From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
Ottawa Stephen Harper has tried to sell the war in Afghanistan by making it into something noble. Perhaps that's why he resisted the temptation yesterday to put his foot on Stéphane Dion's throat.
While he is admired for many other attributes, polls suggest Mr. Harper's take-no-prisoners approach to politics is one quality many Canadians don't particularly appreciate. Yesterday, in detailing his government's response to John Manley's report on Afghanistan, the Prime Minister could have given in to that inclination by exploiting the divisions in the Liberal Party over extending the mission.
Instead, he offered a pacifying tone that suggests the Prime Minister now realizes that, if he wants to sell this controversial war to Canadians, he can't demean it by trying to score points off it.
"It would be a mistake to turn this into politics," said Peter Donolo, a partner with polling firm the Strategic Counsel. "Not only would it leave people cold, but the media is on the watch for him being too aggressive and they'd amplify it if he was."
Last August, a Strategic Counsel poll found Mr. Harper's Achilles heel with Canadians could well be a partisan, controlling nature that sometimes leaves them cold. It is blamed by some for keeping the Tories below the polling levels needed for a majority.
This penchant for partisanship was on display last month, said Mr. Donolo, when Mr. Harper characterized former nuclear safety watchdog Linda Keen as a Liberal appointee.
"He was seen to be surly and nasty and fairly partisan and he's probably making a conscious effort now not to do that generally," Mr. Donolo said.
To that end, Mr. Harper was more than accommodating yesterday, not only to the Liberals, but to the media, with whom he has had a running feud. He showed up for the second time in two months to the National Press Theatre and stayed longer than advertised to answer a couple more questions. He also refrained from saying anything negative about Mr. Dion and gave the Liberal Leader the courtesy of a phone call Sunday before he made his remarks yesterday.
But before one concludes that the kinder, gentler approach is a permanent state of affairs, there are some other near-term political factors that may also have prompted Mr. Harper's demeanour.
First, if Mr. Harper wants to push through the Afghanistan extension, an olive branch to Mr. Dion would be a good thing. A tacit undertaking by Mr. Harper that he will not exploit the divisions in Mr. Dion's caucus might be one way to bring Mr. Dion onside. In this case, Mr. Dion can support the mission while saving some face.
Second, a conciliatory Mr. Harper might give a number of Liberals looking to support the Manley report a way out of their pickle. At least they won't get blasted by the PM for doing so.
Finally, the Prime Minister doesn't really need to be the one to point to the divisions within the Liberal caucus. The media and Liberal MPs can do that without Mr. Harper, who would be blamed for elevating politics above what is, arguably, the most important issue facing Canadians of this generation.
Said Mr. Donolo: "In terms of this specific issue, partisanship would just be poisonous."