Federal Conservatives Are Angry with a Purpose

There is a recurring moment of suspense in the House of COMMONS, imperceptible on TV, but palpable to those who are actually in the chamber.

Federal Conservatives Are Angry with a Purpose

There is a recurring moment of suspense in the House of COMMONS, imperceptible on TV, but palpable to those who are actually in the chamber. Rising to answer a question, Prime Minister Stephen HARPER turns, buttoning his suit jacket, to face the Speaker, and the pulse of the place seems to still for half a beat as MPs wait to hear if he's going to say something incendiary. Usually he doesn't; but often enough he does. He doesn't signal that he's about to by raising his voice, or reddening with anger, or appearing agitated. But the messages he's capable of so calmly delivering - that Liberals are more concerned about the Taliban than about Canadian troops, say, or that their leader is implicated somehow in comments that diminish the Holocaust - can make just about anything said by any other prime minister in memory seem mild by comparison.

If it was only in Question Period that this instinct for the jugular showed itself, that would be noteworthy enough. But the most pronounced trait so far of the Harper era, or what the Tories hope will last long enough to get that label, is its more general non-stop, top-down partisan snarl. It can be heard in the relentless negative advertising, two sets of ads each in English and French launched by the Tories this year aimed at defining Stéphane DION as a leader who doesn't know how to lead. It extends to the confrontational mood in House committees, and to the relentless keep-your-game-face-on, permanent-campaign mode maintained by Harper's retinue, even when there is no sign of an election on the horizon.

There have been more rancorous stretches in Canadian political life, says University of Toronto history professor Robert Bothwell. He cites the 1962-67 period, when Conservative John DIEFENBAKER nursed his grievance over losing power to Liberal Lester PEARSON, and Dief's bitterness set a nasty tone in the House. Looking back even further, Liberal Wilfrid LAURIER's outrage over losing to Conservative Robert BORDEN in the 1911 election enveloped Ottawa in a cloud of partisan malice that only the outbreak of the First World War could dissipate.

But in those cases, and in more recent runs of uncommonly hard feelings on the Hill, like when the Liberal "Rat Pack" was harassing Prime Minister Brian MULRONEY, the instigators were the losers. Bothwell cannot think of a single serving prime minister who dished out the tough stuff like the current one. This PM, he contends, after taking a close look at Harper's political roots for the closing chapter of his recently published Penguin History of Canada, takes reviling his rivals to a new level. Bothwell puts it down to depth of ideological fervour, a Canadian version of what is often called, in the U.S., the culture wars. "Harper hates the Liberals, not just in the partisan way that Diefenbaker would have hated Pearson," Bothwell says. "He attaches all the ills of our society to permissive Liberals. This is not his mouth getting out of control, this is not opportunistic - this is real."

But the conviction Harper so indisputably projects is only part of the explanation. Senior Conservatives and veteran opposition MPs, along with pollsters and other analysts, point to strategic factors too. He is facing a rookie opponent in Dion, and Tories learned in Ontario back in 1999, when Dalton MCGUINTY, now premier, was a novice provincial Liberal leader, how going negative early could damage an adversary not yet well defined in the public imagination.

As well, Harper was clearly planning for a possible spring election through the first few months of this year, and so his tough talk might have been meant to set an example by keeping his campaign edge honed. Perhaps most importantly, his government has been knocked around badly - over the Afghan detainee issue, a surprisingly controversial budget, and a hard-to-sell climate change package - and Harper's most stinging jabs were often counterpunches.

Consider the way he slipped in his accusation about the Liberals' sympathizing with Taliban terrorists. Harper levelled it on March 21, a day when Question Period opened with Dion attacking him over reneging on his campaign commitment to remove provincial oil and gas revenues from the formula that sets federal equalization payments to Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan. Under siege over that measure and others in his 2007 budget, Harper seemed to be looking for a way to turn the tables. So when the simmering issue of how Afghan detainees were being treated came up, he exploited the opening. "I can understand the passion that the leader of the Opposition and members of his party feel for Taliban prisoners," he said. "I just wish occasionally they would show the same passion for Canadian soldiers."

For that day's news cycle, at least, Harper had effectively switched the channel, and served notice to Tories that a little flack over a budget wouldn't set him back on his heels. Yet at that point he was riding high in the polls, so the immediate need to play hardball was not apparent. His popularity in late March was largely attributed to the success of the first batches of Tory attack ads portraying Dion as a ditherer who can't set priorities. It was impossible not to be reminded of the Ontario Conservative assault on McGuinty in 1999, which labelled him "not up to the job." In both cases the objective was to fill in the blanks in the minds of undecided voters concerning a relatively unknown new figure on the political stage.

Robert MacDermid, a York University politics professor who studies party advertising, says the anti-Dion campaign is clearly modelled on the successful undermining of McGuinty. Many veterans of the Mike HARRIS Conservatives are now on Harper's team. But those searing early ads that branded McGuinty a callow weakling ran for only about two weeks, then were echoed in ads that ran in the campaign that followed just six months later. The negative assault on Dion has now dragged on for months, and a federal election could be a year or more away. "How long can you sustain negative attacks without people becoming disgusted with them? That's the very real worry," MacDermid says. "It's probably a bad idea to be running these now when there's no sign of an election. People will get tired of it and Dion will have time to refute them."

Although Dion is hardly riding high, he seems to be weathering the worst of what the Tories can throw at him. Meanwhile, Harper's approval ratings have been slipping. According to the Angus Reid polling firm, Dion has consistently been chosen as "best prime minister" by 17 to 19 per cent of Canadians for the past few months - weak but holding. During the same period Harper has plummeted in the preferred prime minister category from 41 per cent in late March to 31 per cent in late May, all while he was lashing out at Liberals and his party's ads were attacking their leader. It's a far cry from the solid, workmanlike performance of his government's first few months in office, from January to June last year. "Around this time in 2006, they were more or less in charge and things were going more or less their way," says Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale. "Now, it's the reverse of that."

Given that he commands only a minority, though, it was probably inevitable that Harper wouldn't be able to maintain his early momentum. With that in mind, his supporters tend to cite the most basic measure of political success: he's still in power. "The first job of a minority is to survive," says Tom Flanagan, the University of Calgary political science professor who was once Harper's top adviser, but is now writing a book drawn from his experiences in Harper's leadership and election campaigns. As for the mean mood in Parliament, Flanagan blames it on the opposition "harassing the government and frustrating it." He points to what he calls unprecedented "opposition coalition" tactics, such as passing a private member's bill, now before the Senate, that would force the government to hit Kyoto climate change targets that run counter to its policy.

Yet even as staunch a Harper man as Flanagan finds it hard to muster an unequivocal defence of the Prime Minister's more excoriating comments in the House. Pressed on whether Harper might be squandering a chance to cultivate a prime ministerial mien by acting as his own hit man, Flanagan concedes, "It might be better to have other people do more of it." Designating an enforcer or two - Environment Minister John Baird springs to mind - would be a more conventional approach. "That's the norm, you have a particular individual in that role," says veteran NDP MP Joe Comartin. "But Baird often doesn't get the opportunity because the Prime Minister is doing it himself."

Opposition MPs complain not only that Harper can be ruthlessly harsh, but also that he sets a disdainful example for his front benches by refusing to respond to the substance of questions. Anyone who has watched Question Period even casually over the years knows he didn't invent the dodge. But Harper can be almost breathtaking in his disregard for the convention that he and his ministers should make at least a passing feint at an answer. A prime example came after Green party Leader Elizabeth May cut a deal with Dion, under which the Liberals agreed not to run a candidate against her when she bids to upset Foreign Minister Peter MacKay in his Nova Scotia riding. Harper was determined to make Dion wear any subsequent May mistakes, and his chance came when she compared denying climate change to pre-Second World War appeasement of Hitler. The Prime Minister raised the matter in a brazen non sequitur.

Dion: "Mr. Speaker, does the Prime Minister still have confidence in his minister of national defence, yes or no?"

Harper: "Mr. Speaker, I have said repeatedly that it is the Leader of the Opposition in whom I lack confidence. What leads me to that conclusion today would be reading a copy of a letter I received from Ed Morgan, the national president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, noting that his colleague, Elizabeth May, has diminished the Holocaust, used the Nazi analogy that is demagogic and inappropriate, while belittling Canadians of faith ..."

Whether Harper makes clear-headed tactical decisions to wade into the fray, or simply can't help himself, is an open question. Flanagan suggests that his anger over what he sees as Liberal hypocrisy, particularly on Afghanistan, spurs him on. "One thing that has irritated him, and partly explains why he's mixing it up himself, is the way the Liberals have backtracked on some of their positions," he says. "Having launched the mission in Kandahar, they are now making a point of harassing and obstructing the mission."

While Afghanistan has sparked many of Harper's harshest lines in the House, the tone he sets spills over to less obviously charged issues. At the level of House committees, where the televised theatrics of QP have traditionally given way to a pragmatic working relationship among parties, Harper has codified partisan intensity into a how-to book. A secret manual for Conservative committee chairmen, leaked a few weeks ago, prescribes how to coach friendly witnesses and summarily shut down any meeting that's proving embarrassing for the government.

The official languages committee was paralyzed last month after its chairman abruptly called off hearings into the government's cancellation of a program that helped minority groups pay for CHARTER OF RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS court cases. On the other hand, the Liberals also try to avoid potentially embarrassing hearings, voting, for intstance, to prevent former Liberal immigration ministers to be called before the House citizenship and immigration committee to answer questions about their policy on refugee appeals.

But as clashes at a few committees capture wide attention, the constructive work of others is going all but unnoticed. Opposition MPs generally praise the Conservative chairman of the citizenship committee, MP Norman Doyle, for keeping the peace in that potentially divisive study of refugee issues. Even the justice committee, which is working its way through a raft of crime bills on which senior Tories often accuse the Liberals of stonewalling, appears to be functioning well.

This leads to an awkward balancing act in government messaging: boasting of progress while simultaneously accusing the opposition of obstruction. A recent news release from Justice Minister Rob Nicholson heralded passage of a key law to eliminate conditional sentences for serious offences, like sexual assault and organized crime, and still found room to excoriate the opposition for "not allowing us to bring the rest of our legislative agenda into force."

In fact, several other key justice bills, including a crackdown on street racing and stiffer penalties for gun crime, have already been passed. That should be enough for Harper to claim to have made good on his key campaign vow to get tough on crime, one of his famous top-five platform pledges. He can check off three more, cutting the GST a point, imposing new government accountability rules, and paying a $1,200-a-year bonus to parents for every kid under six. Only his commitment to establish a wait times guarantee for health appears, at best, only partly fulfilled. But a four out of five record suggests that Harper's frustration might be at least partly over his lack of a compelling new agenda to take its place. "The government does need to regroup," Flanagan says. "The platform is getting close to being politically exhausted, at least in a minority government situation. They need some time to think about what the next step is."

Opposition strategists tend to attribute much of Harper's testiness to the fact that he's run out of priorities before being voted out of power. "They weren't able to force a spring election," says the NDP's Comartin, "and they didn't have a fallback position." He predicts that tempers, including the Prime Minister's, might cool if the government comes back in the fall with fresh ideas. But MacDermid doubts Harper will ever find governing with a minority comfortable enough to ease into a prime ministerial demeanour. "In a minority situation, it's harder to do the regal thing," he says. "What he's displaying is campaign behaviour rather than House behaviour."

Whatever one calls it, his behaviour is the dominant factor in federal politics today. More than his policy priorities, which have largely been implemented, or his ideological bent, which he has repeatedly shown he is willing to moderate, it is his intractable partisanship that is defining him in office. If the tack seemed to be leading him toward his goal - enough popular support to make a bid for a majority government - there would be no question of changing course. But his recent polling slump suggests it isn't getting him there. "This acerbic, mean edge just doesn't work in the long run," says Goodale. Hearing that from a Liberal might just be enough to make Harper want to keep it up. The question, as he heads into a summer of reflection, is whether Tories too will be urging him to tone it down.

Maclean's June 18, 2007