I was immensely cheered yesterday to see that the Conservatives have made no meaningful headway in the polls.
This is a remarkable feat of political incompetence. The Conservatives face a fractured opposition led by a leader whose English is shaky and is still gaining his feet as a national leader. While Monsieur Dion may in time prove himself as a competent (or who knows, even imspirational) leader that time has not yet arrived. Moreover, Stephen Harper has a hotel sized buffet of issues from which to chose around which he could rally the troops, mobilize his core and shift the necessary number of votes in the margin. On top of that, the Liberals are trebly burdened with a sizable debt (both at the party and individual leader levels), a non-functional fundraising apparatus and new fund raising limitations imposed as a farewell legacy gift from Jean Chretin. Why has Harper therefore failed to build a steamroller of support that will carrry him to the next election?
I for think that the answer has to lie in his failure to communicate and then stand behind any vision. While Paul Martin was wilting under the heat of Gomery and Harper was rolling toward victory, I for one was living in dread of the victory of the Conservatives. I expected a range of actions on matters near and dear to my heart -- be it social issues like same sex marriage or constitutional issues like limiting federal power in favour of the provinces or creating a triple-E senate -- that would fundamentally alter the politica, legal or social structure of Canada creating a meaner, more conservative, less functional and less cohesive nation.
There were good reasons to believe this. Unlike almost any Prime Minister -- except possibly Mackenzie King -- Stephen Harper had a platform before entering elected politics from which he could articulate an intellectual vision for Canada and regardless of whether I agreed with that vision, using the National Citizens Coalition he did. It was a vision that if implemented would have seen limitations on campaign advertising abolished, seen provinces strengthened and the federal government weakened, seen property rights entrenched in the Consitution, brought an end to treaty talks and so on. While I disagree with most of this it did constitute a vision and despite what may have to be said in the course of any election it is not a fascist or unimaginable vision -- indeed compared to our neighbours to the south and even some European countries it would have been a moderately conservative vision.
This is not to say that the vision had to be backed up by an absolutely consistent program -- there is no such thing in politics and to try to implement one is political suicide. Trudeau and Mulroney both had visions (albeit implemented very differently) that focused on the reconciliation of English and French Canada in one nation. Trudeau tried to implement his vision through the creation of string national institutions and the entrenchment of individual human rights. Mulroney through symobolic reconciliation in constitutional reform and the creation of a more flexible economy with the negotiation of free trade with the United States. Both succeeded in some areas and both failed in others and their overall records are filled with actions which conflicted with these visions at times or had nothing to do with them, when push came to shove. Similarly, the Chretin-Martin government articulated and carried out a vision of fiscal reform which was implemented masterfully despite all of the other flaws of that administration in other areas (including national unity).
Harper by contrast has done nothing that shows any commitment to anything other than npot upsetting any apple cart that has a greater than 5% chance of mattering. Thus no vision on Senate reform -- just a 1/4 measure carefully advanced to avoid any real debate because it is not a constitutional amendment. Instead of a debate on same sex marriage a debate on whether or not to have a denate on same sex marriage. Instead of repealing the third party spending laws -- a matter that he took to the Supreme Court of Canada as a matter of national importance -- he has further entrenched these types of restrictions. Instead of a series of moves designed to bring the West into the political establishment of the east Harper has focused much more intensely (for obvious short term political reasons) on placating Quebec (Can one imagine Quebec sovereignty resolution from any of the previous administrations?).
The net effect of all of this has been the development of a sense of 'who cares'? Those amongst us who wanted to see significant change in some area -- any area -- are disappointed and uninterested. Those of us who want to see public debate and the development of a vision are disppointed. The great majority in the middle who want to see some set of priorities set and moved forward that they can then think about, assess and react to are mystified. The problem then is that all anyone can see is a charmless leader who gives us this vaguely uneasy feeling.
Hardly a reason to vote Conservative now is it?