Published Oct. 21, 2013, in The Waterloo Regional Record
According to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Canada-Europe trade agreement he signed in Brussels last week is “the biggest deal our country has ever made.”
Even if that’s true — even if, as he went on to proclaim, the agreement in principle, “is a historic win for Canada” — will it be enough to save his Conservative government?
This is not 1988. The Canada-EU pact is not a political wedge issue the way free trade — Canada-U.S., followed by Canada-U.S.-Mexico — was a generation ago. The European deal will have broad support among parties in Parliament when the details become available.
Even the New Democrats, who are inclined to snap reflexively at the mention of free trade, won’t stand in the way. The next election (in October 2015) will not be fought over EU free trade. Voters are sophisticated enough to know that the Brussels agreement would look about the same, regardless of which party in Ottawa negotiated it.
After seven-plus years in power, the Conservatives desperately need an issue to take to the people — an issue that reveals vision, energy, direction and commitment. It does not have to be an issue that will set the Gatineau Hills afire, or cause Tory delegates to cheer themselves hoarse at their national convention in Calgary at the end of this month.
But it does have to be an issue that the Conservatives can sell as proof that Harper is back, that his political skills are still intact, that he can reverse the party’s decline since the 2011 election, and that he has the ideas to fuel a successful 2015 election — and to bury Justin Trudeau.
If the European trade is not the big issue Harper needs — and I don’t think it is — where can he turn?
Not to the Speech from the Throne. That platitude-laden document landed with a “splat” in the Senate chamber last week. Its 7,240 words made it the longest in Canadian history, almost three times the length of Harper’s first throne speech in 2006, with roughly one-third the useful content.
Senate reform is not a serious initiative. It’s become a cover for the government’s evasions and mishandling of Senate expenses.
Suspending three senators without pay — without even waiting for the various investigations ordered by the Senate to be complete — is just a clumsy attempt to shove an embarrassing mess into a black hole. It won’t fool even the truly loyal Tories who will gather in Calgary on Halloween.
Trudeau is doing much too well for Conservative comfort. The Liberals moved ahead in the polls when Trudeau became leader and, defying conventional expectations, they are still there six months later.
The latest national polls show the Liberals leading by about 10 points, with the NDP in third, nipping at the Conservatives’ heels.
An EKOS Research poll for iPolitics last week put Liberal support at 36 per cent, with the Tories at 26 and the NDP at 25. That 36 per cent would give the Liberals a minority government; poll analyst Eric Grenier projects 141 Liberals, 103 Conservatives and 87 New Democrats in the enlarged 338-seat House of Commons.
Tories believe — and I think they are correct — that Liberal support, so quickly acquired after their leadership change is soft, vulnerable to the Conservatives on the right and to the NDP on the left.
So the Harper party needs to do three things.
First, it needs to rally its flagging base; many rank-and-file Tories believe the party has lost its reforming zeal and abandoned its true-blue credentials during its years in power.
Second, it needs to encourage (and stage-manage) battles between the Liberals and New Democrats to keep the centre-left vote as divided as possible.
Third, it needs to come up with ways to attract swing voters away from the other two parties.
If the party can somehow do all three things, the author of the strategy will have earned the ultimate Ottawa reward: a seat in that much-maligned and beleaguered Senate.