Conservatives Bouncing Back

As of mid-week the latest poll suggested the Conservatives under Prime Minister Stephen Harper had already bounced back from two earlier polls that had them in a “statistical” tie with the Liberals under Michael Ignatief.

Conducted by Harris-Decima for The Canadian Press, it has the Tories at 34 per cent compared to the Liberals at 28 per cent. The NDP are at 15 and the Green Party is at 12 per cent.

I tend to think the results of such polls should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. I’m no expert, and I suppose it’s true the people who run these things know how to make them scientifically valid, and accurate within a couple of percentage points. But, given how influential they can be, to the extent that they may affect the direction of the political winds one way or another, we should treat them very cautiously.

I’d be willing to bet Stephen Harper would agree. The Canadian Press-Decima poll results and the modest Conservative rebound they reflect may be cold comfort to him and other great thinkers in his minority government. They show the Conservatives making little if any headway in Harper’s quest for more power in the form of a majority government, especially in vote-rich Quebec and Ontario. He has tried to portray his government as centrist, rather than right-wing.  But, if that’s the Harper master plan for winning and keeping a majority government, for turning the Conservatives into Canada’s “natural governing party,” a role once held by the Liberals, then it has gone off the rails this summer.

I find it interesting two Conservative cabinet ministers with a background in right-wing, provincial politics have been at the forefront of moves that have revealed the social-conservative, right-wing heart of the party and turned into huge embarrassments for the Harper government. One was Stockwell Day justifying the government’s plan to spend $9 billion on the building of new federal jails on “unreported crime.” The other is Tony Clement’s mishandling of the government’s now-controversial decision to axe the mandatory long-form census in favour of a voluntary one.

Harper has been taking it easy this summer, having a holiday, letting others carry the political ball. Well, Day and Clement have dropped it, and if the Conservatives have any hope of getting back on track toward centrist- majority territory, he’s going to have to pick it up and take control again before calling another election. Then these recent poll results may not mean much at all.

I talked about Day’s foolishness last week. If anything, Clement’s mishandling of the long-form census issue is an even bigger embarrassment, especially in this area with Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MP Larry Miller getting in on the act.

Miller, a former Mayor of Georgian Bluffs and member of Grey County Council, must have been in his comfort zone when he appeared before county council recently and spoke mainly about agriculture. But county councillors were more interested in the long-form census and joined the growing list of people and organizations calling for the Harper government to reverse its action and restore the mandatory form. I certainly found that striking. In my experience covering Grey County council over the years it was always a pretty hard-core conservative group.

In what has become typical for Miller, he blamed the “national media” for creating and blowing the issue out of all proportion. (Is that what the government tells its backbenchers to say?) He also admitted he broke the law by not completing the mandatory long-form census when it was sent to him:

“I happened to be one of the people who was in the two last long form censuses and there were just some questions very personal ones and some financial ones that, as far as I’m concerned, are between me and my accountant and Revenue Canada that I refused to answer,” he was quoted as saying in an article in this newspaper. “When they came back, one of the first comments out of the lady was ‘As an MP do you think you want to do that?’

“Well that just shot the issue of confidentiality right down the tubes right there and I just refused” to take part any further.”

If Miller was comfortable sharing his confidential information with Revenue Canada, he should have been just as comfortable with Statistics Canada, whose reputation for protecting and respecting confidentiality is impeccable. What “the lady” said was not a threat to expose his refusal to complete the form; rather, I’m quite sure it was a suggestion that as an MP he perhaps should have had more respect for the laws passed by Parliament, including the Statistics Act. Give your head a shake Larry and think about it.

I almost feel sorry for Stephen Harper, and the anxiety he must feel sometimes, having to worry about what comes out of the mouths of his cabinet ministers, let alone some of his backbench MPs. No wonder the guy’s a control freak.

He must sympathize with Napoleon, who went to lay down for a while on doctor’s orders midway through the Battle of Waterloo, only to return to the battle after an hour or so to find his chief lieutenant, Marshal Ney, had made a fatal blunder in his absence.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Is this the summer of Harper’s Waterloo?

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2010.

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