Over the past month or so, things have not been going well with the Liberals. Stephane Dion has had to face a whisper campaign within the media about his abilities with English, about his stuffy, professorial manner, and the fact that he was elected leader without significant caucus support and may be facing internal dissension.

Exacerbating this problem is a debate running in parliament over whether or not to renew two anti-terror provisions that were enacted following the September 11 terrorist attacks, and never used in the intervening six years. Libertarian-minded individuals and social progressives dislike these provisions as an infringement on Canadians’ charter rights, but there is some concern that letting these provisions lapse will thwart the investigation still underway over the Air India bombing — the worst terror attack in Canadian history. Dion opposes renewing these provisions, but he has the embarrassing task of facing off against a law that the Liberal government he was a part of introduced. Further, it is said there are about a dozen to two-dozen Liberal MPs who are leery of Dion’s decision. Facing Harper’s insinuations that Dion’s opposition indicates that he “hates the police” and is soft on terrorism, there is some speculation that they might vote against their leader, or even bolt the party.

The vote on renewing the provisions was delayed a week last week — specifically to “let the Liberals squirm”, but this turns out to have been a mistake. In politics, you should never give your opponents enough rope to hang themselves, because instead they might hang you. Harper has choked on his own rope.

Outrage over Harper’s remarks isn’t isolated among Liberal circles. Mike at Rational Reasons has no reason to stand up for the Liberal party, but he has no shortage of things to say:

Apparently it is okay for our Prime Minister to imply that, via guilt by association, that a member of another party is somehow implicated in the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history. That somehow, the Liberal Party is not supporting an extension to the anti-terror legislation because they wish to cover up for one of their members.

Navdeep Singh Bains, the Member for Mississauga-Brampton South, was 9 when Air India occurred. His father-in-law is a witness, not a suspect. Yet he and his family were singled out for a partisan attack. And despite a personal appeal from Bains, Harper has declined to apologize for dragging his family through the mud.

This video has admittedly been edited, to show only the Liberal attacks following Harper’s ill-advised comments, and not his rebuttals to the attacks. The full story is here, however, and I would say that, edited or no, if this were an election, and if Don at Revolutionary Moderation were still running his Gaffe o’ Meter contest, he would classify this as a nine. It would get three points for prominence (you can’t get more prominent than the prime minister), multiplied by three points for severity, since it’s nasty, inaccurate, and it conforms perfectly to the tendency many Canadian voters have to see Harper as an angry partisan ideologue. Harper’s refusal to apologize for his statements not only prolongs the play this gaffe will get, it reinforces Harper’s reputation for stubbornness — and not in a good leadership way. (Indeed, it’s in terms of stubbornness that Harper and George W. Bush are most alike, and we all know how well that stubbornness has served George south of the border)

This is a serious problem on many fronts. This comment of Harper’s is not an isolated incident, as Harper has been ramping up over the past couple of weeks, with inflammatory statements that the Liberals “hate the police” or that they are “soft on terrorism”. Strategically, this gaffe is even worse, since Harper has essentially united the shaky Liberal caucus and given those who might have been leery of voting with Dion, a reason to stand up and show solidarity to the maligned MP.

Ralph Goodale’s response was brilliant, and it’s no accident that he got two follow-ups. He was recently exonerated in the Income Trust scandal that blew up under his watch, which probably finally sank the Liberal campaign last election, and Harper has refused to apologize for previous inflammatory statements against him as well. Although questions remain about the Income Trust scandal, by linking the maligning of MP Navdeep Singh Bains to the exoneration of Goodale, the Liberals have hefted a pretty fearsome club to beat the Conservatives with. And since Stephen Harper has exercised the control of a micro-manager on his caucus, and plastered his picture all over the party, the fact that the Liberals are able to paint Harper as prone to making such inflammatory statements, sticks to the entire Conservative government.

Ultimately, it calls into question Stephen Harper’s judgement and his ability to accept political criticism — two things critical for a prime minister to have. For all the complaints that have been mounting about Dion’s abilities in English, and his dour professorial demeanour, Canadians have just been handed a handy counter-example. And between an earnest professor and a blindly angry man, the choice between voting Liberal and voting Conservative doesn’t seem so hard anymore.

Further Reading

A number of Conservative supporters echo the belief that Harper has made a mistake. Here’s a selection of their responses:

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