Playing wedge politics won’t get Tories majority

Watching the Conservatives get defeated over their own issue, the abolition of the long-gun registry, was delightful. What was even more beautiful was Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s “this isn’t over yet” tantrum shortly after the vote. This legislation is the most recent in a long line of wedge issues the Tories have been using in an attempt to grab a majority (or discredit Michael Ignatieff, depending on their mood). They have ranged from blatant wedge politics (gun registry) to an attempted appeal to a certain ideological class of voters (census) or even the accidental issue (the controversy earlier this year regarding maternal health and abortions). Regardless of what the government tries to do, they seem to be no closer to a majority government than they were during the last election.

The abolition of the long-gun registry was a major campaign promise of the Tories, showcasing the dilemma of minority governments that attempt to act unilaterally. The word of the day for Conservative MPs and cabinet ministers was “wasteful” — that is how the registry was with bitterness described numerous times in the House of Commons the day after the 153-151 vote in favour of retention was tallied. Our government is prudently fiscally conservative as they demonstrated during the G8 summit and they wouldn’t let silly things like an RCMP report in favour of the gun registry get in the way of their agenda.

The issue, though clearly ideological, was presented as a major struggle between urban and rural Canadians. In other words, the Tories were attempting to introduce a wedge between two groups, particularly with NDP voters in each area. In this respect, the attacks may have been moderately effective, exploiting Jack Layton’s decision to allow his MPs a free vote.

A long-term ratings boost, however, remains a dream for the Conservatives. A poll conducted after the registry vote showed the Tories up one point and the Liberals down two with the NDP taking “heavy” losses of four percentage points. Considering the 3.1 per cent margin of error we can hardly take changes of one or two points seriously. What we can infer from the polls is that neither party has momentum, thankfully making a majority unlikely for either side. Therefore, it cannot be said that Canadians were overwhelmingly on board with the Conservatives’ plan and this issue can go back on the shelf until election time.

A similar, mind-boggling case was the decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census. The melodramatics regarding this issue were ridiculously disproportionate to what was being discussed. It is unclear, even now, whether the Tories were intending to slip this bill through unnoticed or trying to incite the massive bickering and controversy that occurred. A minority government has to accept criticism at every step considering that they are, by definition, outnumbered by the opposition. I think we can place this little incident in the Tory Wedge Issues folder. This particular case was supposed to be populist by appealing to a large number of Canadians who are notoriously opposed to government meddling in their private lives. To say this issue backfired is an understatement. The supposedly intrusive question, often used as an example to illustrate the evils of the mandatory long-form census, was an inquiry about the number of bedrooms — clearly vital information that the government will use to oppress us and turn Canada into a dictatorship. Far from winning the Tories any points with voters, it lost them the head of Statistics Canada, Munir Sheikh, who chose to resign rather than support the Tories’ plan to sabotage Canada’s method of gathering demographic data. In this sense, this controversy (if you can call it that) was remarkably similar to the long-gun registry. In both cases, the government had the highest public sector authorities on the respective issues firmly advise against cutting these programs. This surely wasn’t purely ideological dogmatism — not with a minority government. There was a pragmatic purpose. We can observe a pattern of divisive politics.

Lastly, I want to turn to an unfortunate example. When the Tories announced, in late 2009, that they wished to submit a G8 initiative focusing on maternal health, even the opposition parties struggled to find something to criticise. The circus that this led to domestically can only be described as tragedy. What was supposed to be a move that all parties could support turned into ideological skirmishing when the Conservatives quietly omitted funding to abortions from their initiative. The Liberals and NDP were furious. American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reprimanded Canada. Reproductive rights activist Jane Cawthorne wrote that “by refusing to fund abortions . . . the Conservative government is effectively saying only women who become mothers are worthy of complete health care.” The political moral of the story: divisive policies score neither side points.

There’s a time (usually after three minority governments) where we have to ask ourselves why neither party is getting anywhere. Partially it’s the leaders. Yes, nobody really likes Stephen Harper, but nobody really likes Paul Martin, Stephane Dion or Michael Ignatieff either. Partially, it’s the lack of policy: the government creates issues designed to divide as many people as possible. The opposition, on the other hand, can never quite get a step ahead of the Tories in formulating policy. They can critique Conservative legislation, but never develop exemplary policy of their own. Similarly, neither party can quite achieve any level of public confidence. The Conservatives are haunted by their lack of “fiscal conservatism” and the Liberals by their leader’s constant indecisiveness. Until a party shows some leadership (hint: the gun registry won’t be involved) then it looks like we’re headed for another minority.

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