A Matter of Control (Freak!)

It’s a fair description that as much as the Conservatives won the 2006 federal election, the Liberals lost it. Stephen Harper ran a disciplined campaign against what was probably the worst Liberal campaign in history. And yet despite the general perception that the Liberals were overdue for defeat, despite the gaffes and the arrogance, despite a widespread mood for change, the Conservatives set a significant record: they received the lowest level of popular support ever accorded to the most popular party in an election.

This is because the Canadian voting public were not ready to embrace the Conservative platform. Despite all of the conciliatory moves towards the middle, despite locking Myron Thompson and Rob Anders in a closet somewhere, despite a focus on central Canada this time around, Canadian voters still suspected a hidden agenda.

Don’t blame Liberal fearmongering alone for this. The policies of the Reform Party, the National Citizens Coalition and Stephen Harper that Canadians disagree with are all a matter of public record, and yet Harper was campaigning against his own words. Did he mean what he was saying now? Was he changing his spots to give Canadians the kind of clean, responsive and compassionate government that they wanted?

In the nearly two years since Stephen Harper became prime minister, he has done much to allay centrist fears about what a Conservative majority could do. Indeed, I predicted that the 2008 election would be a different kettle of fish than the 2006 election. Because with Stephen Harper having a two-year-long record under his belt, with parliament now committed to same-sex marriage, and with the economy as strong as it has ever been, the Liberals weren’t going to win the election with anti-Conservative fearmongering. On the other hand, Canadians had also moved on from AdScam, the reins of power had been turned over to a respected politician with none of the stink of Chretien and Martin about him. And there was no way the Liberal’s 2008 campaign would be as bad as 2006.


As Stephane Dion struggles to find his feet and the Liberal party struggles to settle its differences, the verneer of centrist discipline is slipping from the Harper Conservatives. Indeed, every time things look good enough for the party to slip into majority territory, something happens which threatens to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Earlier this month, there was the boneheaded political decision to leave ousted MP Bill Casey out of the party, despite the issue that sent him sailing from the party being resolved, and despite the clear wishes of the local Conservative riding association’s executive to welcome Casey back. As I said earlier, Harper missed an opportunity to turn his troubles in Nova Scotia into a clear win. Instead, he reinforced the worries centrist Canadians had that Harper is a vindictive individual who would not be a good person to have at the head of a majority government.

But it could have been an isolated incident — or a response justified by the fact that Bill Casey had clearly voted against his own party in one of the most serious confidence measures around… until the Conservatives up and did the same thing again. Twice.

Early last week, the Conservative Party’s national executive overruled the clear decisions of its grassroots riding executives in Toronto Centre and Guelph, overturning the nominations of candidates Mark Warner and Brett Barr. The reasons given seem spurious, even to Conservative party supporters. Yes, Mark Warner espoused opinions that place him at the reddest end of the Red Tory part of the Conservative spectrum, but he won the Conservative nomination for the riding of Toronto Centre fair and square, and most evidence suggests that he was prepared to defend Stephen Harper and sell the Conservative agenda to his electorate, while tailoring his message to fit the aspirations of his urban riding.

The media feeding frenzy over Mark Warner’s dismissal has been unnecessarily coloured by the fact that Warner is a minority candidate. I agree with Raphael’s assessment that the burning bridges hampers Warner’s credibility a little. The truth of the ousting of Warner, like Casey, is probably more complicated than the media presents, but in politics, perception matters a lot, and one would think that Stephen Harper is an intelligent enough man to realize this, and not go about re-inforcing negative perceptions with activities such as this. Whatever complexities surround the ousting of Warner and Casey, the negative message — that Harper doesn’t tolerate dissent and eschews grassroots politics — gets hammered home again in the riding of Guelph with the dismissal of Candidate Brent Barr.

Brent Barr ran for the Conservatives twice before (coming second in the 2006 election and increasing the party’s electoral take against a popular incumbent MP). He legitimately won the nomination process for the riding of Guelph but the Conservatives ousted him on the basis of an arbitrary two-strikes(losses)-and-your-out process, and criticized Barr’s methods of campaigning.

This move hits a little closer to home for Conservative Greg Staples, who knows Mr. Barr and believes he would be still be an excellent Conservative candidate for the riding of Guelph.

I don’t know anything about Mark Warner but the reasons provided for turfing are pretty dubious. I do know Brent Barr in passing, though. He was the lecturer for the Sales and Marketing course I took at Wilfrid Laurier University while I was completing my MBA. I quite liked Brent. He is a charismatic guy, cared about teaching the course well and put in the effort to make it a successful course. That is why I have a hard time believing this:

…As for Brent Barr in Guelph, the Conservative national council accused him of not generating enough support for the Conservatives through canvassing and of running a poor campaign in the last election - charges he vehemently denies.

The Conservatives have a rule that you run twice in a riding and lose each time then the party can deny your nomination. Brent Barr has run once and he increased his vote against an incumbent. The Liberal incumbent is not running the next time around which puts the seat in play. Seems the party insiders have decided that Brent can’t win the riding but the evidence released to this point makes me question their decision…

I guess with the fact the Liberals can’t score on the Conservatives it is left for the Conservatives to score on themselves.

When the voters started to turn to Stephen Harper in 2006, they did so because he offered a clean, moderately right-wing option to the arrogant, corrupt Liberal government. He moderated his message, campaigned for things he’d previously not believed in and told Canadians to give him a chance to run the social programs they treasured in a competent manner. He sold himself as a democrat who, while he had strong opinions of what should and shouldn’t go on in the country, had trumped those opinions with the larger principle of the prime minister’s responsibility being to provide good government for all Canadians. Canadians decided to take on the moderate Stephen Harper as a sampler. They’ve been tempted to give him the keys to 24 Sussex Drive on a full time basis. But only if the moderate Stephen Harper is in charge, and not the radical.

Over the past two years, the lapses in political judgement have been cited by supporters as isolated incidents and complicated matters, not indicative of how the Conservatives would govern in general. And yet, how many times does something like this have to happen before we stop seeing it as an isolated incident — where it becomes a facet of Stephen Harper’s character — one which might not be pleasant coming from the prime minister in a majority government.

And while centrists and conservatives might disagree on policies, this is something that we can agree on. Stephen Harper is establishing a pattern of overriding the will of his own party’s grassroots for ends that seem alternately frivolous and vindictive. This goes against much of what the Conservatives or even the Reform Party used to stand for. This is an insult to those principled Conservative party supporters who tut-tutted Liberal moves to parachute candidates into ridings over the objections of the local riding associations.

And it is a damn stupid move, because it alienates the very people you need on the ground to win elections for you. It’s an embarrassment to Conservative opponents of the Mixed Member Proportional model of electoral reform who spoke out against the proposal because it put too much power in the hands of party executive members to appoint candidates to parliament. It all suggests that a majority government might not be pleasant for either centrists or conservatives (or both at the same time) as Harper moves forward to implement his vision, broking no criticism from average Canadians or grassroots Conservatives.

At least two staunch Conservatives in the blogosphere are questioning this decision, and while you might expect this sort of thing from Red Tory Jim Calder at the Progressive Right, the concern expressed by libertarian Conservative Greg Staples should be setting off alarm bells.

Most Canadians, regardless of their political stripe, want a government that appears willing to listen to the concerns of all of its citizens, a government that opens the doors to ordinary Canadians to make a difference in the process. Slapping the face of loyal party workers in local ridings is a move that will only demoralize the grassroots, and will remind centrist Canadians again of the reasons why it might not be wise to give this control freak majority control of parliament.

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