Ten Lost Years

HARPER’S ELECTION TO LOSE

Martin blew it when he treated the new Conservatives as easy roadkill

Peter C. Newman June 21 2004
Ten Lost Years

HARPER’S ELECTION TO LOSE

Martin blew it when he treated the new Conservatives as easy roadkill

Peter C. Newman June 21 2004

HARPER’S ELECTION TO LOSE

Martin blew it when he treated the new Conservatives as easy roadkill

Peter C. Newman

OF STEPHEN HARPER’S virtues, none is more compelling than the fact he is not Stockwell Day. Unlike his Red Deer predecessor (and Calgarian Preston Manning before that), the sophisticated Harper is not interested in redeeming the country, but in governing it. Harper is after cold hard votes, not absolution, atonement or any other extraterrestrial verities.

Paul Martin’s greatest and perhaps irredeemable error during the shaky start of his election campaign was to treat Harper as just another western populist whom the Liberal party machine would quickly reduce to roadkill. This just proved that the Prime Minister and his advisers were hanging themselves in a trapeze of stale and false intelligence. Anyone who has even vaguely followed Harper’s career recognizes that this is a different breed of political cat: he may not be charismatic enough to lay down convincing terms of endearment, but he is a perfectly legitimate and honourable alternative to an expired cheerleader like Jean Chrétien, and even to Martin.

Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, since taking office (one hesitates to say “power” since he hasn’t exercised it) he has continued to rely on his Earnscliffe consultant spin doctors who formed an ideal commando unit for his 13-year kill-anddestroy mission to dislodge Chrétien. Frozen in that mindset, they lag one reality behind prevailing events: this is a campaign to win people’s hearts and minds, not to nuke the other guy.

The Martin people’s early campaign tactics urged Canadian voters to take a good look at Harper, presuming they would discover Stock’s evangelical clone with a hidden agenda. (They forgot that Day’s problem was not that he had a hidden agenda, but that he didn’t keep it hidden, allowing voters to reject his off-centre views on religion, capital punishment, abortion, immigration and dinosaur petting zoos.) In Harper’s case, the voters so far have liked what they’ve seen.

One advantage that Canadian voters

subliminally recognize in Harper that no one dares mention is that, except for the revolving door incumbencies of John Turner, Joe Clark and Kim Campbell, he would be our first prime minister in 35 years who wasn’t a Quebec-based millionaire lawyer. We need some variety.

It remains an open question whether

Harper can overcome his Alberta-oriented view of the world. The province where he received his political education celebrates rugged individualism and a personal sense of freedom that the anally retentive suits who inhabit Central Canada can’t even visualize. Successful federal politicians must ride the tigers of the nation’s profound regional differences. The end of entitlement that Harper champions has its limits as a populist crusade. Maritimers distrust government, but expect much from it. Newfoundlanders are a category of one. Quebecers demand they be treated with the respect due a foreign kingdom. To Ontario’s urbanites, social conservatism is taboo. British Columbia’s two founding nations are China and India, so forget about stemming the Asian tide.

So far, Harper’s main achievement has

HAD Harper been in power at the time, we certainly would have sent Canadian troops into the Iraqi abattoir

been to unite the Conservatives, or most of them, under one banner. That was not an inconsiderable achievement. I remember cornering Conservative leader Joe Clark aboard his campaign bus during the 2000 election and asking why he was so adamantly opposed to any coalition with the Canadian Alliance. “The Alliance party is fundamentally offensive,” he told me. “It’s an alliance of people who don’t like other people, the very opposite of the inclusion that characterizes our party.”

Strong Tory support throughout rural Ontario split the anti-Liberal vote, allowing Chrétien to snatch yet another Ontariobased majority. (Although he won three successive victories, it was the existence of a divided right-wing vote that allowed him to do so with only 38.5 per cent of the national vote in 1997 and 40.8 per cent in 2000.) That voting split might have kept the Liberals in power forever or at least until Clark’s followers had been reduced to his immediate family. Now that Joe is no longer a factor, the dozens of ridings in rural and small-town Ontario may well turn out to be the key to a Harper majority. The massive shift from Liberal to Conservative support in Ontario is one of the most dramatic developments I have witnessed in nearly half a century of covering Canadian elections.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have doubts about some of Harper’s intentions and pronouncements. Had he been in power at the time, we certainly would have sent Canadian troops into the Iraqi abattoir. His party’s promise to “enhance our NAFTA relationship with the United States” scares the hell out of me. The next logical step would be a customs union as a first step toward a common market—and that would seriously threaten what’s left of Canadian sovereignty.

Almost as frightening was the statement made at the end of May by Steven MacKinnon, deputy national director of the federal Liberals: “We are confident that when Canadians are asked which prime minister they want, they will choose Paul Martin with a com fortable (my italics) majority.” It is my firm conviction that the last thing Canadians want in this election is to grant any politician a “comfortable” majority or “comfortable” anything else. We want to make our politicians as uncomfortable as they make us.

One of the great mysteries of the election

call is why Martin pulled the plug before establishing his authority and prime ministerial presence, so there would be some reason for returning an incumbent. (My reluctant conclusion is that he went to the people because he suspected worse scandals were in the pipeline.) Instead of mobilizing his forces, he squandered his political honeymoon by immersing himself in the swamp of the sponsorship scandal and alienated the veteran campaigners and strategists who had produced a trio of Liberal victories at the polls.

The Liberals’ problem is trust. Martin keeps emphasizing that values are more important than policies. Of course they are. But that’s where reality TV comes in. The flavour of the year in television programming has altered our perceptions. We expect reality not just on the boob tube but in real life. It is no longer enough for campaigning politicians to exude a mood (as Pierre Trudeau did) when we know that politics is really about trading favours in backrooms. The Prime Minister’s only chance is to establish in voters’ minds that he genuinely

believes in fundamental change, specifically in eliminating the gutter ethics as practised by some of his predecessors. A start might be to match Harper’s offer of appointing Canada’s ambassador to Washington as a minister by naming Auditor General Sheila Fraser to cabinet.

Canadians run away from radical reformers. But they are demanding change and want some hint of vision from their leaders. That element has been singularly lacking during the past decade. Political parties should earn mandates based on something more inspiring than the inability of their opponents to form governments.

At this point, it looks like Paul Martin can’t win the election. Stephen Harper can only lose it. ffll

Peter C. Newman’s column appears monthly. pnewman@macleans.ca

CANADIANS are

demanding change and want some hint of vision, lacking during the past decade, from their leaders