Miller Country

The stretch of highway on the southern outskirts of the village of Shallow Lake in this largely small-town, rural riding of Bruce-Grey Owen Sound is again showing why it’s one of the safest Conservative seats in the country.All those Conservative blue “Miller” signs are not just about political party affiliation. After all the riding has see-sawed back and forth over the years between electing Liberal and Conservative or Progressive Conservative Members of Parliament to Ottawa.

But since 2004 this has been Miller Country, as in Larry Miller, the Wiarton-area beef farmer and former, Grey County municipal politician perhaps best known before for his strong opposition to the now-defunct long-gun registry.

Miller has been re-elected three times, the last in 2011 with 56.3 percent of the popular vote, leaving NDP, Liberal and Green Party Candidates far behind. That in itself speaks to his much-valued currency in Harper/Conservative ranks as a safe bet for re-election in a country where majority governments can be elected with 40 percent or less of the popular vote, including Stephen Harper’s latest government.

Miller made national and even international news during the last term of Parliament with controversial remarks, most recently this past March regarding his view that Muslim women should not be permitted to wear the Niqab face-covering when taking the oath of Canadian citizenship.

It wasn’t so much that stance, essentially the same as the Harper government’s, as it was the offensive language he used to embellish it that caused widespread outrage. Miller soon issued an apology, standing by his central position, while retracting the comments he admitted went too far.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair raised the issue of Miller’s fitness for office during the televised leaders’ debate near the start of the current federal election campaign when he accused Harper of using “code words” to create anti-Islamic sentiment for political purposes.

Without actually mentioning Miller by name, he referred to the comments a Conservative backbench MP had made, and told Harper it was “reprehensible and beneath the dignity of a Canadian prime minister” to sign the member’s nomination papers for re-election.

Canadians can be a forgiving people, even when it comes to politicians. Maybe that’s why Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound voters may be poised to re-elect Miller. Besides, his plain-talking ways may be seen as refreshing in this age of political double-talk and deceit.

As for Harper, maybe, being an introvert, he has a soft spot for a member of his caucus who is so obviously an outspoken extrovert, a member who has been described by his caucus colleagues as “the Keeper of the Flame,” the conservative flame, that is.

National Post commentator John Ivison wrote about the Miller phenomenon in a November, 2010 column.

“Most Canadians won’t have heard of Mr. Miller. But he is an important voice inside the Conservative caucus — one respected and listened to by everyone, up to and including the Prime Minister, Ivison wrote.

“’We call him the Keeper of the Flame — the voice of principle and straightforward talk in caucus,’” said James Rajotte, the Edmonton MP.

“’It’s no exaggeration to say he is the most loved and appreciated person in caucus,’” said Dean Del Mastro, the Conservative MP for Peterborough who awarded him the “Keeper of the Flame” title, previously held by the now-retired Myron Thompson.

Falls from grace in politics can happen with a resounding thud. Del Mastro himself, Harper’s former Parliamentary Secretary, and now former MP, was recently sentenced to a month in jail and four months house arrest for violating the Canada Elections Act by overspending on his re-election campaign during the 2008 federal election. He has filed appeals of both his conviction last year and his recent sentence.

There’s no sign Miller has fallen from grace in Stephen Harper’s eyes. He clearly continues to be regarded as a political asset, so much so that the Harper government gave Miller the go-ahead at the start of the election campaign to announce millions of dollars of public money to be spent in the riding, including $15.6 million for the Bruce Peninsula National Park.

There are also plenty of signs – literally – on lawns and roadsides in parts of the riding I travel through, indicating support for Miller remains strong.

It will be interesting to watch what happens on election day, even if it’s just to see if Miller’s 50-plus plurality is cut, at least partly because his occasionally offensive outspokenness has turned off at least some of the people who voted for him in 2011.

We won’t be the only ones. You can bet the outcome of the Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound riding election will make the national and maybe even international news again, one way or the other.

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