By REX MURPHY
Commentator with The National and host of CBC Radio's Cross-Country Checkup
Saturday, September 6, 2008
As I write, the election is on, save for the formality of dropping the writ.
I've caught a couple of the new Stephen Harper ads. They're from a series of seven, titled "At home with Stephen Harper." And very gentle, soft, fuzzy little minuets they are. In the jargon of PR, they try to "humanize" the Prime Minister. I'm not sure I agree with the premise of that effort. It very clearly implies that there is a soft side to the Prime Minister, and that we rarely see it and that, for it to be visible, it's necessary to buy ads to place it on display.
Well, he's been running the country now for a bit more than 2½ years. We've seen him in the House. We've seen him at press conferences. We've seen him on his good days and on his bad. And the cumulative impression we have of him is already fixed. He's whip-smart, brusque, sometimes cantankerous, viscerally partisan, sublimely self-confident, hard-edged and decisive. If we're forced to use American analogies, he's more Newt Gingrich (the comparison with George Bush is ludicrous, and Stéphane Dion should give it up) than Jimmy Carter.
In other words, Canadians know the leader they've got, and the greeting-card fuzziness of the "At home with Stephen Harper" ads (piano music, bright light, vest - everything but a little bird landing on his shoulder at the end, chirping the first four notes of O Canada) is not going to attenuate the very strong image they already have of him. And, by the way, the image they have is the best thing Mr. Harper and the Conservatives have going for them.
For all his angularity, occasional harshness and remoteness, Canadians recognize him as a leader. They see him, in the main, as competent and determined. They are not embarrassed when he goes abroad. They know he has intelligence to spare. And despite his chilliness of manner (which I expect is as much a product of shyness as arrogance), he's a decent man who loves his country. For good or ill, that's the package - and in the campaign about to unfold, from the Conservatives' perspective, it's mainly for the good.
For the good, because leadership is the point of contrast, the pivot, on which - barring the explosion of some massive issue mid-campaign - the election will turn. At the very least, that's the way the Conservatives are going to frame this campaign. There'll be all the usual rallies, platform statements, strategic announcements on other issues, but the centre of the Conservative campaign will be basic and simple: Which of these two men, Stéphane Dion or Stephen Harper, is the real, the better, leader?
Which, and I'm not being flip, is bad news for Mr. Dion. He is all the things that those who know him, or even just met him, say he is. He's as honourable as sunlight, courageous, an adamant patriot, cerebral and charming. But aside from the two-day glow when he entered (on a Green carpet) the Liberal leadership convention, he's flatlined as champion of the party he leads.
And he's overshadowed in the leadership stakes by the very two people he beat at the convention, Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae. (People would buy tickets to watch a straight-up contest between Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Harper. Sharp Sticks and High IQs - what a play that'd be.) The Liberal Party itself, at any real psychological depth, hasn't settled with him as its leader. Flashes of one more convention yet to come shadow his tenure. From the membership to the shadow cabinet, the Liberals are looking at this election equally as Mr. Dion's last chance, as at a contest with the Harper Conservatives.
Furthermore, Mr. Dion has burdened himself very greatly with a massive and complicated policy - the Green Shift or carbon tax - as the centrepiece of the Liberal effort in this campaign. He has dedicated the summer to selling an elaborate and dramatic environmental and economic "rebalancing" of the country's energy needs and production. It hasn't been sold. Outside of fervent environmentalists, not one in 10 Canadians either understands or embraces it.
He's locked his pitch to Canadians into a big untested idea in a time of economic anxiety. The idea may be noble, but it's too cluttered in its details and too diverse in its potential impact to provide a rallying point and a reason to choose Mr. Dion over Mr. Harper. It causes shudders in the West and, in the East, the Liberals are not taking full account of how much oil and gas are part of whatever revival Atlantic Canadians are enjoying these days.
Barring, as I've said, some extraneous explosion of a "new" issue in this election, it's essentially Mr. Harper versus Mr. Dion. For now, that's most likely a competition that will give Mr. Harper a clear edge.