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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Stephen Harper's Big Red Brush

It may be that the party’s own research suggests Canadians are fed up with negative ads and have decided to pull their punches as a result.

There are a growing number of female leaders in Ontario.  These leaders are being more transparent, more communicative with stakeholders, media and Opposition Parties.  They're relying on candour and charm to build their brand and grow the public's attachment to them.

In short - the trend in Canadian politics is moving away from everything that has defined Stephen Harper as a Reform/Conservative politician.

Thomas Mulcair doesn't present an existential threat to Harper and his iteration of the Conservatives.  While it's clear Justin Trudeau will give Harper a run for his money in terms of popularity, it's yet to be demonstrated the substance of what Trudeau offers will be what Canadians care about.

At the same time, it almost doesn't matter - Team Harper may have perfected the top-down, tightly-controlled "war room" politics of the last quarter-century, but there's a growing appetite for something else.  There's no small irony that the welfare state has probably made Canadians less comfortable with constant exposure to the anger button the Conservatives have favoured. 

Instead of getting angry and looking for "tough" leaders to fight off threats, the sea of troubles narrative has us looking to bridge-building leaders like Kathleen Wynne.  You'd be surprised how much middle-class voters in tough economic times "don't care" about deficits and debts but do want to know government cares about them and can account for the big picture.

The Conservatives are left with a bit of a dilemma; what do you do when the tried and true ceases to function?  Team Harper is in the unenviable position of trying to innovate new issues and new solutions, but doing so within their standard narrative of decentralization, reduction and tough-on-everything.  It's like insisting every problem is a nail, but successfully using tools other than a hammer to get the job done.

To their credit, Team Harper has started to address important issues like the need for a national mental health strategy, developing centralized supports for the workplace and creating a national, single-entry system for online public service access.  In short, they are talking like Reformers but implementing very pro-social, individually-supportive and strong-central-government types of policies.

But that's the kind of hopey-changey, move-forward-together stuff that Trudeau breathes every time he speaks.  Talk about cognitive dissonance - rhetoric aside, Harper has been forced to behaviour like a Liberal to gain his majority, essentially brand-building for his main opponent who is the embodiment of Canadian liberalism.  Trudeau doesn't need to delve into details; Harper's already demonstrated how liberal approaches can work. 

Worse; as the divides in his caucus are starting to show, the greatest threat to Harper's legacy will not be Liberal opponents, but potential successors who will try to undermine his key positions to appeal to their Reform voter base.

Harper can try to do what he did to Stephane Dion; focus on internal divisions that came out of the leadership race to divide and conquer the Liberals.  On the surface, it looks like Marc Garneau handed him the perfect line to use for this: Canadians need a leader with “qualities forged in the fire of life’s experiences.”  That, he could say, isn't Trudeau.

Apart from a dwindling appetite for political vitriol, the problem with this approach is that Harper isn't a forged-in-fire leader, either.  Forget his lack of real-world experience as an economist (or anything other than a lobbyist); Harper's been Prime Minister for long enough to mitigate his lack-lustre pre-government record. 

It's his in-government record that really proves Harper is fire-adverse.

Harper didn't like the gun registry, so he did away with it.  He didn't like CIDA, so he did away with it.  If a bureaucrat disagrees with him, they are fired or muzzled.  Reporters aren't even given the opportunity to challenge him.  What about when someone does challenge him, like Obama on Keystone? Harper takes his toys out of the oil sand-box and goes to China.  Harper pointedly doesn't engage with Canada's First Ministers, certainly not together.  Harper avoids the UN like the plague; instead of showing leadership by squaring off against the international community to find shared solutions on issues like African drought (and related humanitarian/terrorism issues) he simply chooses not to participate.

Harper picks his opponents and only personally takes on those he feels comfortable he can beat.  Any situation that involves compromise or debate on an equal playing field he avoids like the plague.  This is why he heavily favours scripted events and never wanders into the crowd - he's afraid of what could happen in situations where he doesn't have control.  I don't think our PM needs to be handcuffed by these insecurities, but apparently he does.

Meanwhile, Harper's tendency towards avoidance and putting economic and foreign interest eggs into single baskets is starting to show some cracks.  Harper might have a point in suggesting Canadians don't care about the ire he's received from domestic stakeholders ranging from media to scientists to human rights groups - so long as he's got control of the domestic agenda.  The problem is, Harper's team have tried to employ the same tactics with an international audience who doesn't back down so easily.  Canada has been slapped not just for neglecting our international community obligations, but for trying to muzzle foreign scientists as well.
There's a growing sentiment on the global stage that Canada is slipping, making us either an unreliable partner or worse, a mark to be milked.  The impact of this image erosion is slowly beginning to show in our international dealings - which in turn impacts our global brand, our big-picture economic opportunities and the folks back home who want to know our reputation is in good hands.
That's something we do care about.
It's a much-denied certainty that the political wheel is always turning; no Party leaves a dynasty and over the long-run, the progress of social evolution is a natural law.
There's still plenty of opportunity for Harper to keep his Party in power for another election and build a personal legacy that will see history recognize him as a a great Prime Minister.  The problem is that the only path that leads to legacy is a liberal one.

People do love stories that come full circle.  And we love hockey.  At least Harper still has that narrative firmly under wraps.

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