Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Harper’s credibility, the evening news and life outside the Commons

The mistake many politically aware and involved people make is believing everyone follows the ins and outs of every political development as much as they do. They don’t. People are busy. They have other priorities. Believing that everyone shares their anger is a mistake partisans too routinely make.

Most Canadians, for example, don’t watch Power and Politics or Question Period (sorry Evan and Don). Many of them do, however, watch their local evening news. What my extended family knows about current events, they get there. Myself, I watch CTV Toronto’s 6pm newscast most nights, having long ago resigned myself to the fact I live in Toronto and so I may as well learn what’s going on here.

And last night, for the first time I can remember outside a general election, federal politics led the newscast. CTV News at Six did four minutes on the day’s developments on the Senate front, and it wasn’t positive for Prime Minister Harper. The focus was on Mike Duffy’s speech, documents and allegations about the Harper PMO, with a mention of Harper’s evolving language on Wright (from resigned to dismissed) thrown in for good measure.

As I tweeted last night, that’s a broadcast that real people watch. And the report went directly to what has been a Harper strength with Canadians: leadership and competence. Step outside the bubble and what do most Canadians think of the Prime Minister? Not overly warm, but a competent manager and a strong leader that runs a tight ship. The Conservatives have played to this for years, branding successive Liberal leaders as “not a leader” and weak or in over their hands in comparison to Harper’s strong leadership as a beacon in troubled times.

The Senate affair is particularly worrying for the Conservatives (prompting Harper’s Mad As Hell radio tour) because it chips at those very strengths. It shows him as either unaware of what’s going on in his office or complicit in the very sort of unethical behavior he was elected to eliminate, as willing to write cheques to make problems go away and, increasingly, as unable to keep Conservative Senators, MPs and others in line, as they increasingly go off the script he has tried to set. Harper is the common thread -- he hired Nigel Wright, he appointed Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, his office is at the centre of it all.

He once ran ads alleging Stephane Dion wasn’t a leader because Liberal senators were acting independently – now even the former Conservative Party president, Senator Don Plett, is bucking under the Harper whip. When you sell yourself as a strong leader, it's hard to claim ignorance of what's happening around you.

Most people won’t look at it that in-depth. What they will get, though, is the impression that maybe Harper isn’t much of a leader after all. Maybe he’s not as ethical as he says. No one scandal can flip the impressions that people have, but they can plant seeds.

It’s too early to say what the lasting impact, if any, of this affair will be. However, the drip drip of scandal is cumulative. The Harper Conservatives have weathered many storms, some bigger and more important than others, from Afghan Detainees and contempt of Parliament to prorogation, robocalls and in and out. None will shift impressions on their own. But each nudges the needle, and germinate the seeds planted from earlier incidents. Eventually, new narratives begin to form.

Even then, new impressions don’t necessarily prove fatal. At best, people will become open to considering alternatives. For the government to pay a price, and for the opposition parties to be in a position to benefit, there has to be credible alternatives for them to consider. One reason Conservatives haven’t paid the price that some partisans felt they should for past scandals is that Canadians weren’t enamored of their alternatives. Sometimes, it’s better the devil you know.

The gallery and partisans tend to focus on the House of Commons and the melodrama of question period. But that’s the bubble. Canadians don’t watch question period. At best, they might see a few seconds in a clip on the evening news. They don’t care who is best at cross-examining Harper. The next election will not be won in the House of Commons.

The next election will be won in church basements, Legion halls and coffee shops across Canada. After the Conservatives lost in 2004, Harper planted the seeds for victory in 2006 with an extensive cross-country tour. The Commons is important and shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s not the real battleground.

The Senate scandal may cause Canadians to once again examine their alternatives. And what they’ll be looking for hasn’t changed: they want leadership that understands their challenges and shares their priorities. Scandal will come and go, but we should see the forest for the trees. Building that alternative must be our real and enduring focus.

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1 comment:

calgarygrit said...

Good points. People outside the bubble are definitely paying attention - just last night, a non-political friend of mine was asking me to explain the entire thing.

However, after walking them through it, she was peeved at the Senators for the faulty expense claims but didn't really care too much about the Wright cheque or Harper's involvement. So long as it wasn't taxpayer dollars being wasted, she didn't really see the harm in Wright helping out Duffy. Even if Harper knew about it, they didn't see anything wrong since it was just Wright's money - not taxpayer dollars.

Anyways, that's just one instance, and it's best not to assume everyone will react the same way. But it does make me hesitant to believe this scandal will be Harper's undoing.