they are not. Meanwhile, there leader, and his ministers, rail on about the insincerity and hypocracy of their opposition.
The pot is not only calling the kettle black, but the kettle is in fact, the pot, and the pot is the kettle, and neither of them are what they appear to be.
But then again, neither are the Liberals - who will promise anything to anyone to get their vote, the NDP - who have spent the last six months propping up the Harper government, or the Greens - who are offering 50 per cent tax cuts across the board, what they appear to be!
What’s the solution? Seems to me our best bet is start a real grassroots movement wherein every single Canadian voter shows up at the polls and marks an X beside the name of a candidate who does not represent any of parties, or failing that, marks an X beside the name of the person they feel will do the best job for them in parliament, regardless of their political affiliation!


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