Christy Clark’s missed opportunity

Tom Mulcair has had a busy week. In his first real outing on the national stage on any policy issue of pan-Canadian importance he chose to entangle energy, regions, the manufacturing sector, and the environment. Melange became malaise as Mulcair designed his prognostication to polarize.

In short, according to Mulcair, manufacturing jobs in central Canada suffer from a high dollar caused by energy exports. Exploiting the oilsands in Alberta and building pipelines to ship processed bitumen south and west is boosting the strength of the dollar. Mulcair calls it ‘Dutch Disease’.

Though without a reasonable diagnosis or plan for treatment, his strategy is quite transparent. The NDP has a tenuous hold on the seats from what many have called an accidental victory for the party in Quebec. Showing up as Quebec’s defender is a role conceded within the last decade by the federal Liberal Party, and Mulcair is digging in, and pouring the concrete to reinforce the foundation.

The NDP leader’s wedging from Outremont was a welcome opportunity for western premiers, whom Mulcair dismissed as “messengers” for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall warmed up his twitter and Facebook accounts to throw haymakers in defence the prairie province’s resource extraction industry.

For Wall, whose party captured 64.2% of the popular vote in the last provincial election, standing up for his province was more of a pleasure than a necessity, as his main opponents in the Saskatchewan NDP are lagging far behind.

Moving west, Alberta’s newly elected majority Premier Alison Redford — comfortably settling without much concern for imminent electoral survivability — passively mustered that Mulcair’s comments were “divisive and ill-informed”.

Yet, westward still, where we see a Premier in the fight for her political life in BC, with a surging NDP topping 50% in provincial polls, with an economy fixed firmly in the resource sector pipelines ready, it’s mostly quiet. Christy Clark’s finance minister did dismiss the “ignorant” remarks of Tom Mulcair, and the premier did call Mulcair’s position “goofy”, however, she has been absent from the province on a trade mission overseas and comparatively absent on the issue.

Resource sector jobs are inextricably linked to the BC economy. There have been talks or rebranding Clark’s party to recapture the pro-business and pro-development segments of the successful coalition that has kept her party in power. A perfect opportunity was presented to allow Clark to emerge as the most vocal defender of Western interests. Clark wasn’t just weak on brand, she was largely off-grid.

The federal NDP leader is making shrewd if cynical strategy dividing regions against each other but in the end it will likely pay political dividends for him. The other winners in this dance have been the Premiers with the least to gain while Premier Clark — facing a desperately dire political situation at home — has missed her chance to enrich her electability from this latest entanglement.

Just where does Ignatieff stand on the HST? Or on anything?

A week ago, I wrote about BC Liberal party MP Ujjal Dosanjh’s characterization of the BC HST as the “Harper Sales Tax”. I pointed out that it was quite a stretch for the former NDP Premier of that province, given that the party he formerly led in that province put the blame squarely on the provincial policy writers — the BC Liberal government.

Dosanjh responded to my comments explaining that the BC Liberals and federal Liberals are two different parties and suggested I was trying to link the two, but yet he’s the one who went out of his way to shift his scorn from those Liberals to the Conservatives in Ottawa. Politics is local and Dosanjh — scraping by with a narrow victory in 2008 by 22 votes — is tapping into a hotly debated populist issue in that province. But is this wise for him?

Despite this, does he have a point? While Dosanjh acts as an apologist for Liberal premier Gordon Campbell, essentially decrying that “Harper made him do it”, tax harmonization was suggested and incentivized at the federal level. However, if harmonization is unpopular in BC, voters are likely to blame those that signed off of on the policy and implemented it into law — ie. the jurisdictional authority — the BC Liberal government. And while we awkwardly parse how related or non-related these Liberals are to those Liberals and which Liberals like taxes and which ones don’t, the overall story then evolved.

Dosanjh’s words rang a bit more hollow this week when Ontario finance minister Dwight Duncan — a Liberal himself — said that Michael Ignatieff had approved of the HST and would help Ontario along its path to harmonization should he become Prime Minister. These Liberals, as Mr. Dosanjh will undoubtedly note, are very much related to their federal Liberal cousins.

Yesterday, Ignatieff’s finance critic John McCallum cited a “miscommunication” when it came to his leader’s position on the HST, while today Ontario Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty said that Ignatieff gave him the “clearest of impressions” that he would support the tax.

These days it seems difficult to nail Michael Ignatieff down on any controversial issue. His position on a number of issues from Iraq, to George W Bush, to coercive interrogation, to a Liberal-NDP coalition, to harmonization have evolved drastically over time. By refusing to settle on any particularly substantive issue, Ignatieff is trying to give the impression that he supports your point of view on public policy (whatever it may be). A cynical observer might suggest that this strategy may work for the disengaged soft Liberal supporter.

However, as anyone that runs a focus group will tell you, on the issue of taxes Liberals have always had an wide credibility gap to bridge. Now that two Liberal provincial governments are implementing a harmonized sales tax while the federal Liberal leader seems to at best support it or at worse waffle on it, Liberals — of varied associations — are finding the gap becoming a gulf. For Ujjal Dosanjh, whose riding lists crime as the other top-of-mind issue — another focus group nightmare for the Liberals — perhaps its time to focus on new messaging.