If you don’t know who Cheryl Gallant is, it’s probably because A) you don’t live in the riding of Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke, and B) you missed one of the more revealing political stories of the year.
I’d like to dwell on this story for moment, because as far as I’m concerned it came and went a bit too fast. I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind, because for me it exemplifies the thing that disturbs me most about a range of extremely sneaky fundraising tactics that the Conservative Party has been using of late. (I think of it, for example, when reading the more recent story of the Conservative party using the Prime Minister’s meeting with the Aga Khan to harvest email addresses, then sending out party fundraising appeals, thereby co-opting official government business for partisan purposes.)
The story that I’m thinking about was broken by Glen McGregor at the Ottawa Citizen (here). Basically, he noticed a website, which was supposedly run by a group opposed to the impending (federal) ban on incandescent light bulbs (stopthebulbban.ca). They were also promising a tax receipt to anyone who made a donation to the campaign. This seemed a bit fishy, because these types of advocacy groups are not usually allowed to issue tax receipts. So Glen made a small donation, to see where it went. Imagine his surprise when it came back as a receipt from the Conservative party, specifically, the riding association of MP Cheryl Gallant.
Why the surprise? Because the ban on incandescent light-bulbs was a policy brought in by the Conservative government. It was introduced with great fanfare by John Baird when he was Minister of the Environment.
Glen’s lede (“A Conservative MP’s campaign against her own government’s ban of incandescent light bulbs is directing the donations it receives to a Conservative riding association and giving contributors tax receipts for political contributions.”) I think risks understating the outrageousness of the behavior. (I suppose it’s a newspaper, and he’s writing a news story, so some conclusions have to be left to the reader.) Still, it’s hard to see the whole campaign as anything more than a straight-up scam. Also, as Glen put it (again with some understatement), “Elections Canada takes a dim view of soliciting political donations under the guise of an unrelated cause.”
(Another possibility, of course, is that Gallant was just being dumb. She might not have known that she was running a campaign against her own party’s policy, even though she was an MP at the time it was introduced. It’s often hard to tell these days whether this sort of political behavior is deeply cynical or just stupid. I’ve asked around though, and most people seem to think it was cynical — although I should note that no one was willing to rule out stupidity entirely.)
The site, incidentally, was taken down right after Glen’s story broke, and the URL redirects now to Cheryl Gallant’s website (which, at the moment, features of a nice splash-page photo of her firing a shotgun… great).
I guess what I find shocking is that the scam was one that was being run by a Conservative politician against what we can only assume are members of her party’s own base. After all, it seems to me that Conservative voters are the ones most likely to be getting all hot under the collar about government telling them what kind of lightbulbs they can and cannot buy.
The entire episode reminded me of a good article that I read a while back in The Baffler, by Rick Perlstein, called The Long Con. The quick synopsis is that, after getting on a few conservative mailing lists in the United States, Perlstein suddenly found himself being bombarded with mail from con artists, trying to sell him everything from investment services to miraculous health cures. This makes sense, in a way. If the central accomplishment of the Republican party in the United States consists in having convinced millions of Americans to vote against their own economic interests, then obviously their mailing list is one that a lot of marketers would love to get their hands on.
Perlstein writes: “The strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers points up evidence of another successful long march, of tactics designed to corral fleeceable multitudes all in one place—and the formation of a cast of mind that makes it hard for either them or us to discern where the ideological con ended and the money con began.”
Bit of a mouthful, but the observation is astute. Once you’re running a good political con, there is a real temptation to want to turn it into a money con. The Conservative Party of Canada is not quite there yet, but Gallant was definitely pushing things in that direction.