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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.

Monday 8 April 2013

The Canadian Conservative Conundrum

Two-thirds of Canadians believe Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is too secretive and has failed to govern with high ethical standards, a new poll has found.

Conservatives in Canada are facing down a dilemma; the national mood is shifting away from the disgruntlement that fueled Harper's rise to power.  The tools that have helped him beat down opposition in the past are resonating less and less as more proactive, pro-social alternatives are being embraced by others. 
Pulse of the Nation
We've become immune to the constant pushing of the fear button; none of the threats Harper has warned us against have materialized.  The bold transformations that Harper tempted Canadians with - a renewed era of government accountability, a more powerful place on the world stage and a strengthened economy - those haven't materialized, either.
Meanwhile, the deficit remains stubbornly present.  The private sector has not been inspired to hire and out-of-work citizens across the country are becoming desperate.  You might be able to shrug off the odd interest group criticizing the Harper government of stifling debate and muzzling freedom of speech as sour grapes, but when its coming from scientists, bureaucrats, Harper appointees, advisers to previous Conservative leaders, environmental groups, First Nations groups, the provinces, doctors, generally conservative media and even Harper Caucus members, its hard not to see a pattern emerging.
Either more and more Canadians are seeing themselves as liberal or a growing number of us are losing faith in Harper's ability to lead.  Whatever the case may be, it paints a problematic picture for the formerly progressive Conservatives.
Harper Canada's New Cloak
Part of PM Harper's pitch to Canadians was that he would see Canada gain more clout on the global stage.  No more Mister Nice Guy, he seemed to be telling us - Mister Angry has the tiller now.  His new macho approach pushed the military success of our past (including the War of 1812) and tried to rebrand Canada as decisive and action-oriented.
The problem is, his original concept hasn't translated well into practice.  Instead of being a leader on the world stage, he's instead rebranded Canada as a stodgy bean counter.  When weighty issues are being discussed (like drought in Africa and all the spin-off consequences), Team Harper demands to see the immediate ROI; if they can't easily see it, they pick up their toys and leave the sandbox.  It's fine to decry debate and dialogue as a talkfest, but when you don't provide alternatives your credibility takes a hit.
Besides - Canadians liked our reputation as The Nation of Sober Second Thought.  It was something to be proud of; where other nations would push the world to crisis through stubborn aggression, Canada would find an alternative.  When the selfish interests of nation states was hurting civilian populations, Canada would politely but forcefully convince others to do the right thing.
As we walk away from one global conversation after the other, our global reputation is taking a hit.  Instead of turning Canada into a superpower, Harper has instead rebranded us as something of a petulant oddity.  Not only have our scientists and dignitaries lost credibility - we have lost credibility.
Painted Into the Corner
It's no secret that PM Harper dislikes the media.  He isn't overly fond of mixing and mingling with every day Canadians, either.  Part of the reason there's such a broad belief that Harper has a secret agenda is because he is so reluctant to engage openly with the public.  There are many reasons why this could be the case, but the reason Harper himself seems to cling to is that his role as PM is functionary.  He has things as leader he's supposed to do, but inspire those he leads isn't among them. 
Meanwhile, other leaders in Canada are moving in the exact opposite direction - Premiers like Alison Redford and Kathleen Wynne are engaging with Canadians, the media, even the Opposition, setting the bar high on engagement and transparency.  This approach seems to be paying off for them, proving once again that Canadians like to be engaged - they've only lacked engaging leaders.
This winning approach is the opposite of what has been Harper Standard - circle the wagons, attack the opposition and tell the people that the alternative isn't worth the risk.  The Harper brand is stability - protection from separatists and socialists and seas of threats lapping at shores.  Alas, a growing number of Canadians aren't content with the status quo; in places like Ontario and Quebec, a decade of Harper governance hasn't made their lives better.  In the West, Canadians are more comfortable in their place in Confederation and feeling a bit more broad-minded. 
For a growing majority of Canadians, "it could be worse" just isn't good enough. 
Better together?  There might be something to that.
Canadian Renewal
Enter Justin Trudeau; young, optimistic, a bit playful, demonstrably resilient.  Whereas Harper is a camera-shy technocrat, Trudeau oozes charm in both official languages.  With strong policy stances starting to emerge, Trudeau is slowly crafting a reputation as someone unafraid to take a position on issues that matter, too.  As his famously flowing locks get shorter and his messaging grows tighter, Trudeau is increasingly demonstrating the confidence and discipline Canadians want in their leader, but he's also radiating personality and approachability, something else Canadians love but haven't had in a leader for some time.
Harper can and will launch his attach machine against Trudeau, focusing in on some carefully-polled points they feel he is weak on.  Here's the problem; with the nation's spotlight, a massive social media presence and a greater openness to the national media than the PM provides, Trudeau has a natural platform to rapidly counter any offensive Harper throws at him. 
Too much an elitist?  Not when he's casually visiting Canadians in coffee shops, public parks and private businesses, actively listening and the repeating what he's learned on the trail.  Too young?  A series of chats with Emerging Canadian Leaders ranging from social entrepreneurs to student politicians will show Canadians that the next generation of Canadian leaders are all young. 
In response to attacks, Team Trudeau doesn't even need to go negative; they can crib the line Dalton McGuinty used against Ernie Eves and say "I know Harper, this campaign seems to be taking a toll on him and his team, maybe they've run out of steam."  Nothing stings worse than empathy.  Add some images of Trudeau being loved by citizens around the world and in communities from across Canada,, you'll have a defining contrast between Harper and Trudeau - "it could be worse" vs. "we've always done better and can again."
Harper will be putting a new face on his Cabinet and rolling out some new policy to present a bold new Conservative Party for 2015.  Here's where the real challenges lie - pumping his economic record won't help much if unemployment continues to rise and hiring stays stagnant.  With the growing discontent with Harper's approach to the Oil Sands, one of his major planks could wash away from beneath him.  To really connect with the people, the Conservatives will have to roll out some pro-social policy and play more to the hearts and minds of Canadians rather than just fears and wallets. 
They will also need to be cautious about playing dirty tricks with robocalls and the like; there's just enough disenfranchisement among their own ranks and broader social media scrutiny that foul play will be uncovered and aired.   
In the light of inevitable public scrutiny and an increased demand for inspirational leadership, Team Harper will have to become increasingly liberal to keep a Conservative hold on Canadian government.

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