Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Hidden vs the Not-So Hidden Agenda

This past week the House of Commons voted on a controversial motion which proposed a study on when human life begins. Motion 312, tabled by Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth, was defeated 203-91.

The main talking point coming out of the vote was the fact that among the ranks of the 91 MPs who supported the motion were a number of Cabinet Ministers, including Rona Ambrose (Minister for the Status of Women), Jason Kenney (Immigration) and Peter Van Loan (Government House Leader).

For opponents of the motion, they saw it as an attempt to re-open debate on Canada's abortion laws. Those who voted against it did so either because they are in agreement with those laws, or (in the case of some Conservative MPs) because they were adhering to the Prime Minister's pledge that his government would not be opening up a debate on abortion.

Notwithstanding the motion's defeat, there remain many who feel that the Harper government continues to favour a social conservative agenda. Part of the evidence - the number of Conservative Cabinet Ministers who supported the motion.

Is this proof of a hidden agenda? No.


The accusation of a hidden agenda has dogged the Conservatives (and before them the Canadian Alliance and the Reform Party) from day one. It is an accusation that was used to great effect by the Liberals, particularly when Stockwell Day was the Leader of the Official Opposition, but also in the dying days of the campaign that gave Paul Martin his minority.

However, the governing record of the Conservatives does not show evidence of such an agenda. Yes, one can point to the successive minorities to suggest that the government was not in position to advance such a social conservative agenda.

But now, 16 months into its "strong, stable minority", the Conservatives are still far from any credible suggestion that they are about to spring a sea change in social policy on Canadians.


1. Power. Mr. Harper is well-aware that the majority of Canadians are not supportive of the very social policies so many of his supporters favour. Even when factoring in the (generally) socially conservative immigrant population that is increasingly important to Conservative fortunes, the evidence still suggests that on balance, Canadians are more centrist in terms of social policy (if not liberal).

Recognizing this reality, Mr. Harper will stay away from any debate that could imperil his chances in an election, or allow his opponents to more successfully frame a social conservative narrative against him.

2. Priorities. While Mr. Harper may have catered to the more socially conservative members of his caucus and base over the years in terms of rhetoric, he would have done so for one reason - keep them engaged and mobilized. Rhetoric feeds coffers and keeps a base energized and ready to act.

Mr. Harper's focus has always been on something else. He has consistently adhered to an agenda which, far from being hidden, has been out in the open.

That priority is a fundamental re-shaping of the economic principles upon which the federation has existed for decades. The adoption of a social conservative agenda would simply serve as a distraction away from this priority.


Look at areas like tax policy, equalization or the division of powers. Look at areas that boil down to the role of government - in terms of policy, regulation and environmental stewardship.

In the vast majority of cases, we see an agenda that is focused on re-defining the relationship between the federal and provincial governments, between the government and business, and between the government and individuals.

There is no room in this agenda for an ongoing debate on issues like abortion or gay marriage, for example. While they may be "meat for the base", they are not the prize as far as Mr. Harper is concerned.

What they can do, unfortunately, is distract people from what is happening. In this regard, I suspect a small part of Mr. Harper is pleased to see people get exorcized about policies he would never implement, while at the same not paying as much attention to those that he will.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

My fellow Americans. Well, 53% of you anyway...

Mitt Romney. 47%. What can you say?

For those who have not been following the U.S. Presidential election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney has attracted the worst kind of media attention this week.

In a nutshell, a video of Mr. Romney addressing donors this past spring at a private, $50,000/person fundraiser has been released. In it, Mr. Romney speaks quite candidly about the electorate and in particular about the 47% of Americans who:

(a) will vote for President Obama no matter what;
(b) don't pay income taxes;
(c) possess a victim mentality;
(d) are dependent on the state; and
(e) will never be convinced to take personal responsibility for themselves.

During his remarks, Mr. Romney made it quite clear that this is not a portion of the electorate on whom he intends to focus much time during the campaign. In effect, he was saying that in the context of his search for votes they were a lost cause.

Now I could go on at length about the multiple problems with these remarks, but I will leave that to the media and the Obama campaign. Let me limit my comments to these points:

- His remarks ignore all of the other taxes individuals pay, often in percentage amounts which total more than the percentage of taxes he pays;

- His suggestion that this 47% is not prepared to take "personal responsibility" is insulting and ignores the fact that this percentage includes, among others, seniors, veterans and working families.

- He is campaigning to be President of the United States, not 53% of it and therefore needs to be seen as a President for all and not some; and

- He has given a very stark message to donors which in terms of tone and scope is markedly different from his remarks on the campaign trail, all of which gives the impression of someone who is not being forthright with those whose votes he is seeking - "one message for a vote, another for a dollar."

Suffice to say, the evening the video was released probably made some Republicans hark back to the good old days when the extent of their problems was a rambling Clint Eastwood and an empty chair.


If we move beyond the obvious and deserved criticism of Mr. Romney's remarks, there is another story and it is one which is common to all modern political campaigns. It is the story of targeting and focus.

During the 2011 Ontario election, I posted this piece on the forgotten voter; the voter who tends to get lost in the messaging as the parties vie for slices of the electorate.

This notion of slices of the electorate is not new, but it's dominance in election strategy is now pre-eminent. This is particularly true in the U.S., where the Presidential election is less a national one and more one which is comprised of several swing state battles, and a general focus on attracting support from a very small number of independents and undecideds.

In this regard, Mr. Romney's remarks - once you strip away the ugliness, elitism and most distasteful elements of modern conservatism embedded within them - are consistent with how all parties approach a campaign.  Get out your base and focus on those areas which can deliver the very thing you set out to achieve - power.

For Mr. Romney, the challenges associated with a twin focus on base and swing voters are great. In order to appeal to and mobilize his base he must tack heavily towards the right.  In order to appeal to independents and undecideds, he must appear more moderate.

Put another way, how he approaches the one can very easily alienate the other.  It is precisely the type of tightrope-walk that can lead a candidate to give one message on the hustings and another behind closed doors.

Mr. Romney fell off that tightrope this week.  The coming weeks will tell how damaging a fall this has been.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Those were the days...

Over the years there has been a fair bit written about Stephen Harper's long-held goal of not just over-taking the Liberals, but of consigning them to the dustbin of history. Now, as we begin the countdown to the Liberal spring 2013 leadership convention we can expect more of such chatter.

What sometimes gets lost in this Harper versus the Liberals narrative is the fact that should Mr. Harper succeed in forever vanquishing the former "natural governing party", it will mark the second time he has taken on and mortally wounded one of the federal parties.

The first victim? The federal Progressive Conservative party.


The death this past week of Peter Lougheed prompted a number of articles about his legacy, including this excellent one by Jeffrey Simpson.  

What struck me in reading these tributes was the number of sharp distinctions between what it used to mean to be a PC, and what it currently means to be a Conservative. The articles served as a reminder that there once was a time when the words progressive and conservative did not appear mutually exclusive; that there was a sense that government had a real role to play in the pursuit of the greater good.

More than anything, we remembered that good policy can and should be driven by both conviction and evidence. Facts and principles can exist side-by-side in our decision-making process. This was an approach that enabled Mr. Lougheed to govern for so long, so successfully. It was an approach that allowed the modern Alberta to emerge on the national scene.


The PC party of Mr. Lougheed does not exist at the federal level any more, and nor does the notion of a red Tory.  His federal heirs, if you will - politicians like Clark and Stanfield - and the values and approach to public service that they represented are long gone.  

In their place is the current Conservative party.  A party defined and moulded by Prime Minister Harper.  The current brand of conservatism is more principle-driven, relying less on facts and data.  More importantly, it represents an approach to politics and policy-making that is more adversarial; where accommodation and collaboration are rare and are too often portrayed as signs of weakness.

It is also an approach that has gradually started to erode the concept of the "centre", transforming the national political dialogue into a choice between two extremes.  

Unfortunately by making federal politics a "battle of opposites", as Mr. Harper has tried to do, policy debate starts to mirror the political landscape. When "what if?" is replaced by "either, or", innovation and the bigger sense of country are lost.


Over the course of the summer Canadians have been inundated with reminders about the war of 1812. The government's objective is to bring greater visibility to our military history, and to develop a national sense of pride in that history.

These are noble endeavours, without question. However, there is a certain irony in celebrating our military history while at the same time ignoring the principles and approach to politics that quite simply allowed a country like Canada to exist.

Canada is a nation that was born out of compromise, collaboration and a sense that if you wanted to make something truly special, at some point you had to leave your interests at the door and think of the big picture.

Mr. Lougheed understood that. We could do with more like him.     

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