For Harper, it's a question of trust

Bulletproof on the economy, Tories have let opposition change the narrative to one of integrity, transparency

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The Gazette, Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Here's the math of an election for the Harper Conservatives: Competence plus trust equals a majority; competence minus trust equals a minority.

The Conservatives win on competence, especially their management of the economy through the deepest recession in three generations. But right now they are losing on trust - on Bev Oda changing her story, on Jason Kenney's letterhead, on the in-and-out campaign-finance scheme, even on rebranding the government of Canada as the Harper government.

Which is why the opposition parties have been changing the channel from competence to character. The economy is a good-news story, with unemployment 2.1 per cent lower than in the U.S., with all the jobs lost in the recession re-gained and then some, with the best fiscal framework in the G7, and with a stay-the-course budget coming in two weeks. If the Conservatives fall on the budget, and campaign on it, the Liberals are almost certain to lose.

But if the Liberals can create another narrative - about integrity, transparency and democracy itself - that's different. If they can make it about Harper and the hidden agenda, then they will be attacking him where he's vulnerable.

Thus Michael Ignatieff, outside the House last week, on Harper: "This guy will try and say anything. He's like the Charlie Sheen of Canadian democracy."

With his leader absent from the House on Monday, deputy Liberal leader Ralph Goodale rolled all the elements of the trust issue together into a single scripted question:

"One minister falsifies a document, tries to cover up and fails to tell the truth. Another minister launches an illegal fundraising scheme to shake down new immigrants. Four of the prime minister's close advisers are charged with election fraud involving forged invoices and dirty money. Those in the Conservative regime who object to this fraud are called 'turds' and 'idiots' by all the prime minister's men."

All the prime minister's men, as in All the President's Men. As in Watergate. Note the reference to "the Conservative regime," rather than government, as if Stephen Harper were Moammar Gadhafi, and regime change was in the air.

Words matter, as we like to say around here.

Westmount-Ville Marie Liberal MP Marc Garneau was next up on the rebranding as the Harper government. "From coast to coast to the Canadarm in space, the identity of the government of Canada is subject to strict, non-partisan rules," declared Canada's first astronaut, also scripted. "It is that identity, which belongs to all Canadians, that the prime minister is attacking. Once again he is disregarding existing rules. He is acting as though he were above the law."

In response, the Conservatives put out talking points noting previous Liberal handouts referring to the Martin and Chrétien governments when they were in office, noting the practice is so common that "the official Liberal website has least 109 references to the 'Harper government' since January 2009."

But this little probe does play into the narrative of the hidden agenda and the PM as a control freak.

Not to be outdone by Goodale in the mudslinging department, NDP deputy leader Tom Mulcair took aim at Jason Kenney's memo on courting the multicultural vote, which was mistakenly sent out to Alberta MPs, including the lone NDP MP, Linda Duncan, on parliamentary letterhead.

You might call it money and the ethnic vote.

"For the past five years," Mulcair thundered, "the Conservative motto has been abuse, cheat and scheme, that the ends justify the means. And if one gets caught, use a low-level staffer as a scapegoat. The latest example is one of the worst. The minister instructed his staff to use his letterhead and government resources for completely partisan purposes, which is completely illegal. His pathetic justification? He would normally be responsible but he was not physically present when the letter was written; therefore he is not responsible. This passes the bounds of hypocrisy, even for a Conservative. The minister is responsible for these illegal acts. When will he resign?"

It's not very subtle, but then Mulcair doesn't do subtlety. Kenney's response - that he was away attending the funeral of an assassinated minister in Pakistan, but that he took responsibility, apologized and accepted the staffer-in-question's resignation - would normally end of the matter.

But these are not normal times in Ottawa. The environment is highly polluted, even toxic. The Liberals used their opposition day yesterday on trust issues. They're threatening a nonconfidence motion on integrity if the speaker rules against Oda on changing her story or the government on withholding documents. This could pre-empt the budget and force an election, not on the Conservatives' strong suit, competence, but on their weaker attribute of trust.

It's not clear whether this sound and fury signifies anything in terms of the Tories' double-digit lead in the polls. None of these trust stories alone affects voters' lives. But taken together, they might affect their view of the government.

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