The Conservatives have had two years to demonstrate that they represent all Canadians, not merely their partisan base. Instead, they have demonstrated that they just don't get it.
By Ryan McGreal
Published December 20, 2007
I've written from time to time in the past about the federal government's tendency to craft legislation based on overtly cynical politicking and relentless, combative partisanship. That tendency is very much in evidence of late.
In a recent column on the Harper government's emissions trading program, the Star's Ian Urquhart highlighted the fallacy of using "intensity" rather than absolute amount of emissions as a yardstick:
[T]ar sands developers will be eligible for up to $700 million in "carbon credits" - even as they increase their greenhouse gas emissions.
Meanwhile, Ontario will get nothing for closing its coal-fired plants, thereby eliminating about half of the province's greenhouse gas emissions.
This is after the government's cringe-inducing obstructionism at the Bali climate change conference. As Star columnist Chantal Hebert observed:
[T]he Bali meeting was a multiday communications disaster for the Harper regime. It set back a year of Conservative efforts to rebrand the party on climate change and confirmed the issue as the government's Achilles heel.
For the Harper government, the Bali meeting could have been an opportunity to square the circle of its repositioning on the environment, by stepping in front of the upcoming American parade. Instead it locked itself in step with a moribund administration.
For as long as the debate was focused on the Kyoto Protocol, blaming the Liberals for Canada's lagging climate change record was a credible Conservative mantra. But last week, the debate shifted to the future and, with the spotlight squarely on them, the Conservatives were only too easily portrayed as climate change isolationists, rather than activists.
This, in turn, follows a long string of policies designed to buy votes rather than promote sound policies, including a vote-buying non-refundable tax credit for transit (instead of increasing funding to transit providers), cancelling the Liberals' modest climate change initiatives and then re-launching them with the Conservative brand, and claiming the municipal infrastructure deficit crisis is not their problem.
Even the government's handling of the Chalk River radioisotope crisis was laced with partisan attacks and blame-avoidance. From the Canadian Press:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, during heated debate last week in the Commons, blamed the "Liberal-appointed" safety commission for refusing to recognize the overriding need to resume isotope production.
Similarly, the Conservatives have utterly failed to reach out to urban voters. After the 2006 election, I wrote:
Now it remains to be seen whether the Conservative minority government makes the effort to understand what urban voters value and want from government. To do so will force them to re-evaluate some of their assumptions about the value of public amenities and public services.
It's pretty clear that the Conservatives have not succeeded. Their disdain for the crisis in municipal infrastructure - arguably the biggest problem Canada faces - is a facet of this failure. They should be funding cities because it's the right thing to, not based on whether they think they can buy votes.
The Conservatives have had two years to demonstrate that they represent all Canadians and recognize the positive role government can play in producing a prosperous, sustainable society. Instead, they have demonstrated repeatedly that they just don't get it.
Their first loyalty is to the Alberta oil industry and their corporate sponsors. Their principal strategy for managing Parliament has been to split the opposition with emotional wedge issues and capitalize on the Liberals' organizational disarray instead of rolling out sound, evidence-based policies to address the biggest challenges this country faces.
No one can deny their political savvy at keeping a minority government going for two years and counting, but they have precious little to show for it. The latest polling data indicate that popular support for the Conservatives has stagnated around 30 percent.
It's possible that the choice between another year as a minority (and another year for the Liberals to rebuild and go on the offensive) and a snap election with a disaffected electorate will make the Conservatives more conciliatory to what the majority of Canadians actually want.
However, that would require Harper and his advisors to abandon their narrow, divisive vision of how Canada should be governed. It would eliminate their raison d'etre and further betray the small but dedicated Conservative base that already feels the party has sacrificed too much ideological purity to achieve power.
In other words, the Conservatives have backed themselves into a corner. The only way they can prove their fitness to govern with a majority is by giving up the strategy that swept them into power in the first place.
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