Internal warfare in Conservative leadership heating up

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Modern technology makes campaigns easier to organize but also easier to infiltrate.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on June 29, 2020.

OTTAWA—The internal warfare in the Conservative leadership is heating up.

Accusations of espionage surfaced last week when an unnamed student employee of Erin O’Toole was fired for allegedly leaking information to the Peter MacKay camp.

Modern technology makes campaigns easier to organize but also easier to infiltrate.

The alleged offence involved a claim that MacKay’s team secured videotapes of high-level Zoom meetings held by the O’Toole team across the country.

Neither side should be that surprised about a dirty tricks campaign.

Internal party nominations are always rife with malfeasance because the level of outside oversight is non-existent.

Only the party can investigate wrongdoing, and any party is hesitant to bring disrepute unto itself.

So political parties go to great lengths to deny or obscure internal shenanigans.

In the olden days, the strategy was to try and disrupt delegate selection meetings in each riding.

That involved doing your level best to encourage supporters to get to the meetings and doing everything possible to discourage other teams’ supporters from doing the same.

People would use every form of dirty tricks.

Some that have happened in the Liberal Party include disabling old-style telephone booths by plugging gum into the phone, supergluing the door locks of opponents’ offices on the day of the vote, and even bugging an opponent’s office to secure valuable confidential information. Hacking or even theft of computers has also been used to secure clandestine details about the opponent’s campaign strategy.

The new Zoom world makes it possible, even ridiculously easy, to garner information right down to the tiniest organizational detail by simply getting a full video of every meeting.

That security gap is one reason that many companies choose not to avail themselves of the Zoom platform but instead use encrypted offerings to manage the increasing number of post-COVID virtual meeting operations.

But political campaigns do not have the same financial leverage as large corporations. The Zoom platform is virtually free if the meetings end in less than 40 minutes, so they provide an ideal platform for cross country communications.

In the olden days, the biggest part of a campaign expense would-be long-distance phone charges. Now in the world of voice over internet protocol, it is virtually free to connect with all parts of the country.

But that also opens the door to more intraparty espionage.

And as the Conservative leadership vote is going to happen by mail, the opportunity to contact every voter early can be a huge advantage.

The deadline for the postal ballot is Aug. 21 and the opportunity to purchase a membership ended May 15.

From mid-May until voting day, all candidates will be trying to encourage switchers to come onboard.

So, access to information is obviously important in building targeted campaign messaging.

But an investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is probably not the sort of campaign messaging that the MacKay team was hoping for.

MacKay’s people insisted the violations were the work of a single individual, and not part of a larger strategy.

But O’Toole’s team countered with a question as to why two internet providers in Calgary and Toronto were involved in hacking and recording more than 140 separate Zoom videos.

The police will get to the bottom of the story. Whatever the outcome, there will be some damage done to the MacKay campaign.

Many party members are ideologues, who believe in the power of Conservative values, but vehemently oppose illegal activity.

Some of them will no doubt be raising eyebrows over the allegations.

MacKay supporters may simply discount the claim as sour grapes from a losing candidate. That is no doubt how the MacKay team will be trying to explain the issue internally.

But the ferocity of the dust-up also shows that Conservatives believe the winner could actually form a government.

The stakes are high, so both sides are baring their knuckles.

Not long ago, it appeared that the Tories were doomed to spend a decade in opposition. With Andrew Scheer at the helm, it was simple for the Liberals and New Democrats to tag Tories as anti-women and anti-gay.

The picture is much different with this leadership race. O’Toole made it very clear during the leader’s debate that he favoured a women’s right to choose and supported the rights of gays and lesbians.

MacKay unsuccessfully tried to cast himself as the only social liberal in the race.

Both are positioning themselves to move to the centre at the end of the Tory convention.

And that could spell trouble for Liberals.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.