Why are the Tories going out of their way to annoy voters?

It looks like the Conservatives are trying to shore up their right-wing base

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Monday, August 25, 2008

Here's a page from the Conservative playbook on how to win friends and influence voters.

First, in the middle of three important by-election campaigns, confirm $40 million of cuts to cultural programs.

Then, send the health minister to a medical convention to lecture doctors on the ethics of injection centres for drug addicts.

And, as part of a continuing drumbeat, send the senior minister from Ontario to war against the government of Ontario. For value added, since Jim Flaherty is the finance minister, have him tell people that his own province isn't a great place to invest, actually "the last place" to invest.

Well, that ought to move the numbers. Or maybe not.

So, what gives? What are the Conservatives thinking, in what looks increasingly like the run-up to a fall election, in going out of their way to annoy whole blocs of voters?

Shouldn't a minority government, with hopes of growing to majority territory in a campaign, be doing some significant base-broadening?

Well, maybe this is about the Conservatives pandering to their own base in order to secure it. And the base of these Conservatives, is closer to the right it must have to be competitive in an election than the centre it needs to win it. The Reform Conservatives are not the Progressive Conservatives.

So, it does the Conservatives no harm among their base to cut funding for cultural programs, especially boondoggles and international junkets. Nobody gets too upset over that.

Besides, the cultural community doesn't vote for the Conservatives anyway. Let them howl all they want, right? While we're at it, let's privatize the CBC, that nest of lefties. And by the way, don't look to this government to fund porn movies disguised as art.

Except that cuts to cultural programs tend to confirm the natural suspicions of a broader constituency that Conservatives are a bunch of Philistines, not only indifferent to the arts, but hostile to them. And cuts to any arts funding tend to raise alarms throughout cultural communities, which has leverage with the news media and knows how to use it.

Pretty soon, symphony orchestras and film festivals get nervous, and the mayors of Montreal and Toronto jointly sign a letter of concern to Ottawa, as Gérard Tremblay and David Miller did last week.

Never mind that a Conservative government created the CBC in the 1930s, or that another Conservative government established a library-book royalty program for authors in the 1980s, or that cultural industries, said to be threatened by extinction under free trade with the U.S., have blossomed and boomed under it.

All this noise is occurring not while the House is in session, when games of gotcha are a daily occurrence, but during the summer recess, when the government is supposed to be maximizing the huge advantages of incumbency by controlling media outputs and making positive announcements.

Then, what are we to make of Health Minister Tony Clement's little ethics lecture about drug injection sites to the country's doctors last week at the Canadian Medical Association's annual convention in Montreal?

"Is it ethical for health-care professionals to support the administration of drugs that are of unknown substance, or purity or potency - drugs that cannot otherwise be legally prescribed?" Clement asked.

In any other medical setting, he said, such overdoses would be considered "highly unprofessional."

Hmm, physician, heal thyself. Thanks a lot, Tony. Now about the health-care guarantee to reduce waiting times, still very much a work in progress. Never mind.

As for Flaherty's ongoing war with the Ontario Liberal government, it's made to order for the Liberals as they defend their riding of Guelph in the Sept. 8 by-election.

There are two other by-elections that day, in the Montreal- area ridings of St. Lambert, held by the Bloc Québécois, and Westmount-Ville-Marie, a Liberal redoubt since 1962. The Liberals should retain Westmount without breaking a sweat, but in South Shore St. Lambert, the Conservatives are seen as the competitive federalist party, and their candidate, Patrick Clune, is himself the son of a cultural icon, Senator Andrée Champagne, famously Donalda on Radio-Canada many years ago.

The dustup over cultural funding, particularly in the French-language media, has cast a negative light on Clune's campaign in the last 10 days. It isn't helping him, either, that the Conservatives are calling most of the shots from headquarters in Ottawa. As a result, the Conservatives are slipping in the riding at a time when they should be growing. Unless they turn it around this week, a riding that could be winnable will probably be lost.

 
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