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Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Deja-vu all over again:

The thing about the fight that Stephen Harper has managed to pick with Brian Mulroney, the paradox that elevates it beyond a few days’ bad headlines into the sort of event that makes party members wonder about the boss’s judgment, is that Harper was only doing what he has always done to win.

For as long as he has been in politics, Harper has returned, at important moments, to a few favourite techniques to manage the public agenda. Selective leaks to reporters. Titillating stories custom-designed to distract the press and public from weightier events. Wedge issues chosen with care to turn ally against ally.

It’s what he does. Except he used to do it to his opponents.

This time he did it to Mulroney—the patriarch of one of Harper Conservatism’s constituent groups and a still-formidable political street fighter who, even now, probably has more real, call-him-up-on-his-birthday friends in the party Harper leads than Harper does.

As I specialize in unsolicited advice to our elected masters, here we go.  Too many on the Right have shrugged off this story as a one week wonder.  Just something the MSM is stirring up to embarrass the federal Tories.  The story, however, has legs and all sorts of awkward angles.  Marjory LeBreton, the Party Girl herself, was heckled at a caucus weekend a few weeks back.  The Harper Inner circle leaking stories about Brian Mulroney's membership status.  It's the kind of thing, as Paul Wells notes above, that you do to your opponents, not one of the Grandees of the Conservative Party.

For many old-time Reformers, the name Mulroney has all the resonance of a four-letter word.  Who cares if the old bastards gets what's coming to him?  He is the most electorally successful Conservative Party leader of the twentieth century he is also, amazingly enough, the most politically conservative (i.e. pro-freedom) PM since 1945.  That may seem an audacious statement, but run your mind over the list of post-war leaders and the Brian did more to roll back the frontiers of the state than all of them combined.  From free trade to abolishing (belatedly) NEP and FIRA, to privatizing crown corporations, no one comes close.  

Mrs Thatcher may have criticized Mulroney for putting too much emphasis on the adjective in Progressive Conservative, but federally he has no peer in living memory.  He is hated, much like Mrs T, more for what he said than what he did, just as conversely Harper is considered a "hard right winger' for his talk, not his lackluster walk.  The Mulroney talk and charm has earned him many friends in the old PC wing of the party, and a few in even the Bluer regions of the caucus.  To slight him needlessly is politically stupid.  There are still people today who would walk through political hellfire for Mulroney, perhaps more than for Stephen Harper.

This split is real and it is worrisome.  Those concerned about having a serious and viable Conservative Party, whatever its faults, need to pay close attention and act accordingly.  It is a split that can and must be healed.  The cats do need herding.

Get Karl Schreiber out of the country.  Whatever "bombshells" this corrupt second rate hack had in his large, and skeleton filled closet, have long ago been detonated.  He is playing for time to prevent extradition back to Germany.  Wrap up the inquiry and send him to his fate. 

Harper must reach out.  Once Karl is back in the Fatherland, the Prime Minister must make a public gesture of reconciliation.  Whether it's running into Brian Mulroney at an official function, as Peter Mackay did a few days back, or something more dramatic, the PM must make the first move.  Start with small gestures and in a few months, host a fund-raising dinner in Mulroney's honour.  

Consolidate the base.  While the Prime Minister has alienated the Red Tories with his tone-deaf behavior toward his predecessor, his political actions have caused resentment among his old Reform base.  It's a low simmer at this point, the party faithful are still glad to be in government and awake nightly, at least, with horrible images of Stephane Dion as Prime Minister.  Fear of opposition holds them together, but with little enthusiasm.  There have been grumblings about gun control reform, a few populist tropes - like Jim Flaherty crusade against credit cards and ATM fees - but little of substance.  The government needs to present a handful of genuinely conservative policies.  Even if they meet their defeat in the House, the party can at least claim action.

Bomb the bridge.  During the 1988 election campaign Alan Gregg, the party's chief pollster, called for the party to "bomb the bridge" that connected John Turner with the anti-free trade nationalists.  A Bay Street lawyer, Turner made a poor populist hero.  Destroying his credibility among the nationalist Left helped reduce his poll momentum.  Today Michael Ignatieff has poll momentum.  The saviour of the Liberal Party - by virtue of not being Stephane Dion - he is riding a surge of support, Liberals delighted at the prospect of competent leadership.  The Harper advantage over Dion was strong leadership.  Iggy has neutralized that advantage.  It needs to be pointed out that the prodigal Grit has never run anything more administratively demanding than a faculty lounge.  This is not about digging up newspaper clippings, Harper has far more damning stuff in his oeuvre, it's about pointing out the Opposition Leader's lack of real world or political experience.  

Where's the Wedge?  Iggy is far more right wing than most Liberals.  Go after issues that divide him from the Left-wing of his party.  Afghanistan is top of the list, so are tax cuts, national daycare and the environment.  Let's see how well Iggy dodges the hand grenades.  Always remember that, electorally, the best friend of the Conservative Party is the NDP.  Whatever strengthens the NDP, weakens the Liberals.  A divided Liberal Party unable to keep the Tories to account, sounds like a good recipe to bolster the country's perennial third-party.

Posted by Richard Anderson on April 22, 2009 | Permalink


Good column. The conservatives do still actually control the party right? Unlike down here in the states where conservatives have absolutely no real say in running the GOP.

Posted by: GeronL | 2009-04-22 11:21:48 PM

Who cares?

Posted by: Robert Seymour | 2009-04-23 2:32:58 AM

If the Liberal leader promises to introduce decrim legislation, the NDP are dead in the water. All the youth support they have enjoyed in recent years will return to the Liberal party. It has already started happening, with Layton distancing himself from the pro-cannabis candidates, and kieth martin's decrim bill. Ndp support is rapidly dropping off, and the Liberals are gaining. I am a card carrying member of the NDP, and very involved in the party and even I will vote Liberal if the NDP doesn't start making some bold statements against prohibition.

Posted by: DrGreenthumb | 2009-04-23 9:54:01 AM

Mulroney isn't and never was a Conservative.

Famous Conservatives in the Anglosphere who were contemporaries of Mulroney were Margret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
Neither of them would have enacted something like the Young Offenders Act or pushed for the third party(electorate) gag laws that Chretien ultimately got passed but, yes, Mulroney fought to implement too. Real Conservatives don't have buddies like Lucien Bouchard.

Posted by: Speller | 2009-04-23 5:18:22 PM

Are you seriously suggesting that ex-Reformers who were (rightly) disgusted by Mulroney's corruption back in the day should have to wear an association with him now - which is what the opposition parties would make them do if there'd been no inquiry.

I also find it interesting that you don't seem to care about whether Mulroney is guilty of taking cash for favours. I think he's as guilty as hell and don't want what slim chance we have of eventually getting right of center policies to be tarnished by any association with him whatsoever. And if some hack ex-PCers want to have a fight about this, I say bring it on.

Posted by: Craig | 2009-04-23 6:29:33 PM

Ignatieff more right than most Liberals? Is that why he's getting so much support from Quebec? Is that why he thinks public health care is a right? Doesn't that imply he believes collective rights trump individual rights? That would certainly be a pretty good wedge issue in my household.

Posted by: johndoe124 | 2009-04-23 9:26:58 PM

And in mine, johndoe124.

Ignatieff is a statist.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-04-23 9:59:28 PM

Craig, all politicians are "guilty of taking cash for favours."

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-04-23 10:00:49 PM

"He is hated, much like Mrs T, more for what he said than what he did".
I disagree. He is hated and remembered for the one thing that sunk him and the reason he is still hated to this day. The GST.

Posted by: peterj | 2009-04-24 10:05:29 PM

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