The Conservatives have taken some heavy hits recently, and will be happy, no doubt, when Parliament goes on break next week.

There have been the revelations about the intrusive tactics for rooting out supposed Employment Insurance fraud.

We have witnessed the string of Senatorial malfeasances, even the possibility that some Harper appointees may not fit the constitutionally required residency requirement.

Then there is the Conservatives’ passive-aggressive approach to climate change: pulling out of Kyoto, reducing emission-reduction targets, postponing almost forever any regulations on oil and gas producers, treating legitimate environmental scientists and advocates as ‘enemies of the Canadian economy,’ and scrapping a slew of federal environmental regimes through legislative stealth.

All of that finally seems to have caught up with the Government.

There is a chance the Obama administration and its new Secretary of State will find in the sorry Conservative record reason enough to withhold approval for the Keystone XL pipeline.

Most recently, on Tuesday, some media were carrying the story of two former senior Finance Department officials who have roundly condemned the current government’s highly non-transparent way of making budgets. Their argument echoes that of the soon-to-be-gone Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, who has said that Members of Parliament simply do not have the information they need to make informed budget decisions.

Then there is the Minister of Health, who, exceptionally in this Cabinet, usually takes a relatively non-partisan approach to issues in her bailiwick. This week, however, she stooped to personally attacking a United Nations official the Government had asked to investigate food security in Canada.

The official — the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Food Security — did his homework thoroughly and issued a well-documented report

His sin, it seems, was that he found gaping holes in Canada’s food security system.

Without acknowledging any of the Special Rapporteur’s massive volume of fact and evidence, the Health Minister simply attacked him as being “foreign.”

And finally, lest we forget, there is the little matter of Harper’s one-time guru-in-chief, Tom Flanagan, and his ideas about peoples’ “taste in pictures” … but enough about that, for now…

All of this should provide a feast for the media, whom the government and its friends continue to accuse of being obsessed with playing “gotcha!”

And yet oddly, some mainstream media outlets have found a way to shine a light on some of the Official Opposition’s notional warts.

If the NDP got elected, and if the Senate still existed, what then?

The front page of Tuesday’s print edition of the Ottawa Citizen features the banner headline: “Mulcair mum on NDP senators.”

That gnomic assertion is based on a brief exchange in a scrum on Monday, in which NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair did not specifically promise that, if elected in 2015, the NDP would not name any new Senators.

Mulcair’s answer was that the NDP hopes the whole question will be moot by 2015. The Party is presenting a motion to the House calling on the Government to work with the provinces to abolish the Senate.

If the NDP were ever to take power — and if the Senate still existed — the Party would have the problem of what to do with that non-elected body.

But there are a lot of ifs in that proposition; and no sane party leader could be expected to make a firm commitment based on so many hypotheses.

The Citizen has not shied away from taking on the Conservatives on such matters as ‘robocalls,’ in the work of Stephen Maher and Glen McGregor.

But in the case of the controversy over the Senate, the paper is almost parroting Prime Minister Harper’s line.

Harper normally ignores the substance of NDP questions on the Senate with the brush-off that “the NDP hopes to appoint its own Senators” — sometime in the future, presumably.

That is the sort of answer a politician resorts to when he has pretty much nothing else to say.

Parliamentary Secretary and chief-attack-dog of the moment, Ottawa-area MP Pierre Poilievre, has made an art of this tactic.

One of Poilievere’s favourite Question Period gambits is to reply (or not reply, in fact) to NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice by pointing out the fact that the latter has, in the past, supported the “separatist” Québec Solidaire party.

Trying to counter NDPers on the Senate by attacking them for what they might do years from now is not likely to work, even with the help of the Ottawa Citizen.

Attacking the Official Opposition for being too cozy with the demon “separatists” is a far more effective tactic.

Justin Trudeau did it when countering Joyce Murray’s proposal for “progressive” party co-operation in the next election.

And the Ottawa Citizen chimed in on that one, on Tuesday, as well. It carried an editorial cartoon showing Tom Mulcair getting a drink from an Orange Crush machine, while someone is pouring in blue liquid from a bucket emblazoned with the Quebec fleur-de-lis.

The cartoon’s Mulcair frowns, and exclaims: “It’s brown!”

What’s extraordinary about this attack is that the cartoonist’s bucket shows the iconography not of the separatist PQ, or any other separatist party, but of Quebec, full stop. The image is that of the Quebec flag!

And there’s the rub.

National unity poses a communications challenge for the NDP

There is a nasty willingness in English Canada to see the NDP as somehow being contaminated not by one-time separatists or current “closet separatists,” but by the mere presence of a large contingent from francophone Quebec.

Just look at the reaction to NDP MP Claude Patry’s crossing the floor to join the Bloc.

Patry said he was doing this because he did not like Toronto NDP MP Craig Scott’s so-called “Unity” Bill.

That Bill would replace the Clarity Act with a new set of rules related to a possible sovereignty referendum.

Subject to a series of tough requirements Scott’s Bill would recognize a 50 per cent +1 yes vote as the basis for negotiations (not, mind you, recognition of sovereignty).

In addition, however, the Bill says that prior to any vote happening, the federal government would impose a series of demanding conditions on the Quebec government regarding the key issue of the wording of any referendum question.

Those conditions are what floor-crosser Patry could not accept.

What Scott envisions would, the bolting MP and other Quebeckers argue, “interfere” with the Quebec government’s “right” to pose any question it wants to the people.

Craig Scott, of course, does not dispute the Quebec government’s “right” to put questions. His Bill only stipulates what sort of question it would have to pose in order for the Canadian Government to then engage in negotiations on the matter of sovereignty.

After Patry’s defection some Ottawa-based Quebec journalists jumped on the “right to pose any question” bandwagon.

They hounded Quebec NDP members on the “question” issue, and wanted to know if Scott’s Unity Bill went way beyond the NDP’s Sherbrooke Declaration, which established the principle of a ‘legitimate’ 50 per cent + 1 vote.

The Quebec reporters’ not-too-subtle point was that the NDP was now showing its true federalist colours, and was as willing to play tough with Quebec separatists as were the other federalist parties.

Based on the substance of the Unity Bill, the Quebec reporters have a point.

The NDP is, in reality, quite unambiguously federalist, and would never try to make life easy for folks who wanted to divide Canada.

That a lone, frustrated Quebec MP found the Unity Bill to be too federalist for his taste should be confirmation of the NDP’s — and its leader’s — solid federalist credentials; not the opposite.

But that is not how many in English Canada have interpreted Patry’s floor crossing.

Like the Ottawa Citizen cartoonist, they argue that the mere presence of all those Quebeckers in the NDP Caucus constitutes a kind of “fifth column.”

The Prime Minister tried to make that point when he called the NDP the “Bloc orange.”

In the end, the true motives for Patry’s move probably have more to do with thwarted personal ambition than any great principle.

The rather different reactions to it in Quebec and English Canada underscore the communications challenges the NDP faces on the national unity question.  

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...