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Harper's winning strategy encounters huge setbacks

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Photo: University of Saskatchewan/Flickr

Can Stephen Harper pull it off again in 2015? That's the question many Canadians are already asking themselves. The Conservatives' winning strategy was to define the election as a choice between "the stable, familiar, competent economic management of the Conservatives and the instability and economic ruin that would follow from a Liberal-led coalition backed by socialists and separatists," as outlined by Woolstencroft and Ellis in The Canadian Federal Election of 2011. The Harperites have been smugly confident they can repeat 2011's majority against the even more vulnerable "socialists" of Thomas Mulcair.

Or were so until last week's huge setbacks to the credibility of this strategy. While pretending to enjoy the Calgary Stampede, the Conservatives were actually enduring two very significant reversals in key areas for them.

The first was the huge hole blown in their single most significant economic initiative -- unwavering support for Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific. The second was the blow to their vaunted managerial efficiency that was to be demonstrated by a modernized Canadian military machine, central to the warrior culture the government wants to make a cherished Canadian value.

In each case, the week's bad news happened to be the fourth in a series of bad stories that have begun to undermine these two major projects. Oil pipelines received the most coverage, all of it damning. Enbridge's very public humiliation at the hands of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, for a serious pipeline rupture in Michigan in 2010, reminded Canadians that no fewer than three large oil spills had taken place in Alberta itself just the previous month. That in turn evoked unwelcome memories of last year's massive spill near Peace River, Alta., which then led to reminders that besides the Michigan disaster, 2010 also saw an average of two pipeline failures every day in Alberta. No one, it seems, had remembered this distressing record -- until now.

Suddenly, the existing political equation was turned on its head. Instead of the Harper-led attacks on opponents of the Northern Gateway pipeline project as radicals, Canadian politicians and oil interests were now falling all over themselves to insist they put safety first. The villains had become, in the words of one American regulator, Enbridge's "Keystone Kops." And instead of Mr. Mulcair being characterized as the mindless arch-enemy of an ever-expanding energy sector, he seemed increasingly credible as a voice of elementary commonsense, as polls indicate.

Putting the safety of Canadians and their environment ahead of the self-interest of Big Oil hardly seems radical now. Secondly, questioning an economic strategy that sends Canada deep into the 21st century as primarily an exporter of unprocessed and semi-processed non-renewable resources and that worsens regional imbalances and disparities seems the very definition of responsible opposition.

By a complete coincidence, at the very same time last week the government was reeling from its fourth consecutive fiasco in procuring new equipment for the armed forces. Strengthening the military, was a major plank in Mr. Harper's 2011 election platform. But the serious, multibillion-dollar matter of buying new planes, trucks and combat vehicles has proved entirely beyond the competence of the Harper government, as they've proved repeatedly since 2006.

Everyone knows of course of the most notorious "debacle," as The Globe described it: The never-ending story of the government's failure to justify, acquire or credibly cost new F-35 stealth fighter jets. Critics of the program were labelled unpatriotic or ignorant. During last year's election, Mr. Harper personally guaranteed that their cost would not exceed $14.7 billion, although the Parliamentary Budget Officer had insisted the cost would be double that. In April, Auditor-General Michael Ferguson revealed that the government was in fact aware the program would cost more than $25-billion when it was approved four years ago. But as Canadians long ago began to recognize, the government was either incompetent or deceitful; in either case, its figures couldn't be trusted.

But this was only the most high-profile of several related procurement fiascoes. In May, the government rejected the bids of several manufacturers for $2-billion worth of Close Combat Vehicles, equipment considered a priority for our soldiers. All the bids, apparently, were found inadequate, though many observers believe the government's specs were really at fault. The CCVs remain a priority, no doubt, as the bidding process is about to begin again from scratch.

In March, the government's $3.1-billion plan to buy new fixed-wing search-and rescue planes was again mysteriously postponed, this time until next year, maybe. Officials have repeatedly stated that replacing Canada's weary search-and-rescue fleet was also a real priority for them. An internal air force assessment has warned that Canada's search-and-rescue capability was in jeopardy if further delay was permitted. Yet for unaccountable reasons, it will now be years before new planes are ordered and delivered.

And then came last week's last-minute announcement that the government was cancelling a $1.2-billion bid to replace aging Canadian Forces trucks. This is one of those rare occasions when "last minute" is literally true. Prospective bidders, who had already spent big money preparing their bids, were e-mailed exactly 3 minutes before the deadline to tell them not to bother. "The requirement for this equipment is urgent," the Department of Defence said when the program was first announced with great fanfare. That was back in 2006, soon after Mr. Harper took office.

So the competent Harper economic managers cannot properly supply the armed forces they've tried so hard to elevate as a symbol of conservative Canada. And their signature economic policy cannot advance without a guarantee that some time, somewhere, Canada will continue to pay massive environmental costs for it. It seems the Conservatives are graciously doing a good deal of Mr. Mulcair's work for him.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

Photo: University of Saskatchewan/Flickr

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