Monday, March 21, 2005
Two weeks. Two party gatherings. Two governing alternatives. Two challenges. One clear winner. In the attempt to outdo one another in the battle of political conventions over the past couple of weeks, this past weekend's Tory convention went much further to boost Stephen Harper's electoral prospects than the Liberals version did for Paul Martin a mere fortnight ago. The challenges for Harper were much greater. So the successes achieved from overcoming them must be considered greater as well.
For Paul Martin and the Liberals, what they wanted to achieve with their convention was relatively modest: to unite behind their leader and his policies at a time when the 'Mr. Dithers' label was becoming a part of normal political discourse in this country. They also wanted to remind voters that the other guys, the Conservatives, were ready to unleash their hidden agenda on voters again once the next election comes around in not not too distant future. But this unity came at a cost for Martin. He had to thumb his nose at George Bush and say no to missile defence in a hasty and controversial decision. This bought him support at the convention. But at what cost electorally?
For Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, the challenges were greater and steeper. He had to unify the party during a time when more than one faction had a bone to pick with him. Fiscal conservatives didn't like his surrender on the Liberal budget. Social conservatives didn't like his attempts to silence debates on gay marriage and abortion. Red Tories didn't like his campaign to defend traditional marriage as forcefully as he has. On top of that, Peter MacKay exposed some potential rifts between old PC and Alliance members concerning the merger agreement. Harper also faced unwanted outcomes on two crucial votes during the convention: a leadership endorsement falling far short of what Martin received from his party, and a passing of a resolution banning partial birth abortion.
As it turned out, Harper got everything he wanted from the convention. He received a strong backing of his leadership from 84% of the delegates. He also got the delegates to support his stand on issues like marriage and abortion. He avoided a potential schism in the party when it sided with MacKay on preserving the spirit of the merger agreement. He will also be able to combat the charge of a hidden agenda from the Liberals, given the the party membership has openly and publicly given its backing for Harper's vision of what their election platform ought to look like. Last but not least, Harper has moved his party towards the centre of the political spectrum, where he is less likely to scare off voters fearful of a party that is alien to them and their concerns.
Yet perhaps the greatest achievement by Harper over the weekend was the reaction he got from the media.
Anyone who doesn't think the media has a role to play in election campaigns should remember two things that happened the last time around. One was Martin coming out of the gate accusing Harper of wanting to turn Canada into America. The media didn't buy it. Martin was forced to change tactics. The other was the sparking of the debate on abortion. The media bent over backwards in the search of any evidence that in the slightest suggested the Conservatives had an agenda to curb abortion rights in this country. Harper didn't bring the issue up. The media found it anyhow. And the whole hidden agenda tag was brought out of the closet once again.
The events over the course of the convention this weekend suggest this is unlikely to happen again despite what the Liberals have in mind as an electoral strategy. An interview yesterday on the convention floor exposed this dynamic.
Martin Stringer of CPAC was trying to get a reaction out of Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc after the Conservatives had said yes to traditional marriage but no to abortion. One of Stringer's first questions was obvious (my paraphrase): Surely the Conservatives have done themselves a favour by clearly stating where they stand on issues like abortion and are now immune to accusations of a hidden agenda, aren't they? LeBlanc did not agree. But Stringer kept pressing the issue, almost as though the matter had become self-evident. How can anyone keep resorting to the hidden agenda tag when it's pretty clear the Tories did their best to meet the accusation directly on the floor of their very own convention?
And this is the sentiment that has been expressed in general by the media in the morning after coverage of the convention. It is also a potentially crucial victory for Stephen Harper. For without at least tacit endorsement from the media for the Liberals preference to fear-monger about social issues, a repeat of the last few elections becomes increasingly less likely. The Liberals will be forced to win an election on something else. Your guess is as good as mine as to what that might actually be.
So, after two weeks of conventions, and two attempts to put an election face on parties competing as governing options for Canadians, it looks as though Stephen Harper did indeed outdo Paul Martin in overcoming the challenges facing his own party. He also maneuvered himself to where he wants to be when the next election decides to become more than just convention talk. Not a bad weekend's work.