The observations and suggestions I will make in this three-part series are based on what I was able to learn during 16 years working with public interest organizations in many parts of the world, helping develop strategies and carrying out high-pressure campaigns to make dictatorial governments adopt free expression and human rights laws.
Here in Canada, it is time that the progressive community received a little tough love!
Our Canadian progressive movement is not strategically organized to be able to take on Harper’s majority right-wing government. Many individual groups are using outdated, ineffective strategies. Unfortunately, most progressive groups seem more concerned about meeting their own goals instead of developing community-wide strategies that could result in gains for millions of Canadians.
Articles over the next three weeks will explore:
- The reluctance of a handful of groups to form a voluntary cooperative network to win the maximum advantage for Canadians from the robo-calling scandal;
- Problems that the community needs to be overcome, and how a new, powerful force could take shape; and
- A case study of how a cooperative network could use a mix of tactics to win major victories.
PART I: Robo-calling scandal requires cooperative approachLast month the robo-calling scandal struck like a lightning bolt. All of a sudden, Stephen Harper’s gang was on shaky ground. By-elections might be called and seats lost. Conservative members or workers somewhere in the chain of command might be fined or even be sent to jail.
The scandal presented a huge opportunity for the progressive community to try to propel itself into a position where it could actually make Harper back down on some of his slash and burn programs. A large number of organizations with different skill sets could have come together to make sure that the opportunity was seized upon to the fullest.
But no broad, collective effort has so far been organized.
Concerned that a great opportunity was slipping away, I prepared a three-page e-mail on March 6 2012 and sent it to five groups:
- The Council of Canadians (CoC), the country’s largest citizens’ organization. It had issued a statement asking people who had been misled during the campaign to send the council the details;
- Leadnow, a largely Internet-based advocacy group that, along with the CoC, was sending out appeals to the public;
- Democracy Watch, an Ottawa-based public interest group that promotes democracy and polices governments and corporations;
- Fire the Liars, a new Internet-based organization aiming to make the federal government accountable for its actions; and
- Fair Vote Canada, a non-partisan citizens’ campaign for voting reform.
The outcome of the scandal could result in significant gains for progressive minded Canadians who oppose the Harper agenda.
I pointed out in my e-mail that the robo-calling story was quickly shifting to the inside pages of right-wing newspapers. “Some of you are trying to keep the story before the public but, frankly, individually you don’t have the power to demand that the mainstream media carry ‘the other side’ of the story. . . . . Are you losing a huge opportunity?”
Interestingly, not one of the five organizations responded to the main point of the e-mail: Did they see the need for, and would they take part in, some form of co-operative effort to do a more effective job of obtaining maximum gain for the progressive movement from the robo-calling scandal?
Both Fair Vote and Democracy Watch pointed out that they are independent organizations that do not get involved in partisan politics – I could accept Fair Vote’s position, but Democracy Watch, which regularly questions the integrity of Elections Canada and is deeply involved in following the robo-calling story, could be a key partner in a large monitoring campaign.
So, four of the groups – Democracy Watch, the CoC, Leadnow and Fire the Liars – likely want to “do their own thing” instead of getting involved with a number of other progressive groups. But with Harper bringing Canada down around our ears, this is not the time for groups to be inward looking in their approach to their work.
The robo-calling affair and its criminal element should be kept in the public eye. The progressive community needs to keep the pressure on so that Elections Canada and the RCMP will do their job to the fullest – and not be influenced by any interference from the Conservatives.
In addition, none of the five groups responded to my question about whether they were working – officially or otherwise – with either or both the NDP or Liberals to develop the strongest possible case concerning the violations. If it would advance their understanding of the scandal and eliminate any duplication of effort, it was my belief that they should be sharing information with the political parties and should not be ashamed they are doing so.
Right-wing community has become very powerful
There is no getting around the fact that, collectively, Canada’s progressive community is having a very difficult time fighting back against the Harper regime and its right-wing supporters. The Conservative’s right-wing allies in business and finance are very powerful. They control all the key levers of power – access to billions of dollars to promote their beliefs, control over our federal government, and ownership of the mainstream media.
I sympathize with the hundreds of groups that work so hard to help build a better Canada. They rank among the best in the world. Unfortunately, the rules of the game have been changed by the Conservatives, but practically all of our progressive groups are still playing by the old, let’s-be-nice rules and they’re being left behind.
Groups campaigning on their own, or even working collectively in a single sector such as health care or income reform, pretty much lack enough punch and public influence to win many victories against a determined and brutal government that has a majority in Parliament.
Therefore, it is difficult to understand why the progressive community has not developed different ways of trying to at least slow down the Conservatives
The progressive/liberal community has the potential to become an extremely powerful force. There are more than 20,000 public interest groups, including branch offices, in Canada. More than 4.2 million people belong to unions, and most of them support public interest causes.
If a major campaign were launched against the Conservatives regarding their handling of a particular issue, it is possible that as many as 5,000 public interest groups, unions with 2-million members, and as many as 5-million citizens could be involved in one way or another. Groups and unions include hundreds of highly-skilled campaigners who could create excellent anti-Harper activities. Moreover, such a network could easily raise millions of dollars in campaign funds.
Last summer, in the wake of the Conservatives’ majority win, it was disappointing that progressive groups did not recognize the need to become stronger, more active and smarter in taking on the right-wing through some sort of cooperative venture.
By fall, convinced that a huge, cooperative progressive movement was needed, I wrote two articles ('Focus and determination required' and 'Taking back the media') appealing to progressive leaders to become more strategically oriented. While the articles were well received by many subscribers, organization executives showed little interest in the idea.
Organizations that are struggling to take on Harper need to wake up and realize that their current, traditional campaigning approaches are falling short. Because of the immoral, unprincipled techniques being used by the Conservatives, we need to develop new and tougher and more aggressive strategies.
It makes no sense to try to influence the Harperites with well-thought-out logical proposals. They could care less. Their main goal is to replace our normal liberalism with extreme right-wing neo-liberal policies and programs. Harper and his crowd are not honourable people.
Because the Harper Conservatives are a gang of lawless, undemocratic disrespectful liars, the progressive community needs to scrap its present “business as usual” mind-set and become more courageous. We must fight Harper in just about any way that is legal.
Groups that receive financial support from the Harper government will understandably not be prepared to jeopardise their funding by getting involved in aggressive campaigning. Some organizations may not want to adopt some of the “no-holds-barred” strategies to be discussed in Part 3.
But there still are literally thousands of other groups and unions that should care more about the future of the country than they are worried about threats and a backlash from the Conservatives!
It is time for the progressive movement to begin confronting power with power.
Next week: Problems that need to be overcome, and how a new, powerful public interest force could take shape in Canada.
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