Conservative Government: Minority or Majority?

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then someone in the Larry Miller re-election campaign might want to hurry on over to Shallow Lake, take a photo, and send it off to Conservative Party of Canada election campaign national headquarters as a striking illustration of just how well things appear to be going for the Conservatives in this part of rural Ontario: it’s just one Miller/Conservative sign after another, just like it was in the last federal campaign.

It would be a mistake to say that little picture accurately represents the reality of the local big picture with a couple of weeks left to go in the current federal election campaign, any more than it did in the last one. Miller didn’t win every poll in Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, but he won what must now count as one of the safest Tory ridings in the country outside Alberta by a wide margin; and clearly he and his party are riding high in Shallow Lake. It will take a political tsunami of major proportions to change that electoral landscape.

What would it take, one can only wonder? Miller, the burly farmer from nearby Clavering, has played his populist cards with instinctive ease. He seems to be able to do no wrong, from wading into the provincial jurisdiction with a high-profile criticism of the local public school board a while back, or counselling Ontario law enforcement officers to turn a blind eye to the illegal shooting of coyotes. A strange position, someone might say, for a member of the “tough on crime” Stephen Harper-led Conservatives, and a diehard opponent of the long gun registry – for those very weapons that would be used for that illegal purpose. Did Harper agree with what Miller said about shooting coyotes? Did he even know? Did he perhaps shake his head in disbelief? Or did he think it was just the sort of illogical populist nonsense 40-percent or more of the people will buy, which gets him into majority government territory, so that makes it okay?

At least with Miller you know what he says is what he’s thinking, or not. But who knows what really goes on in the Harper mind? What you hear and see – like all that malarkey about transparency and accountability in government he talked about in previous campaigns, a breath of fresh, democratic air, in so many words – is not what you end up getting.

On the contrary, Canadians got the most top-down, dictatorial government in its history, a government that twice shut down Parliament to avoid being accountable, that got rid of its own appointed watchdogs when they dared to criticize the way veterans were being treated under new federal policies, or made it hard for them to do their jobs by cutting their budgets when they got too critical, as in the case of Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page. But Page, to his credit, has soldiered on, most recently questioning the financial wisdom of the Harper government’s untendered multi-billion-dollar decision to buy American-made, F-35 fighter jets.

The list of things that long ago should have made Canadian voters think twice before re-electing a Harper government, let alone, give him a majority, just goes on and on. Most recently, leaked drafts of an auditor-General’s report has raised questions about the way the Harper government spent millions of dollars worth of public money on the G8/20 summits last summer. One draft reportedly speaks of Parliament being mislead about where the money was coming from. No wonder the opposition keeps asking voters to consider if the Conservatives can be trusted with power again.

And yet the only question now appears, not whether or not they’ll be re-elected, but if it will be with a majority. The collective controversies appeared to be having some impact early on in the campaign, but the Conservative poll numbers have bounced back. And the national pundits, bless their hearts, are starting to call Harper the “Teflon” man, especially after this week’s leaders’ debates.

I hate to admit it, but in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, I have to say Harper’s performance was masterful. By that I mean it was a performance, deserving of some sort of acting award if they handed out such things to politicians. I don’t doubt there are some very clever people running the Harper campaign, despite the earlier foolishness of micro-controlling access to rallies. Their main man followed his leaders’ debate script perfectly.

“Harper was cool in the line of fire, smoothly deflecting some glancing shots from Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, NDP leader Jack Layton, and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe. He used his economic record as a shield repeatedly to dodge the lunges,” said a report in this newspaper after Tuesday’s English language debate. A little too fawning, I thought, but fair enough.

The opposition leaders made some good points. I especially liked Ignatieff’s reference to the failed tough-on-crime justice system in the U.S. that has put so many people in jail, with little apparent effect other than to increase, rather than decrease, the crime rate. He spoke of the need for a more “balanced,” made-in-Canada solution that focuses on crime prevention and rehabilitation.

But these debates are not about substance. They’re about appearances and impression. I wasn’t surprised the morning after to read that, in a survey taken right after the debate, 40 percent of the people polled thought Harper won. That was way more than the other leaders. And again, it puts Harper into potential majority territory. Meanwhile, the most recent national polls show the Conservatives getting back some of the support they lost in the early campaign going, including in Quebec.

Miller recently said as he knocks on doors he finds a lot of people angry that an election is even being held. The lack of election signs on lawns in most areas – Shallow Lake excepted – probably reflects that. We may be heading for another record-low voter turnout locally and nationally. And that too increases the prospect of a Harper government re-election with a majority.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2011.

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