Why the Tories are sitting pretty— for now

PAUL WELLS February 12 2007

Why the Tories are sitting pretty— for now

PAUL WELLS February 12 2007

Why the Tories are sitting pretty— for now



John Baird has finally tracked down a green tie. Hours after the environment minister was sworn in to his new job last month, he told some reporters he’d hunted around for a green tie but couldn’t find one. Now here he was on Monday, on the first day back to Parliament in 2007, sporting a sober, diamondpatterned dark green tie. Very apropos.

I belabour the sartorial details for a reason. There’s a lot that’s cosmetic in the green exertions of the various parties.

Welcome to the 39th Parliament, or as we like to call it, the green House. “It is this member, when in power, who signed the Kyoto Protocol,” Stephen Harper shouted, pointing across the Commons aisle at Stéphane Dion. The Liberals leapt to their feet to applaud. The Prime Minister collected himself and finished his thought. “And for a decade did nothing to get it done, left Canada with the worst record under Kyoto in the entire world! He did not get it done!”

Then Michael Ignatieff, Dion’s newly minted parliamentary lieutenant, asked when Harper was going to “return Canada to its role as an international leader” on the globalwarming file. Come again? Under the Liberals, Canada led the world only in the size of the margin by which it spectacularly blew its Kyoto targets.

This does not let the Conservatives off the hook. It was a bit rich for Baird to perch his capacious noggin on top of his pristine emerald cravat and announce that unlike the Liberals, his government was taking “real action here in Canada, real action to reduce greenhouse gases.” To date, that real action has consisted of (a) cancelling Liberal programs announced by Stéphane Dion in 2005; (b) wasting a year checking the political winds; (c) reintroducing the Liberal programs under new names. So the Conservatives’ real action is the Liberals’ real action (denounced as

unreal by the Conservatives), a year later.

On this environment business, Baird is the very picture of a johnny-come-lately. As are his colleagues. While Dion was the environment minister in 2004 and 2005, the Conservative party asked him 33 questions on the environment, out of a total of about 1,590 questions. So the Conservatives’ new topic of preoccupation was one they ignored 98 per cent of the time when the Liberals were in charge.

One suspects Canadians understand this. One suspects the Conservatives don’t mind. In private, Harper’s strategists divide the political agenda into “sword issues” and “shield issues.” The environment is a shield issue. In other words, it probably isn’t going to win the Conservatives any votes, but they will not let it become an issue anyone else can use against them.

Since the environment is Dion’s biggest sword, the Conservatives have set about dulling its blade. Hence the elevation of Baird

Voters don’t seem happy with their NDP experiment—so Jack stands with Stephen

to his portfolio, and hence the anti-Dion TV ads the Tories unveiled the day before the new parliamentary session. The two main parties are now embarked on a long process of testing each other’s weaknesses. It will be long because it will not soon be interrupted by an election campaign.

Dion has had a shaky start, but the Liberals’ national polling numbers remain fairly solid a few points ahead of the Conservatives. This discourages Harper from moving in for the kill: it’s not at all clear there’d be a kill. But the Conservatives’ year-long strategy of playing to their base has ensured that their own vote is very hard to compress below about 30 or 32 per cent. Even in Quebec, where pundit lore has it that Harper had a

punishingly difficult first year, a CROP poll on Tuesday showed the Conservatives at 23 per cent, only two points below their election-night score of 25 per cent. The Bloc Québécois, at 34 per cent, is lower than it’s been in years. Dion might be tempted to force an election to try his chances in his home province. But he won’t soon get a chance.

Consider, for a moment, the plight of Jack Layton. In September, the NDP leader delivered the most unnoticed political speech of 2006. His argument to voters in the last election was that the Liberals were doomed and it was safe to vote NDP. Now a lot of New Democrat voters see Harper on TV and feel sheepish about helping him get there. They seem reluctant to repeat their NDP experiment.

In Quebec City, Layton said they needn’t fear a Conservative government because his new goal was to form an NDP government. It was a momentous ambition, or would be if anyone in the country had noticed it. Lay-

ton’s speech wasn’t laughed out of court; it was simply ignored. Including, if his actions since the speech are any indication, by Layton himself.

With their ranks bolstered by the defection of Wajid Khan, the Conservatives now need only one other opposition party—doesn’t matter which one—to survive a confidence vote and keep their government alive. Layton has less confidence in his ability to survive an election than in anything Harper does. Harper’s government, with Layton’s help, is safe for months to come. The LiberalTory phony war will continue. Nl

ON THE WEB: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/inklesswells