Under Stephen Harper, Canadian politics has fundamentally changed in the last few years and civil society and opposition parties haven’t kept up with the changes.

A couple of months ago, a lobbyist with close ties to Stephen Harper and the Conservatives addressed a room full of environmentalists with some sobering news. Essentially he told them they and their organizations were “irrelevant” to Harper because they couldn’t move votes or influence electoral outcomes. His message – that modern politics is not about good policy, but vote counting – was tough love, but accurate.

The lobbyist’s analysis reminded me of a recent quote from an e-politics survey of Parliament. A retiring MP, commenting on the need to build in-riding support, said, “There are only two kinds of people in this world… those who can hurt you at home, and everybody else…”

Later, the Tory lobbyist elaborated on Harper’s vote counting approach, saying that since he became Prime Minister in 2006 Harper has orchestrated “staged conflicts” to advance his agenda. From Harper’s perspective, the lobbyist explained, he has won all these “staged conflicts.”

In a follow up discussion a Tory insider elaborated on the Conservative’s disregard for mainstream media, emphasizing they put much more energy into unfiltered communications streams, particularly segmented individual, e-mail and phone conversations to their base driven by a state-of-the-art constituency database. Harper and the Tories also prioritize local media, which publishes their narrative without fact checking or cynical analysis by pundits.

This “staged conflict” description provides an interesting perspective on the last few years. It explains how Harper segued from embarrassing disclosures about the torture of Afghan refugees through proroguing parliament and into an attack on a NDP-Grit-Bloc coalition government. Successfully managing “staged conflicts” also explains how Harper turned parliamentary censures around democracy and transparency into a majority government.

As with most things, a strength can quickly become a weakness under the right circumstances. But what are those circumstances?

To figure this out we need to dig into how exactly the “staged conflict” approach works. Harper seems to employ it either when he is on the ropes, or feels he has his opponent there.

In the controversies surrounding Afghan detainees in 2009 and then parliamentary disclosure in 2011, his opponents were the other political parties. Although Harper was pilloried by most of the mainstream press over his secretive anti-democratic approach in both instances, the bad publicity didn’t faze him and Harper didn’t capitulate like previous governments likely would have.

Why? Because Harper understood the nature of politics and communications has radically changed in the past few years. Harper knows the news cycle is faster and shorter than in the past and understands if his government doesn’t provide new grist for the mill, the modern media – with 24-hour news cycles, small staffs and few investigative reporters – will burn through the story quickly and move on. Harper has realized if he maintains strict message discipline amongst his caucus, silences public servants and limits information, most stories won’t last beyond a few days.

Like a firefighter battling a wildfire, Harper creates a firebreak by rationing information and press contacts, thus removing all flammable material. With nothing burning and no new stories to tell, the media moves on. Even the largest firestorms will burn out after a few weeks.

Harper’s opponents – facing a “been there, done that” press core – can’t keep the controversy alive and the issue quickly loses steam. Harper, however, not reliant on mainstream media, uses the power of his vast database to saturate his supporters with crafted communications that tell his version of events.

This is why nothing sticks to Harper. It worked on Afghan detainees and it worked when the Harper government breached parliamentary privilege by refusing to provide all documents on the cost of its crime bills and tax cuts.

But this approach is not infallible and examining the situations where Harper lost is illustrative and provides the outlines of the path to victory.

There are at least three examples where Harper’s “staged confict” approach has failed or is failing:

1. Harper’s attempt to allow telecom companies like Bell, Rogers and Telus to charge higher fees, reduce the speed of data to certain users and block certain websites. The campaign for “Net Neutrality” forced Harper to back away from these restrictive Internet policies.

2. Harper’s attempt to increase police powers for online spying and internet surveillance. The campaign against increased “Net Surveillance” forced Harper to abandon his proposed legislation.

3. Harper’s attempt to jam through West Coast oil tanker and pipeline projects. The campaign against oil tanker and pipeline projects has forced the Harper government to tone down its rhetoric about building new pipelines in B.C.

There are large similarities between these three campaigns, which illustrate Harper’s vulnerability.

First, Harper’s opponents were not political parties, but non-profit groups such as Open Media, which led the Net Neutrality and Net Surveillance campaigns, and Dogwood Initiative, West Coast Environmental Law and Forest Ethics, who are involved in the campaign against oil tankers and pipelines.

Second, unlike the NDP and Liberals, groups such as Dogwood Initiative and Open Media use multiples channels – e-mail, social media, video and actions – instead of primarily relying on the media to mobilize their supporters and keep the story alive.

Open Media won their campaigns not exclusively through the media, but by building a vast list of more than 500,000 supporters in the last couple years. This army of supporters, which cuts across the political spectrum, wasn’t reliant on news stories, but rather on e-mail and social media to be kept informed. This allowed Open Media not only to put less than top-of-mind issues such as Net Neutrality and online spying on the political map, but allowed them to keep their army active when the media spotlight subsided.

A similar scenario occurred when Harper attacked Dogwood Initiative and other No Tankers groups as “radicals” getting in the way of progress. This was a textbook attempt at a “staged conflict.” The media attention was intense for a few weeks, but then faded somewhat.

At this point, Harper may have thought he won, but he miscalculated. Harper underestimated the No Tankers movement’s capacity to communicate with British Columbians from all walks of life. In just a few months, Dogwood’s list of supporters more than doubled – from 65,000 to almost 140,000 – and these supporters were linked into a communications system that allows us to connect with them whenever necessary.

Harper’s approach in B.C. is failing. The latest polls show the Tories have dropped support in B.C. by 37 per cent from the May 2011 election to September 2012.

Open Media’s and Dogwood Initiative’s modern communications systems and vast and growing lists allowed them to overcome Harper’s “staged conflict” tactics and mobilize opponents that Harper needs to continue to form government.

These failed staged conflicts provide the seeds of what is needed to both win important victories like banning the expansion of oil tanker traffic on the West Coast and maintaining transparency and access to information. They also provide a glance at the path toward making our governments, no matter the political party of the day, more accountable.

As long as issues-based campaigns rely primarily on the media to communicate with supporters and potential supporters, they will be handicapped in driving public policy. And as long as c
ivil society organizations are unable to move votes or influence electoral outcomes, they will remain “irrelevant” to Harper.

Modern politics is about vote counting, not policy, and the sooner civil society organizations realize this, the sooner we can become relevant again.

This is why Dogwood Initiative is putting so much energy into building a decentralized, engaged, people-powered network. Politicians are followers, not leaders. Together, we need to show them the way and hold them accountable – or replace them if they stray. Frankly, we see no other way to move recalcitrant politicians toward the tough decisions needed to create the just, equitable, and sustainable communities we yearn for.