The Conservatives' Achilles Heel

Stephen Harper

As we gear up for an election that can happen any time this year or next, it’s clear to me that the campaign should be very different from that of 2006. In 2006, the Conservatives ran a disciplined campaign against entrenched perceptions that they were scary. The Liberals ran one of the worst campaigns in living memory, with gaffes aplenty, and a poor communications strategy that failed to convince Canadians that the party was anything but tired and in need of retirement.

It’s hard to conceive of the Liberals running anything but a better campaign in 2008, but they’re up against a different Conservative Party, now. Stephen Harper has not been eager to go to the polls these past two years because of a simple truth: the longer his party remains in power, even constrained by his minority numbers, the less scary his party will seem to be. Same sex marriage is now off the table. The social conservative agenda, while sparking in some bills like C-484, has been generally muted. The Conservatives have brought forward two budgets and a fiscal update that cut taxes, and the economy hasn’t tanked, yet.

However, one thing can foil Harper’s attempts to present the Conservatives as a party of nuanced, managerial leadership, and that’s the hints of hyper-partisanship that has put the party at odds with the non-partisan institutions that allow the public to access the government with confidence.

So far, we’ve had the attacks on Linda Keen, head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Council, impugning her credentials by labelling her “a Liberal appointee”. There is the whisper campaign against Elections Canada and the Conservatives’ failure to express confidence in an institution that is trusted throughout the world. We’ve had the cancellation of an information request registry, a move which Conservatives like Paul Synott calls a mistake, and now we have this:

Deputy Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff cancelled his appearance at a fundraising gala for a new library in Collingwood, Ont., over concerns his presence would jeopardize federal funding.

Mr. Ignatieff’s tour organizer, Alexis Levine, says he was advised by library board vice-chairman Paul Dulmage it would “just make things a whole lot easier if he did not come anywhere near the place.” The event was scheduled for last Saturday night.

Mr. Dulmage confirmed yesterday that he spoke to Mr. Levine and does not deny his comments.

(link) (Hat tip Greg Bester)

If this is true, it is a sad day for Canadian democracy when people whose job it is to question the government are discouraged from interacting with the public because of a possible threat of government retaliation.

The event was scheduled to be held in Collingwood, in the riding of Simcoe-Grey, currently held by Conservative MP Helena Guergis. The event, and Ignatieff’s attendance at it, was planned for months, but these concerns have only recently came to light. Ignatieff even had the courtesy to notify Guergis’ office of his visit. He was scheduled only to attend, and not to speak.

Now, to her credit, Guergis denies any suggestion that she instructed anybody to lean on anything to try and get Ignatieff out of the library event. Indeed, Guergis “did buy tickets (though she couldn’t attend due to a scheduling conflict) and donated a crystal decanter to the silent auction.” But right now it looks like somebody did. And whether it was some partisan low-level staffer getting to big for his britches or some crazy miscommunication on the part of the library board, it is in the Conservatives’ interest to investigate this and, if necessary, root it out. The Conservatives need to broadcast far and wide that government MP or opposition member, you’re free to be invited to community fundraisers without fear or favour.

Right now, the Conservatives’ big disadvantage remains the sense that they are far too partisan to govern in the interests of all Canadians. This combined with such boneheaded moves as Jim Flaherty’s blatant interference in Ontario politics for his obvious self-interest, is already serving to turn the voters off the party.

The Conservatives have questioned the competence of civil servants with spurious accusations based on who appointed them. They have suggested that ridings which elect opposition MPs will be done out of government funding. They have cancelled programs which are intended to open up the government to greater scrutiny from the public, again deriding it as a “Liberal” program when it was set up by Brian Mulroney. Even the Auditor General Sheila Frasier has issue with some of the trial balloons limiting the independence of her department and reducing the very accountability that the Conservatives came to power by campaigning on.

If the Conservatives want to take the next step towards majority government, they have to show that they understand that they are responsible for providing good government for all Canadians, and not just the interests and the voters who voted for them. They need to show that they understand that dissent is a critical component of democracy, and that it is possible to be a Liberal or a New Democrat and still be worthy of access to the services the government provides, or to the jobs which keep the wheels of government in motion.

And more important than just showing it, they need to believe it. If they act as though departments like Elections Canada or other arms length agencies are out to get them, then what they’re really saying is that large sectors of the Canadian electorate are out to get them. They are saying that voters who disagree with them are not people to be respected and debated, but enemies to be fought and humiliated. It was wrong when some Liberals hinted that their opponents where “unCanadian” or unworthy of their support (see Tom Wappel), but the Conservatives have taken this to a higher degree.

Such a party is not worthy of the trust of Canadian voters. Canadians deserve better.

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