Groundhog Day on the Hill: repeating the same mistakes

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The Gazette, Thursday, April 17, 2008

In the 2006 election, the Conservatives formed a minority government with 36 per cent of the popular vote, while the Liberals became the official opposition with 30 per cent. In a Strategic Counsel poll for the Globe and Mail this week, the Conservatives were at 36 per cent, while the Liberals were at 30 per cent. Groundhog Day, the movie, all over again.

In poll after poll over the last 26 months, every time the Conservatives close in on majority territory between 38 and 40 per cent, they hit a glass ceiling and fall back to 36 per cent. Stephen Harper as Bill Murray. For their part, every time the Liberals crater into the high 20s, they are pulled back to 30 per cent by the resilience of their brand in Ontario.

This occurs whenever stuff happens on the Conservative watch that confirms the general suspicion of hidden agendas, or a propensity for just screwing up, as happens nearly every day in government.

Like Jean-Pierre Blackburn, the Labour minister, thinking out loud in an interview about a new constitutional round to entrench the Québécois nation resolution in the constitution. Of course, the government is not contemplating such political suicide in English-speaking Canada, and there isn't even any demand for this from Quebec.

The story referred to a Conservative plan, when there is no such thing. After two days of editorial scolds, the story went away, but not before it had swamped coverage of the prime minister's getting the 1,000 additional troops he asked for at the NATO summit as a condition for Canada remaining in Afghanistan. He might as well have stayed in Ottawa for all he got out of it.

Or like the tape of the Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski's intolerant comments about gays, dredged up by the NDP from a Saskatchewan basement, that went straight to all news, all the time, to say nothing of YouTube. That the tape was a 17-year-old locker-room rant didn't mitigate its sensational effect, nor did Lukiwski's abject apologies.

Or like Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier emerging from a briefing with senior Afghan officials and musing to reporters about "the question to maybe have a new governor" of Khandahar province, where Canadian troops are based and where Governor Asadullah Khalid is the subject of rumours of official corruption and torture of Taliban prisoners.

Only a year ago, Bernier was considered a rising star of the Harper cabinet, the obvious Quebec candidate in the next leadership cycle. That was when he was industry minister, before his transfer last summer to Foreign Affairs, where he has stumbled badly on more than one occasion. Friends warned him that this portfolio was a minefield, and that he'd better do his homework, but his learning curve remains steep.

Or like the RCMP raid on Conservative Party headquarters, at the request of Elections Canada, in search of documents about whether disputed advertising from the 2006 campaign was entered in the right column, or moved around from another one. That'll create an uproar in question period. And there's tape. Elections Canada tipped of the media and the Liberal Party before visiting Tory headquarters with the RCMP.

Or how about Rick Hillier, the popular chief of the defence staff, who is taking retirement after his normal three-years as Canada's top soldier? Was he encouraged to leave?

All these things relate to hidden agendas, social tolerance, competence and the integrity of the Conservatives. Are they devising a special-status deal for Quebec? Are they social knuckle draggers, as some Canadians still suspect? Can Max Bernier take a brief? Are the Tories cooking their election books? Are they crazy enough to dump a general who is by far the best salesman of the Afghan mission?

The answer to the last question is clearly no. There's a sense that Hillier wants to move on. He's only 53 and a bright future awaits him in the private sector. It was clear from Harper's comments in the House, as he thanked the general for his service, that he has a high regard for Hillier.

If the Conservatives thought their poll numbers went soft this week, wait till next week.

All this occurred while the House was sitting. And it's a rule of thumb that the opposition does better when the House is in, while the government does better when the House is out.

When the House is on break, or in summer recess, that's different. That adds up to about six months of the year, when the government controls the communications agenda, with the prime minister's tour, ministerial announcements, handouts for ridings and so. It's easy to be on message when the House is out. The challenge is to be control when it's in. And the Tories are on a bad roll.

The polls move up and down. They always seem to end up in the same place. Groundhog Day.

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