Thursday, July 5, 2012

Nothing to fear but fear itself...

Here's a little secret that all parties know. The politics of fear can be extremely effective. It does not matter whether you are Conservative, NDP or Liberal; whether you are swimming in the federal pool or the provincial one.

Fear is a motivator. It drives engagement. And it mobilizes those most likely to vote.

Fear is what helped keep back the Reform / Canadian Alliance / Conservatives during the Chrétien-Martin years. I recall a Maclean's cover which pictured Stockwell Day and the caption "How Scary?" It was an image that played squarely into the Liberal narrative about what a Day government might look like.

Fear also helped Mr. Martin get his minority in the wake of the sponsorship scandal. The final days of the 2004 campaign saw the Liberals again employ the not-so-subtle tactic of suggesting the worst would come from a Harper government. Call it "How Scary? Chapter 2."

Of course, after 2006 the tables were gradually turned. While both the Liberals and the NDP continued  to sound the alarm about a hidden Conservative agenda (something which arguably helped keep the Conservatives away from majority territory for 5 years), the Harper government began its own attack.

It started with Mr. Dion and the spectre of the carbon tax. However, it took that "coalition crisis" to demonstrate the degree to which the government was prepared to play the fear card. The "threat" of the so-called "Separatist-Socialist" coalition grew from a clarion call in defence of prorogation to the ongoing mantra of the government whenever it faced criticism from the opposition. This carried right through to the election of 2011.


While the Liberals had used fear and the defining of the unknown to help frame a narrative, the Conservatives took it further.  Changes to the party financing laws in Canada made the individual donor a critical ally for anyone with hopes of power.

The Conservatives recognized this more quickly than their opponents. Importantly, they also recognized that fear brings in money. It mobilizes your base and rallies them (and their wallets) to act. There are a lot of reasons why the Conservatives are more effective fundraisers, chief of which is the database they have developed and maintained.

However, the ability to use wedge issues - think carbon taxes, gun registries, coalitions - should not be underestimated as a critical skill for generating engagement and filling party coffers.


I have written on this blog about the election around the corner and how it stifled policy debate in Canada; how it drove our political discourse away from substance and towards sound bites. The politics of fear has had the same effect.

Today we see the Conservatives employing these tactics against Mr. Mulcair. Over the next year we will see both the NDP and the Conservatives use them against the Liberals and whomever winds up leading them. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.


Right now there seems to be a growing interest in the need to facilitate non-partisan discourse. Martha Hall Findlay's recent piece on supply management is a good example of the importance of taking partisanship away from serious issues. Interestingly, it often seems that former politicians are the most vocal about the need to change the tone and focus of our politics.

Canadians have a small window within which to seize the opportunity afforded them by a Conservative majority. With no election until 2015 or so, there is time to start to define what a less fear-driven politics can look like.

This will take time, and there will most certainly be no immediate pay-off at the polls.  It will take small steps, patience and perseverance. And make no mistake, it will be attacked.

But it is the right thing to do if we want to break the cycle. Right now, to borrow from the phrase, fear is the thing we should be most fearful of.

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