Although kissing babies and flipping burgers is usually the first order of summer business for politicians in Canada, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper will likely be tending to other priorities. Topping that list is his quest to form a winning majority coalition among voters. The demands of governing and managing his caucus have truly complicated this quest.
Today’s Canadian political environment is more Bizarro cartoon than conventional political wisdom.
In the past year, we have seen former Conservative MP Garth Turner turfed from caucus. Bill Casey, a key proponent of the Canadian Alliance-Progressive Conservative merger, voted against the Conservative budget and now sits as an independent. To top things off, MP Joe Comuzzi, former Liberal stalwart, has departed the Grits to join the Tories.
If our elected officials are having issues with their parties, it shouldn’t be surprising that voters are also disgruntled. The latest SES Research survey shows the Tories and Liberals in a dead heat. In fact, there is currently no party voters are willing to trust with a majority mandate.
The results of the last election showed Canadians were willing to try something new – to give Stephen Harper and the Tories a chance. The potential of their election victory has slowly dissipated. As Harper’s political brushfires multiply, the majority math becomes more difficult.
Afghanistan is one of two brushfires he faces. Continued casualties and slow progress feed the concern of Canadians about Afghanistan. Research conducted by SES for Sun Media shows Canadians believe the mission enhances our international reputation, but that we are sending our troops into danger ill-equipped and ill-prepared for a very ambitious mission.
The human face of Canada’s casualties strikes home more than any political news-bite or debate in the House of Commons. Polling shows that voters in Quebec are the most likely to be concerned about the mission compared to Canadians outside of Quebec.
It was the Conservative breakthrough in Quebec that helped make the current government possible. Politically managing this issue for the Harper Conservatives is really about having a Quebec strategy on Afghanistan and a national strategy to manage expectations on what can be achieved.
A second brush fire relates to relations with the provinces on transfers and resource management, such as the Atlantic Accord.
While federal-provincial relations are seldom smooth, it is rare for a sitting prime minister to tell a partner in our federation to “sue-me.” In any relationship – personal, business or political, if lawyers get involved it’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube.
Fighting the premiers specifically risks the support of ridings in Atlantic Canada and Saskatchewan needed by the Conservatives.
RIGHT AND WRONG
Although Canadians might not know who’s right who’s and wrong, they will get a sense that something is seriously amiss between the prime minister and the premiers. The prime minister has to exercise caution to ensure this situation does not transfer over to what Canadians think of Harper the man.
Neither one of these political brushfires is going away. In a political world where every riding and every vote counts, the management of Afghanistan and relations with the provinces will likely be key to the political fortunes of both Harper and the Conservatives.
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