The Prime Ministership of Canada, by its very nature, is an all encompassing and busy job. Some note that this Prime Minister is hands on with a number of portfolios, taking ownership of a number of issues as they arise. Yet, this Prime Minister still must see some interview lights in order to present his case to the Canadian people. After all, at the end of the day, they have been and will remain the final judge of his record.
There is some tricky balancing to be done with the job and the public perception of the office. While the Prime Minister must do his best to show a good face to Canadians, he cannot appear to eager, or rather, too available to do so. This Prime Minister is handling Canada’s stake in the shaky global economy and therefore he can’t be yukking it up with Rick Mercer too regularly or be doing too much superficial glad-handing while Canadians are concerned about their economic future. In fact, as far as busy leaders go, Barack Obama was recently criticized for over-exposure for appearing on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno (a first for any President) while the bailout package was under full debate in Washington.
Though this observer notes that we’ve been seeing a lot of the Prime Minister of late in the sense that he’s been making himself a lot more available to media for one-on-ones. Canadian reporters will scoff at this observation, noting that they’re left holding the bag (or rather the remote and the mouse) as they watch the PM do interviews on CNN and Fox and read him on the website of the Wall Street Journal. But yet, while the PM’s message comes back to Canadians across the border through the CRTC-approved cable packages of Canadians, at least to the PMO, it does so more easily than it would if it had originated and filtered through a scornful yet context-aware Canadian news outlet. Yet, despite the PM’s American news tour, we are still seeing more of the man through Canadian news avails as well.
Why is this?
When Stephane Dion was leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, the Conservatives did their best to define the man and then allowed that definition to shine through the Conservative-adjusted lenses of the news media and electorate. Too much of the PM on the “leader stage” would provide too much distracting glare from the well-crafted stage show of Mr. Dion, presented by the Conservative Party of Canada.
Now, the Conservatives are dealing with a new leader in Michael Ignatieff. Though Mr. Ignatieff is still prone to gaffes and debates himself in public, he is a more serious opponent. As a leader, he is not so easily discounted by the news media and electorate. And while Mr. Ignatieff may stumble at times, he does so coherently without the media finding itself trying to explain what he really meant (again, Mr. Ignatieff does this well enough on his own). With Dion, Conservatives would have been glad to buy the hapless leader his own airtime, but to Hill watchers, Mr. Harper finds more of a competitor on the same stage — a stage he blissfully occupied alone until now.
Mostly unopposed, Mr. Obama is a leader largely crafted by publicity and the peripheral glamour of politics and for the US President the Tonight Show appearence was as strategy to do what had worked in the past. For Mr. Harper, the past was a stage gleefully given to Dion. The present, however, compels him to occupy the spotlight and enunciate his plan.
During the Liberal convention in December of 2006, Bob Rae was seen by Conservative strategists as the most fearful prospect that the Liberals had on offer to their delegates. Most messaging that came from the Conservative camp during this time was against Rae and the party did its best to suggest to Liberal delegates that he would deliver economic disaster to Canada like he did for Ontario. The Tories did their best political maneuvering to spike Rae’s bid because focus testing showed that enough time had passed between the sour days of Bob Rae the NDP Premier and the “give-him-a-chance” Bob Rae Liberal leadership candidate. Dedicated Ontario political watchers would remember tough economic times under Rae but apparently the modern dynamic had changed for the typical voter. “He has the chance to be a Canadian Bill Clinton” was how I heard the smooth talking and charming candidate described by a particularly concerned senior Conservative.
Yet, times have changed again and the economic recession is now centre-stage and it doesn’t take a surplus of political sense to acknowledge that a Rae leadership win would have been trouble for the Liberals in the 2006 leadership race, and that in 2009 — if it had occurred. During the 2006 race, as the front-runner, the Conservatives had already constructed a thorough game plan against Ignatieff and believe they had a workable strategy against the American-tenured academic should he become leader of Canada’s natural ruling party. “Ignatieff is awkward and tends to put his foot in his mouth a lot” was the consensus among senior Tory partisans. My sense was that during the 2006 leadership race, while Conservatives were concerned about Rae, they were less so about Ignatieff. And then Dion happened and he became a surprise, a wonderful gift and an unexpected best case scenario for the Conservatives and their Prime Minister.
Today, Michael Ignatieff is the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and he’s starting to show strong gaffe potential, a lack of clear policy direction and a generally aloof attitude towards the Canadian electorate. In fairness, I’d say that Ignatieff is much more calm and calculated that his hapless predecessor and instead, we find him focused on the long game. This should help Liberal prospects. Yet, Ignatieff is failing along the predicted lines of the original Conservative assessment. Yesterday, in Cambridge, the good professor mused that “we will have to raise taxes”. As a front-runner-turned-crowned-leader of the Liberal Party, Ignatieff never needed to wedge and never needed to segment in order to differentiate his campaign. It is unclear as to why in a trajectory largely devoid of policy pronouncements that of the rare policy musings he is making, he is offering ideas that are generally seen as unpopular. For example, in an interview with CityTV’s Richard Madan last December, the Liberal leader mused that he’s open to reversing the Conservative’s 2% GST cut.
Few election campaigns have seen bold policy stands by leaders fail so spectacularly. Despite this, we recently saw how the idea of funding non-Catholic faith-based religious schools sunk the PC Party’s prospects during the last Ontario election and for the Liberal Party of Canada, the carbon tax was a federal electoral disaster in 2008. Though Mr. Dion will be scapegoated with the carbon tax and conveniently shelved away, the Liberals will be considering the policy again at their next convention. Though in truth, Mr. Ignatieff was the original proponent of the tax.
Now it seems that Mr. Ignatieff is against such a tax but how can we be so sure given his reversal on this policy that his membership is now proposing? For Mr. Ignatieff, whether we’re taxed on carbon, income, or our purchases, what he’s made clear is that under his leadership our taxes would go up. Though cliché, this paraphrased statement holds:
“A carbon tax if necessary, but not necessarily a carbon tax.”
or rather, “a tax is necessary, but not necessarily a carbon tax.”
Mr. Rae would have been a wonderful leader for the Conservatives to oppose, unelectable as he would have been though disastrous for Canadians should have assumed residency at 24 Sussex Drive. Mr. Dion would have raised our taxes with a carbon tax. With Mr. Ignatieff, we know that while times are tough, he’d heap on increased government burden. At least with Mr. Dion, we would have known where it was coming from and how to brace ourselves. Terrible Liberal fiscal policy makes for good Conservative electoral prospects. Terrible and ambiguous Liberal fiscal policy makes for great Conservative electoral prospects.
Conservatives are looking forward to a Liberal party led by the professor on loan from Massachusetts. They’re anticipating the Canadian reaction of watching Mr. Ignatieff debate himself on how to best raise our taxes.