Harper surrenders to ISIS (or how the left should talk about terrorism)

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The Harper government's anti-terrorism act is a trap for the Conservatives' opponents.

To Stephen Harper, there's no trade-off between security and civil liberties when you fight terrorism. The prime minister postures as tough on terror and taunts those who disagree with him as pawns of the jihadists.

As civil liberties advocates insist, Bill C-51 turns the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) into an enemy of the people. The bill allows the authorities to spy on anyone they feel threatens the "security of Canadians." Such a broad definition of a security threat smears picketers, writers and protesters as terrorists.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association says Harper hasn't explained why the government needs any new powers at all to deal with terrorism.

Most Canadians aren't swallowing Harper's bait.

In a Leger poll conducted February 9 to 11, 40 per cent of the respondents across the country agreed that "in order to curb terrorism in this country, I am ready to give up some civil liberties." On the other side, 48 per cent disagreed. Those who "strongly" disagree -- 26 per cent -- overwhelmed the 10 per cent who strongly agree (12 per cent had no opinion).

In a Nanos Research poll (January 24-26), 34 per cent were concerned "about the possibility that Canadian security agencies will be given too much power" in the name of fighting ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Another 30 per cent were "somewhat concerned."

Most significant, the Conservatives' posturing as the only anti-terror party hasn't won them new support. Harper unveiled Bill C-51 on January 30, and it dominated the news right away. Yet in a February 9-10 Forum Research survey, the Liberals were up 5 points from a January 27-28 Forum poll (to 39 per cent) while the Conservatives fell 3 points to 33 per cent. The NDP, who strongly oppose the bill, were down 3 points to 17 per cent. The Greens, who also oppose it, were down 1 point at 5 per cent.

Harper insists the public supports his anti-terrorism policies, but there is a different story in the polls.

When Ipsos asked Canadians (February 9-12), 76 per cent agreed that "I support the use of Canadian Forces fighter jets in the international coalition's airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq."

  • 73 per cent agreed, "We should do everything possible to prevent ISIS from getting its own state, even if it means putting Canadian soldiers on the ground in Iraq."
  • 69 per cent agreed, "I support the use of Canadian Forces on the ground in a combat mission against ISIS in Iraq." (The poll followed the news in late January that Canadian troops and ISIS fighters had exchanged gunfire in Iraq.)

Towering numbers like these can serve to intimate Harper's opponents, but they shouldn't. The poll numbers no doubt are accurate; it's the questions that are wrong.

The 69 per cent who support troops on the ground against ISIS include those who would send all of the country's 90,000 military personnel and those who would send only 90.

Each ISIS video of the militants' carnage drives up the public's appetite for the government to do something. The error in surveys is offering no alternative. When you're hungry, you'll eat anything, which is what the polls are saying.

But offering an alternative to sending troops shows the public is more tentative than belligerent. When Abacus Data asked (February 12-16) if the government should continue "to participate in the mission in Iraq against ISIS" after Harper's six-month commitment, 38 per cent said withdraw while 43 per cent said continue. Another 19 per cent were undecided.

Compared with the seven in 10 in the Ipsos poll who supported forces "on the ground," just 35 per cent in the Abacus survey said "our troops" should be "involved in any and all combat roles that are necessary" if "the mission" continues after six months.

A 42 per cent plurality, however, said "we should make sure our troops are not involved in ground combat roles" if Canada stays in the anti-ISIS coalition. Hardly a nation spoiling for a fight.

As a ballot box question, terrorism ranks far behind the pocketbook issues of jobs, health care and retirement incomes. In a Pollara survey conducted November 3-5, 26 per cent said terrorism should be a "top priority issue" for the government, way behind "health care and long-term care costs for our aging population" (44 per cent), the economy (38 per cent) and pensions (36 per cent).

Expect Harper to continue crying terror until election day. Nothing else has helped his reputation. After polling in the days before the government tabled C-51, Abacus said a gradual improvement in Harper's reputation stopped in January: 34 per cent had a positive view of the PM, 40 per cent a negative view.

Harper has won the argument that Canada is at war. In the January Nanos poll, two-thirds agreed that "Canada is currently at war with terrorist groups." And 46 per cent agreed "a terrorist attack in Canada is more likely compared to a year ago."

So how should Harper's opponents take him on?

Say he's sending the wrong message to ISIS with Bill C-51's permitting a wholesale invasion of privacy.

Say he's appeasing the terrorists by tearing up the constitutional rights and freedoms they despise. Say Harper's caving in to terrorism and surrendering Canadians' priceless civil liberties to the terrorists.

Say his fixation with downsizing government has left the country more exposed to terrorism by under-funding the human resources needed to track terrorists, break up their networks and foil ISIS plots.

Words alone won't take the terrorism issue from the Conservatives. The opposition parties need their own national security ideas.

They could say a serious effort to confront terror means treating ISIS not like an army but a crime syndicate. You fight organized crime with informers and attacks on the gangsters' funding, the way the RCMP disrupts mob bosses, their guns and their rackets.

Providing that judges make the decision, not the Mounties, perhaps it squares with the Charter of Rights to use house arrest for the 90-plus people on the RCMP's security watch list. The Mounties say they haven't got the resources to put most watch list members under surveillance. Europe and Australia use house arrest for terrorist suspects.

How about making them wear ankle bracelets and tracking them electronically?

Finally, battle Harper on moral terms. Remind voters that the Conservatives have asked only a microscopic share of the population to sacrifice for Harper's war. Men and women of the armed forces voluntarily risk their lives while most Canadians view the war on their laptops.

If Harper were serious about waging war on terror, he would call for all-party support for a war tax.

Marc Zwelling is the founder of the Vector Poll™ and author of Public Opinion and Polling For Dummies (Wiley, 2012) www.vectorresearch.com

Photo: pmwebphotos/flickr

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