Tactics in Canadian Politics

For those of you who visit here for tips on writing, for the next few weeks (until May 2nd, anyway), you won’t find many except in the archives. Instead, I’ll be blogging about the Canadian federal election.

My biases first.

I ran as a Liberal candidate in 1988 federally in Alberta. (I should point out that then, as now, being a Liberal was seen as being slightly left of the Communist Party.) And I ran for nomination in Ottawa West-Nepean a few years ago but withdrew when no election was imminent and I had to earn a living.

Alberta is where our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper (although born in Toronto), was shaped ideologically. It is an extremely conservative province. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Another confession that may surprise you. I’m a fiscal conservative by nature and if the Conservative Party of Sir John A Macdonald still existed, I’d be a card-carrying member. But right now, my comfort zone is somewhere between occasionally politically homeless and Liberal.

For those of you unfamiliar with Canada, Stephen Harper has thus far only been able to achieve a minority Conservative government. That’s probably because he’s not very likeable, although occasionally he sings and plays the piano, which makes people forget for a while that he’s not such a nice guy. All of this (even the piano-playing and the karaoke) could be forgiven if he ran a good government. 

But he doesn’t. He runs a secretive, spendthrift government that is as rampant with cronyism as any of its predecessors. That’s because his end-game isn’t about governing. It’s about power: how to get it, how to keep it, and how, using that power, to change the rules so that he can hold onto power longer. It’s like having a Prime Minister who is perpetually playing Risk instead of running a country.

To achieve that, he’ll pretty much do and say anything. For example, in the 2004 election, his war room accused then Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin of supporting child pornography, and Harper absolutely refused to apologize. The allegation was completely untrue, not to mention vicious, of course, but so what? It worked.

As I mentioned in my last post, Oh Canada, Harper authorized 6,000 attack ads before the election campaign began, accusing Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal Party leader, of being a ‘visitor’ to his own country, an elitist who didn’t come back to Canada for us but for himself. 

Ignatieff is an internationally known scholar, author, academic and BBC correspondent who directed the Human Rights Centre at Harvard.

The National Post’s Robert Fulford skilfully demolishes those attack ads today pointing out by that test, Neil Young and Gordie Howe would be ‘just visiting’ too. But it shows how far this man is prepared to go. Wayne Gretzy, I suppose, would also be a ‘visitor’ too, if he returned to Canada; so would Celine Dion. It’s a nonsensical and parochial idea that the higher one’s international status and fame, the less ‘Canadian’ they are. But the ads ran, and the ads stuck.

I used to teach Negotiations (I trained at Harvard, which I suppose makes me a ‘visitor’ too.) I used to tell negotiators to build up their positions by weakening the other side’s advantages. Harper does this, tactically,  by characterizing Ignatieff’s strengths as weaknesses. Harvard-educated? Elitist. Worked internationally? Not really Canadian. Super-smart? Not like us.

The Liberals now need to turn the tables and start converting Harper’s strengths into weaknesses.

Yes, he is a super  strategist and tactician, if a ruthless one. But that’s because his one and only goal is to be the head of the country, not its leader. Unlike Ignatieff, he hasn’t spent much time outside of Canada, and his weakness in foreign policy shows. His singular focus on getting elected has kept him in perpetual campaign mode. Because of this, he’s forgotten what Ignatieff  knew when he returned to Canada: the real objective in being Prime Minister  is not to demolish your opponents, but to serve your country.

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Peggy’s regular blog posts on writing and getting published will resume on May 3rd, after the Canadian election.

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