Predictions for a Tense, Testy Fall

PAUL MARTIN and Stephen HARPER are in the same bind. Both have shown skill when it comes to seizing control of a political party. Neither has demonstrated any comparable capacity for grabbing hold of the imagination of Canadians.

Predictions for a Tense, Testy Fall

PAUL MARTIN and Stephen HARPER are in the same bind. Both have shown skill when it comes to seizing control of a political party. Neither has demonstrated any comparable capacity for grabbing hold of the imagination of Canadians. In the absence of bold stands and grand visions, they have been defined in ways they can't like. Martin's critics cast him as the attention-deficit-disorder Prime Minister who meanders his way through too many files. Harper's tag him as a hard-to-warm-up-to guy who waters down his true right-leaning convictions in a bid for electability. So the task before them this fall is the same: redefine themselves before the next election. Strategists for both are laying plans to do just that as hostilities resume this week in the House of Commons.

In a speech to bureaucrats last week, Martin made his latest bid to streamline his message, singling out the rising power of China and India as Canada's key international challenge, and the aging of the baby boomers as the biggest domestic concern. While Martin was test driving big themes, Harper faced more immediate problems, including a call to step down from a disgruntled Toronto Tory organizer. But his advisers say that after a summer overhaul of his staff, he's positioned to silence critics. As the action heats up, here's a look at the files that matter in a fall that's shaping up as a tense, testy run-up to an election campaign this fall or next spring:

CHUCK CADMAN'S LEGACY: Who would make neighbourhoods safer is a theme more familiar in provincial and local elections. Yet this fall both Martin and Harper are on law-and-order kicks. Expect both sides to be invoking Chuck Cadman, the B.C. independent MP who died in July of cancer and whose advocacy of justice reform grew from the stabbing death of his 16-year-old son, Jesse, in 1992. The government is planning to introduce two bills that are being called "Chuck Cadman legacy laws," one to crack down on street racing and the other on car theft, along with a raft of other new justice initiatives. Harper doesn't want to let this file, which Tories see as a natural winner for them, slip away. His new Tory task force on crime - announced in Toronto after a spate of shootings in the city - begins his bid to frame public safety as a key campaign theme.

PUMP THE ECONOMY: Conservatives think the rising cost of filling up a car may pump new life into their old tax-cut pitch. "This is a situation where people who don't always get excited about tax cuts can see the merits," says Tory finance critic Monte Solberg. Exactly how big a gas-tax cut Harper will call for is still being kept quiet. But the Conservative strategy is to try to parlay popular demand for relief at the pumps into broader support for tax reductions. Liberals are resisting pressure to cut gas taxes. They're trying to design a scheme to offer some relief on higher home heating fuel costs to low-income households. Finance Minister Ralph Goodale's fall economic update is expected to try to sell education and innovation as the keys to prosperity. But those lofty aims, so frequently repackaged in Ottawa, will have to be dressed up with attention-grabbing specifics if Martin hopes to make them campaign winners.

PLAYING OFF THE PREMIERS: Beyond Quebec, Harper's sympathy with premiers who complain of a "fiscal imbalance," which broadly means they think Ottawa should give them more money, makes him the pro-provinces federal leader. By contrast, Martin is laying claim to being the pro-municipalities Prime Minister. This fall, watch for the Liberals to hammer out federal-provincial-municipal urban planning agreements with Toronto and Calgary, deals that might allow Martin to run as the PM who understands big cities. At the same time, some Liberal strategists want Martin to battle the premiers over health waiting times, if the provinces fail to make convincing strides toward implementing last fall's fed-prov pact to shrink them. Harper would position himself as an ally of provinces, respectful of their jurisdiction in health. But Martin's stance as champion of national health goals might prove better to campaign on.

BASH THE BLOC: Liberal MPs and strategists are taking a much tougher line on the Bloc Québécois. Early evidence: Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew's charged recently that the Bloc is intolerant of ethnic minorities. It's not just about battling the Bloc for Quebec seats where the allophone vote is strong, according to Liberal insiders. The Liberal message to voters outside Quebec is that in a minority House, the separatist party has clout - so give us a majority. Harper has his own Quebec problem, after coming under public fire from a few disgruntled Tory candidates in the province, and his low poll standings there undermine his claim to status as a truly national leader. His long-term hope is that Conservative respect for provincial jurisdiction will resonate with Quebecers.

GLOBAL GRIM TIDINGS: Can Martin turn two of the grimmest international issues into political winners? This isn't feel-good stuff. In October, Canada will host an international summit in Ottawa on how to prepare for an avian flu pandemic. And global warming has a big place on the fall agenda: a huge UN climate change conference is scheduled for Nov. 28-Dec. 9 in Montreal. Will Ottawa's plan for coping with a massive flu epidemic stand scrutiny? Will Canada look credible on meeting Kyoto greenhouse gas emissions reductions? Liberals want to look like leaders on both; Tories will cast them as unprepared. The Montreal meeting could be a celebrity-studded affair. Government officials expect some environmentally conscious movie stars to show up (Robert Redford's name is whispered) along with marquee political names from the U.S. (Senator John McCain is a possibility). The inevitable buzz will draw Canadian politicians of all stripes.

SEASON OF STRONACH: Last spring's most surprising political story was Belinda Stronach's defection to the Liberals from the Conservatives. Martin has handed her three key files as his human resources and skills development minister. On the economic front, she'll be pushing education and skills as the keys to competitiveness. On the reform of government, she's spearheading Service Canada, the new federal department that will control delivery of everything from pensions to passports. And she's got a lead role in responding to Justice John Gomery's inquiry into the sponsorship scandal. She'll try to shift the focus from voter-riling corruption to voter-soothing reforms. "If there was wrongdoing, individuals should be brought to justice," Stronach said in an interview. "But the big issue is managing taxpayer money wisely. We need to look at what lessons we can learn from the sponsorship scandal." Needless to say, Harper will try to tear her down. He must fix attention on the original mess, not the cleanup operation.

READY TO RUN: Overshadowing all the issues is the single biggest political preoccupation: when will the election come? Martin has promised to call one within 30 days of Gomery delivering his final recommendations, but that's been put off to Feb. 1. Harper might decide it would be better to force a vote over Gomery's first report, slated for Nov.1, which will detail the judge's findings, but not how he would change government to stop a similar scandal in the future. The numbers in the minority House make it a precarious place. Martin needs the support of the NDP, along with at least two of the three independent MPs, to survive, assuming the Conservatives and the Bloc are aligned against him. But even a few absentees might tip the balance.

That means House discipline is vital - and election readiness essential. The mood is poisonous. "There's been a breakdown in communications," complains Tory House leader Jay Hill. "It's all about pre-election positioning," admits one minister's aide. Martin and Harper may try to redefine themselves this fall as policy visionaries. But with the mood on the Hill turning testy, they might have to settle for renewing their credentials as determined partisan combatants.

Maclean's October 3, 2005