The Interview: Tom Flanagan

Strategist Tom Flanagan on the death of free speech, falling out of favour with Stephen Harper—and his return from political exile

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Photographs by Jessica Darmanin

Photographs by Jessica Darmanin
Photographs by Jessica Darmanin

In February 2013, political strategist Tom Flanagan sparked an uproar with comments he made at the University of Lethbridge about child pornography. In their wake, he was fired from his positions as a Wildrose party strategist and a CBC panellist, and the university announced his retirement. Just over a year later, Flanagan is back from exile with his new book, Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age, which not only tells his side of the story, but acts as a sobering argument against political correctness.

Q: Were you at all nervous about rehashing all of this in print? It was a very difficult period in your life. Do you want to live it again?

A: Yeah, I had those thoughts, sure, and there are some things I don’t look forward to seeing in print again. But I felt I had to write the book, because the book was my way of coming to understand what had happened. So, some friends said, “Don’t do it, just let it go,” but, in the end, I felt it was the right thing to do.

Q: Tell me about that day of Feb. 28, 2013.

A: Well, it was unreal, really, or surreal. I got up that morning, I had breakfast, got in the car and started driving back to Calgary. About halfway there, my car phone buzzed. It was a couple of people who work for [Wildrose Leader] Danielle Smith calling. That was the first I knew there was a problem. So they sent me the text of the news release that they were about to put out. I just kept driving, so I didn’t really realize the scope of things until I got back to my office and could look at my email. Then I saw that the tsunami had rolled in.

Q: The inciting event was a YouTube video of some remarks you had made in a Q&A in a public forum on another subject altogether.

A: Right. I had been invited to speak on campus at the University of Lethbridge on the Indian Act. So I spoke about the Indian Act and then we had this Q&A afterward, and this question came about about remarks I had made in passing about child pornography several years ago in a completely different context. I tried to answer the question and tried to explain what I had been getting at, but it wasn’t possible in that forum. It was a largely hostile audience, so I just gave up on that whole point and we went back to talking about the Indian Act. That exchange took up maybe two minutes out of an event that lasted 2½ hours. It only became important because that question was a trap that had been asked with the intent of recording my answer and trying to get something that could be used to discredit me. So then it was put up on YouTube overnight with the false caption, “Flanagan okay with child pornography,” which is not what I had said and not what I think. So that’s when things took off.

Q: If you had been able to respond immediately to questions and to the avalanche of reaction, could you have cut this story short? Or were you already doomed as soon as you spoke?

A: I think I was too far behind the YouTube posting. Once that had been out there for an hour or so, the damage was already done. In today’s news cycle, it’s instantaneous: Stuff gets posted on a website and then journalists react to what’s being posted, so by the time I was able to do something about it, it was too late. If I had been in an organization with people to help me, it might have been different. But at this point in my life, I’m just an individual, a professor at the university, and didn’t have any staff, nobody to help me deal with it. As an individual, I think it was hopeless at that point.

Q: Who stood up for you during all of this? Did anyone?

A: Well, that took a little time. The answer is yes. First of all, I immediately started getting a flood of email and phone calls from friends and people I didn’t even know but who were appalled by what was going on. So yeah, people did stand up for me, but it was after the main damage had been done.

Q: In the book, you write about the uncomfortable resonance this has with the recent history of the Conservative party. In 2004, you ran a campaign that depended, sometimes, on cutting loose candidates who had become inconvenient, and also a campaign—the 2004 federal Conservative campaign—whose strangest day was about a news release that went out about Paul Martin and child pornography. So was this karma?

A: Well, it is kind of ironic, isn’t it? The way our division of labour was set up, I really had almost nothing to do with communications, so the release about Paul Martin and child pornography went out without my having seen it. But if I’d seen it, I don’t know if I would have done anything different. I’m not trying to dodge responsibility here; I was campaign manager and our campaign did go after Paul Martin on that. Stephen [Harper] had never been consulted, either. But I think that illustrates a difference. Paul Martin was the head of a large, powerful political party, and they could fight back, whereas an individual doesn’t really have that ability. But it is kind of ironic, isn’t it, that I would become impaled on that issue. I was part of the Conservative party that did trade on the issue in what I now think is a demagogic way.

Q: Your book also airs other criticisms of the Conservative party and of the Prime Minister. The falling out between you and Stephen Harper seems to be pretty complete. At one point, you write, “There’s a dark, almost Nixonian, side to the man. He can be suspicious, secretive and vindictive, prone to sudden eruptions of white-hot rage over meaningless trivia, at other times falling into week-long depressions in which he’s incapable of making decisions.” Is that the sort of thing that would disqualify a guy from being prime minister?

A: No, I don’t think so. I tried to be clear that this is one side of a complex person, and he also has many wonderful attributes and I feel proud that he asked me to work for him. I believe I helped him get where he is today. I think he’s obviously intelligent and dedicated and focused and honest; I can’t see him ever taking a bribe, for example. He doesn’t care about money. I worked closely with Stephen for many years and it took a number of years before I started to see the whole picture. At first, I was drawn by the sterling qualities and it was only over time that I started to see this other side. But I do think the tragedy of Harper is that this darker side is undermining what he has achieved, and would like to achieve further. So often now, the issue is about something that comes from this personal side, some kind of judgment that he has made about people that has backfired, or the way he has treated a person, so the focus is now so often being taken off the policy objectives. He’s got some achievements recently that he should be proud of, such as the free trade agreement with the common market and South Korea; being close to balancing the budget. But what are people talking about? Too often they’re talking about Nigel Wright, Mike Duffy, now Dimitri Soudas. So that’s what I see as tragic in the dramatic sense: that he has this difficult side which is now undermining the more positive and creative side.

Q: Is there a lesson in your experience for other people? I mean, the genesis of this is fairly esoteric—don’t take questions on child pornography at conferences on treaty law—but can it be generalized more?

A: I’m not sure there is a single lesson here, except that anybody who has a serious university career ought to think twice about getting drawn into partisan politics. You can’t really be both of these things; you can’t be in partisan politics and pursue the university life simultaneously. I tried to switch back and forth and I eventually got burned. People wouldn’t have gone after me if I didn’t have this political reputation; if I’d just been Joe Professor giving a talk, nobody would have bothered. It’s because I had the political reputation that these political tactics were used against me. That’s the general warning, I would say, for somebody who has a serious commitment to academic life: You’d better think pretty carefully before responding to invitations from politicians to join up in their enterprises, because they obviously will drop you as soon as you become inconvenient to them.

Exclusive Excerpt

What happened to me in the Incident was not workplace mobbing in the usual sense. I had no problems, at least none that I’m aware of, with fellow faculty members at the University of Calgary. I suffered a kind of virtual mobbing, in which I was attacked suddenly and from all sides in the media. That did lead to a bit of unpleasantness with my employer, but the main damage was to my reputation as expressed in the media. The virtual mobbing that I underwent was not just a random collection of individual attacks. It was a highly structured, layered onslaught of several different types of attacks and attackers.

At the core was the action of the two Idle No More activists who posted the YouTube clip taglined “Tom Flanagan okay with child pornography.” They claimed at one point to be aspiring journalists and not to have intended to trap me. Maybe that was even the subjective reality in their minds. But they were not following any reputable journalistic norms when they concocted a question unrelated to the subject of my talk, recorded me without asking my consent or even informing me, failed to carry out a follow-up interview, and posted their recorded snippet over a completely misleading tagline. This was an attack, pure and simple.

But defamatory trash gets posted on social media every day. What turned this into a major story was that the mainstream media picked it up and ran with it without source-checking. They immediately went to the political parties and organizations with which I had been associated in the past, asking for comment, without asking me what I had meant to say. Some did try to reach me, but I was in my car for 2½ hours, and apparently no one could wait that long to post their stories.

But the media by themselves couldn’t have engineered this story. What gave it legs was the series of over-the-top denunciations by all the political leaders for whom I had ever worked.

For Alison Redford, the Progressive Conservative premier of Alberta, it was unbridled partisanship against the official Opposition, the Wildrose party. Since it was well known that I had managed the recent campaign that had almost unseated Redford and the PCs, going after me was a way of going after Wildrose’s leader, Danielle Smith.

Danielle Smith’s motivation was different, though equally opportunistic. There wasn’t any tension between us; in fact, I had recently spent a whole day with her, starting to map out the next Wildrose campaign for the 2016 provincial election. The source of her attack on me lies rather in certain things that happened in the final week of the 2012 campaign, when the Wildrose lead slipped away due to candidate gaffes. She was widely criticized for having seemed weak, and afterwards decided that she must appear more resolute in the future. Thus I became the human sacrifice that she had not performed in April 2012.

Denunciation by the Prime Minister’s Office was also prompted by short-term political considerations. A person I know in the PMO told me afterwards that their phones were “melting down” after the YouTube video was posted, and that they had to distance themselves from the words “no harm,” which I had used in my abortive attempt to explain what I had meant. The rationale is familiar: react to the inflammatory phrase taken out of context, respond immediately, don’t worry about collateral damage to people. So the director of communications was told to tweet something.

It must also be said that Prime Minister Harper has made a practice of treating people as disposable, regardless of previous contributions to him and the Conservative party. For instance, in 2007, when Brian Mulroney’s dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber were in the news, Harper told the entire Conservative caucus not to talk to the former prime minister. Someone in the organization also leaked to the media the fact that Mulroney’s party membership was not up to date. I’d call it pretty harsh treatment for a former Conservative prime minister who had been actively supporting Harper in the media and behind the scenes. I was in Harper’s office on the morning of May 17, 2005, when we learned that Belinda Stronach had crossed the floor to join the Liberals. The phone rang within an hour; it was Brian Mulroney, calling from his hospital bed to cheer Harper up. Mulroney had almost died that spring of pancreatitis, but he still thought to console Harper in his time of trial. In my opinion, that should have counted for something in 2007.

The list of Harper’s disposable people grows steadily. Some of the more prominent names would include Helena Guergis, who was forced out of cabinet and caucus on reports of drug abuse that were never substantiated; senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, and Patrick Brazeau, who were suspended from the Conservative caucus and the Senate over allegedly dodgy expense claims; and chief of staff Nigel Wright, who was left to take all the blame for writing a cheque for $90,000 to Mike Duffy. So I can count myself in pretty good company among those who have been crushed by Harper’s PMO.

To some extent, this is a reflection of the shadow side of Harper’s personality, but it is also a cancer eating at the whole conservative movement in Canada, and I have to accept my share of blame for it. When the Liberals seemed to be in power forever, Conservatives concluded that part of their secret of success was ruthlessness. We concluded that we would have to beat them at their own game, and we did. Harper led the way, but everyone around him bought into it, and then the doctrine of ruthlessness sifted down into provincial conservative parties wanting to emulate the success of the federal party.

Preston Manning, another political leader for whom I once worked, also denounced me that morning. His reasons were somewhat different. He is no longer in active politics and has never had any particular connection with the issue of child pornography. However, his Manning Centre has become a major promoter of the concept of a “conservative movement” in Canada. The centre was scheduled to hold its annual networking conference in March, and I was supposed to participate in a panel on Aboriginal economic progress along with Manny Jules and other Native leaders. As Preston later told me, when the Incident broke in the media, he and his advisers were afraid that my presence at the conference would attract too much attention and thus derail the conference from its larger purpose.

Preston, however, showed his true character by apologizing to me a few weeks afterwards. In an email sent on Good Friday, a significant day to a man of Preston’s deep Christian faith, he admitted that the Manning Centre had acted too hastily, and he offered to take public steps to help restore my reputation. Truly moved by his initiative, I responded that I had made so many mistakes in my own life that I had no right to hold a grudge. Thus far, Preston Manning is the only person from the political world who has offered an apology.

From Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age by Tom Flanagan. Copyright © 2014 by Tom Flanagan. Reprinted by permission of Signal Books/McClelland and Stewart.