Tories Talking Tough

Sometime around 400 CE, Flavius Vegetius Renatus gave the world Epitoma rei militaris. He also wrote about veterinary medicine, but it was this book, a fawning guide to Roman military tactics, which would be his legacy.

Tories Talking Tough

Sometime around 400 CE, Flavius Vegetius Renatus gave the world Epitoma rei militaris. He also wrote about veterinary medicine, but it was this book, a fawning guide to Roman military tactics, which would be his legacy. For centuries to come, leaders in need of encouragement or justification would rely on the ancient tome. Never mind that Vegetius was, by most accounts, not much of a soldier himself.

So of course, speaking to a prominent Conservative and friend of Stephen HARPER recently, it does not take long for Vegetius to come up. "I think the overall philosophy is the old Latin proverb Si vis pacem, para bellum," says Tom Flanagan, the University of Calgary professor. "It means, 'if you want peace, prepare for war.' " The passage of which Flanagan speaks goes on to say: "He who aspires to victory, should spare no pains to form his soldiers. And he who hopes for success, should fight on principle, not chance."

Now, Vegetius threw around a lot of maxims - "Valor is superior to numbers," for example - but there may be something to his musings on peace-mongering. And it does seem to offer the best explanation yet as to why Canada's governing party is so prone to casting itself as such an aggressive and domineering ruler.

"As you know," Liberal leader Stéphane DION half-joked, half-lamented during a speech in Toronto last week, "I've been in a lot of commercials lately." Indeed, he'd barely started his new job last fall when he found himself the subject of television ads that portrayed him as indecisive and whiny. Critics questioned the use of negative ads outside an election campaign, but the Tories pressed on. Last week, they released their latest commercial. "By solving the fiscal imbalance, the Harper budget helped Quebec move forward. Yet Stéphane Dion still denies the problem," the French ad said. "We can even wonder whether he'll try to take the money back at the first opportunity."

When Dion replied with his own radio ads, the Tories posted an item on their website under the headline: "Dion Flip-Flops on Using Negative Ads." All this while the government was responding to newspaper ads from Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams with still more "public service announcements" - proclaiming the province had been "blessed" by the budget. "They're not negative. The ads we're running are factual," says John Reynolds, co-chair of the last Conservative campaign. "I think it's all part of showing leadership."

So, presumably, was the Conservatives' decision to show journalists around their new 17,000-sq.-foot campaign headquarters in Ottawa. "We've taken the big and costly step of opening this facility because Stéphane Dion has put the country on notice," Environment Minister John Baird explained. "He's told Canadians he wants to go back to power as soon as possible." This was far beyond what you might expect from a party that is both in charge and ahead in the polls. "I was a bit surprised by it," says one senior Tory. "In past campaigns, we always rigorously kept the media away. I guess it's part of the deterrence policy." This Tory believes Harper really doesn't want an election: "His long-term strategy was to stay in power and demonstrate that there wasn't anything scary there. He's always said that the longer he stays in power, the better off he is."

But assuaging fears needn't require you play nice. If anything, Harper seems to crave combat all the more as Prime Minister. Witness his suggestion that Dion cares more for the Taliban than Canadian soldiers. "Yeah, he's combative," the Tory says. "But I don't think he does things just because he enjoys them. Everything he does is strategically thought through, so he wouldn't indulge himself."

At least not needlessly. Because once you've proven yourself a willing and able foe - and shown your opponent to be ill-prepared for battle - the advantage is yours to press. When the House returns next week, the Tories are expected to move ahead with law and order legislation and announce further climate change initiatives, something that will put Baird, the government's most gleeful hector, front and centre. "If I were in [Harper's] position, enjoying the financial and organizational advantages, I think I'd start shoving it down their throats, frankly," the Tory says. "There's all kinds of areas in which Harper's been proceeding by half steps ... I think he's got an opportunity now to push harder."

To quote the long-dead observer of Roman military practice again: "You must always endeavour to get the start of your enemy ... For a superiority of courage seems to be implied on the side of an army that offers battle, whereas troops begin to be fearful who see their enemies ready to attack them."

Maclean's April 23, 2007