Politics I

THE COMING STORM

The Grits are ready to go on the attack. What’s a Conservative leader to do?

JOHN GEDDES May 3 2004
Politics I

THE COMING STORM

The Grits are ready to go on the attack. What’s a Conservative leader to do?

JOHN GEDDES May 3 2004

THE COMING STORM

Politics I

The Grits are ready to go on the attack. What’s a Conservative leader to do?

JOHN GEDDES

STEPHEN HARPER is bracing for the worst. The sponsorship scandal has given him a chance to go on the offensive, but he knows the Liberals are plotting to force him to play defence once an election is called. “The nature of Liberal campaigning is that they get in the muck,” Harper said a few days before he won the Conservative leadership. “My guess is that they will attack—as they have with my predecessors—my region, my religion, my language, my family. That’s what Liberals do.” If that sounds a little paranoid, consider reports that the Liberals have recently been polling to test how voters would react to the message that the Conservatives have been “taken over by evangelical Christians.” Even if the Liberals back away from that incendiary line, all signs point to a hard-hitting campaign. Several Conservative MPs and strategists spoke with Maclean’s last week, on condition they not be named, on how they are advising Harper to counter the coming assault. Some of their key ideas:

Harper says the Liberals will take on ‘my region, my religion, my family’

AVOID THE TRAP OF TWO-TIER HEALTH CARE.

A confused message on health care in the 2000 campaign tripped up Stockwell Day badly. Was his Alliance party in favour of a “two-tier” system that would allow the rich to buy better care? Did they want to hand over running the system to the private sector? The Conservative line this time is simple, and perhaps surprising: we agree with the Liberals. Harper supports the 2003 health accord Jean Chrétien signed with the provinces, which allows for-profit firms to deliver medical services as long as those services are covered by provincial health insurance. Letting for-profit firms play a role gives right-wingers some comfort. Agreeing that universal coverage must be maintained alleviates broader public anxiety over the future of medicare. As one Conservative MP puts it, “We’ve got to hug the Liberals on this one.”

TURN THE IRAQ QUESTION BACK ON THE GRITS.

Martin touts Chretien’s decision to stay out of the Iraq war as an election winner. Liberals will portray Harper as the guy who would have marched Canadians into a desert quagmire. There’s no denying he favoured joining President George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing.” But Harper can fire back by quoting David Pratt, now serving as Martin’s defence minister, who as a Liberal backbencher argued that Canada should have gone to war. And Martin himself remarked:

“The only satisfactory outcome was a defeat of Saddam Hussein. Canada’s strongest desire was for a swift and just victory by coalition forces.” So Harper needs to portray the Liberals as confused, if not hypocritical, on the issue. As well, watch for him to associate his position with British PM Tony Blair, rather than Bush, in a bid to offset the problematic pro-American aspect of his policy.

CRACK DOWN REALLY HARD ON REDNECK ERUPTIONS.

The biggest fear of Conservative strategists is that their best-laid election plans could be blown up by dumb comments from their own candidates during the campaign. They feel that the party’s image is uniquely fragile in this respect. Instructing would-be Conservative MPs to avoid inflammatory remarks can’t guarantee none of them will break ranks. Potential hot-button topics: abortion (Harper says that as PM he would never hold a referendum on the subject) and homosexual rights (Harper is against gay marriage but that’s about as far as his policy goes). He needs to stick to the hard line he took last fall when MP Larry Spencer said homosexuality should be outlawed: Spencer was fired as family values critic of the old Alliance party and had to leave caucus. Should a similar outbreak occur during the election campaign, the same sort of stern justice must be meted out. If Harper flinches, Liberals will exploit public unease about the Conservatives’ sizable social-conservative, Christian-right base of support.

DON’T GET LOST IN SPONSORSHIP SCANDAL DETAILS.

The sponsorship scandal has been a godsend for the Conservatives. But the danger is that Canadians are growing weary of the affair. The parade of evasive witnesses before the House committee investigating the mess has generated confusion, not the sort of vivid details that work well in campaign rhetoric. Chuck Guité, the former bureaucrat at the centre of the controversy, was only the latest to muddy the waters. Harper has to make the case that there’s no need to understand every twist and turn to recognize that Liberals have abused taxpayers’ trust. He must make this a general indictment of Liberal government, not a narrow case against a few Chrétien-era politicians. Martin is probably not personally vulnerable to the charge that he is dishonest. But the sheer waste and mismanagement involved gives Harper an opening to undermine the image of frugality and competence the PM carries with him from his years in finance.

KEEP THE NON-WESTERNERS IN THE PICTURE.

In the crucial Ontario battleground, Liberals will try to paint Harper’s party as the old Reform/Alliance movement in disguise. The insinuation is that Harper is really leading a western populist movement, not a true pan-Canadian party. But Conservative strategists doubt this will hurt Harper much. After all, while he has spent most of his adult life in Calgary, he did grow up in a Toronto suburb. And Liberals can’t risk attacking Harper’s regional base overtly—unless Martin decides to give up entirely on his dream of a western electoral breakthrough. Still, Harper needs to offset the lingering sense that he is an Alberta advocate, not a national figure. That means keeping the eastern, Tory wing of the new Conservative Party of Canada as visible as possible. Nova Scotia MP Peter MacKay, the former Progressive Conservative leader who negotiated the merger with Harper, must be seen frequently at Harper’s side. It would help if an Ontario lieutenant with the same prominence could be groomed by election time. Hfl