In a rare acknowledgement that Atlantic Canada actually exists, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Truro recently to buck up support for his candidate against Bill Casey, the Liberal standard-bearer for Cumberland-Colchester.
Casey's the former Tory MP who got booted out of the Conservative party in 2007 for a principled act of opposition to one of his party's early acts of duplicity: obliterating a signed agreement with Nova Scotia and Newfoundland on offshore revenues called the Atlantic Accord.
Principle vs. duplicity is always in play in elections, but the game seems far sharper this time -- even before it actually starts. Harper, in his Truro speech, outlined the "conservative values" he wants voters to rally around -- low taxes, minimal government, individual freedom, tough on crime, and so on.
Fair enough, in the broad debate that perpetually pits "conservative" against "liberal" values -- revolving, in our day, mainly on individual responsibility vs. government action to alleviate social ills. The problem with this is that Stephen Harper is not really a "conservative." He's a right-wing radical. And if we go by the record, those aren't his values. Those are his talking points.
His real values are indicated by the assault on parliamentary democracy and the courts, a quasi-police state terrorism bill, the chopping up of the tax system for partisan advantage, gaming the electoral laws, the assault on environmentalists and environmental laws and even on charities that dare suggest government should do more for the poor. Then there's the priority of ideology over evidence as demonstrated by the muzzling of government scientists, a war-mongering foreign policy and more.
All this in the name of authoritarian control in the prime minister's hands, with the aim of bending the country to his will in the creation of a right-wing society not unlike what the American Tea Party preaches.
All of this adds up to high stakes and high tension as the pre-game skirmishing opens. The Harper party remains equal to the other two in the polls, with an advantage in seat projections.
The question is whether this, plus its undue and possibly illegal use of public money to promote itself, and its high expertise in propaganda, manipulation and wedge politics, is enough to frustrate the clear will of two-thirds of the electorate which, nevertheless, remains hopelessly divided among two bickering opposition parties.
Yet the sense of political volatility is unusually high, and this doesn't usually bode well for a 10-year-old government dragging a long and noisy chain.
It's as if any surprisingly little thing could ignite the tinder-dry conditions. The startling results of the Alberta election suggests that the conservative voter may not be as set in their ways as is generally assumed. With things iffy in the Senate and the Middle East, the government is at least partly in damage-control mode already.
Plus there are hints of desperation as neither the budget nor terrorism has kept the Conservatives' numbers up. The party has flip-flopped on increased contributions to the Canada Pension Plan, which it had arrogantly dismissed as a "job-killing tax hike." Admitting they were wrong is a big crack in their front.
A rushed infrastructure program has been cooked up on such short deadlines that Ontario says it can't participate. And their move to manipulate the TV debates to their advantage hints that this is just the first of more such dramatic Hail Mary passes to come as the election approaches.
Indeed, one of the volatilities afoot involves the media -- meaning mainly television. One of the abiding hostilities of Harperism is toward the media, which the Tories have attempted to control and manipulate at every turn. Harper's view of how the media should behave is not substantially different from that of Vladimir Putin -- that is, to promote him and his message.
All three big networks are the targets of Harperist disgruntlement for no good reason, but it's especially serious for the public broadcaster which would likely not survive another Harper majority. Harper has attacked Radio-Canada, the French CBC, a couple of times for being "hostile to conservative values."
I've always had the impression that, given how dirty and nasty the Tories could be, punches were being pulled by the TV networks. My suspicion is that as the election nears, and especially if the Tories are seen to be slipping, there'll be a "no more Mr. Nice Guy" move afoot, which will coincide with a burst of explosive little tips rolling in from inside government by Harper's emboldened and long-silenced enemies from within. Fairness and balance notwithstanding, the camera can be as full of tricks as Harper himself.
So stay tuned. This looks like the mother of all donnybrooks as the showdown approaches, juiced up by the fact that the very nature of the country itself is in play.
Ralph Surette is a freelance journalist in Yarmouth County. This column was first published in the Chronicle Herald.
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