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VIEW: Harper will be the election issue, says Walkom

Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom writes, “If there is a federal election this spring (and there may not be) it will not be over the contents of the government’s upcoming budget. It will be over Stephen Harper. Harper cannot help but be the issue. He created the modern Conservative Party. He dominates his government in a way no other Canadian prime minister has ever been able to do. Everything that emanates from Ottawa bears the imprint of Harper alone. His ministers, with one or two exceptions, are hapless. His senior civil servants lie low.”

“There is an old-fashioned, bitter element to Harper’s brand of conservatism, as if its practitioners are working out long-standing grudges against enemies they’ve resented since high school — liberals, leftists, gun critics, Toronto people. Yet in another sense his take-no-prisoners approach is very modern. …Things are either black or white. If you criticize his approach to Afghanistan, you support the Taliban. If you argue with his views on the Middle East, you are anti-Semitic. If you question his fascination with incarcerating more Canadians, you are soft on crime. When his party engages in sharp practices — like the alleged election-expenses scam Crown prosecutors now accuse the Conservatives of undertaking — the response is defiant: Everyone else does this; why can’t we? The fact that everyone else doesn’t break Canada’s election financing laws is ignored.”

“Technically, the government could be defeated by the combined opposition parties over its March 22 budget, forcing an election. But the budget is a beard. Unless Finance Minister Jim Flaherty adds a last-minute poison pill, its contents promise to be — like most of Harper’s economic policy during this recession — fairly middle-of-the-road: a bit of this and a bow to that, all leavened by vague calls for fiscal restraint. Even the controversial corporate tax cuts — cuts the Liberals now oppose — won’t be in this budget. They were passed (with Liberal support) in the fall of 2007. So if the Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc Québécois do take down the government over this budget, they are not likely, in any ensuring election campaign, to spend much time on the document itself.”

Walkom concludes, “(The opposition parties) will talk about how much better their ideas are than those of the Conservatives. …But for most Canadians, the focus — again — promises to be Harper. Polls suggest voters, while not necessarily fond of him, think he’s adept at running the economy. The Conservatives will play on this by presenting Harper as the Buckley’s cough syrup of politics — hard to swallow but good for you. The opposition parties will showcase a different view. Which leaves it to us. How much do we dislike him? How much do we mistrust him? Do we dislike and mistrust the other party leaders more? Is he the strong Prime Minister required by perilous times? Or is he just nasty?”

THE COUNCIL OF CANADIANS: The Council of Canadians key message to Canadians this election is to ’stop a Harper majority’. While recent public opinion polls put Harper within reach of a majority government, a Nanos Research poll released on February 22 found that just 26 per cent of Canadians would be comfortable with the Conservatives winning a majority. We will be pointing to why a Conservative majority is dangerous for Canada. We believe that the best likely electoral outcome is a minority government with the balance of power held by progressive parties and MPs.

Walkom’s column can be read at http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/949101–walkom-there-s-only-one-election-issue-harper.