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Stephen Harper Hoisted on his Own Niqab?

 

It looks like the Liberals will win the most seats in next week’s General Election. Their strategists have run a note-perfect campaign. But it would be unfair not to give credit where credit is due, to the man who did the most to put the Liberals on top: Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

 

According to all the polls, we stand at the brink of a real surprise: a Liberal plurality in Parliament. Polls have been wrong before and vote trends can change at the last minute, but with four days left ‘till E-Day, there’s little time left to reverse the tides. Unless people are lying (and the “shy Tory” voter often does, especially when their party has been campaigning in an embarrassing way), trends show the Conservatives will lose their grip on first place in the Parliamentary horse race.

And so we enter a weird week, where the Liberals’ events give off the heat and smoke of pending victory, while the others’ clutch at straw men (straw women really, wearing niqabs in brothels, smoking pot). Loyal Conservative voters and activists are incredulous that people – including some of their own people – are sliding sideways over to the puzzled, happy-faced Liberal leader. Loyal New Democrats are despondent about losing the best chance they’ve ever had. Expect a hanging at NDP headquarters if things continue as they are.

What clues were there that this would happen? The first sign came courtesy of Tom Mulcair, who from the outset campaigned as if dragging a vault full of gold bullion across a muddy stream. So terrified was he to let go of the fortune, he trudged ever more slowly into the deep part of the river, only to sink like a stone. Rarely has a flameout been so dull.

With Mulcair being so damned dull, nobody flocked to him and the voters temporarily lodged with the NDP remained open to alternatives. Despite the Duffy questions, initially there was movement to the Conservatives and we saw a solid Tory uptick in September. Up until then it was a three way race, with modest momentum behind Harper.

But then things turned. And the conditions requisite for that turn, and the shove forward for the Liberals, can be traced directly to one Stephen Joseph Harper.

First, Justin Trudeau gave a series of debate performances which exceeded the very low expectations set for him by the Conservatives. In the poetic justice department, little feels more ironic (or just) than the Tories being bitten by their own dog, but that’s what happens when you convince the world your opponent is an idiot. When he turns out NOT to be an idiot, everyone is impressed with him.

Next came the niqab.

Harper’s push to ban the niqab at citizenship ceremonies became the most discussed issue of the campaign. Now, questions of identity, women’s rights and accommodation are perfectly appropriate topics, but they taste and smell different when being exploited as wedge issues. Most likely Harper figured that anyone who disliked his niqab position wasn’t voting for him anyway, so who cares? And the niqab issue did help Harper with voters who feel strongly about these things, but it also burned him with people who feel differently (and strongly) about these things.

As is sometimes the case, when you un-pop the cork on voters’ darker sentiments, unexpected things happen. The niqab was a grenade that blew the race apart in unpredictable ways. Mr. Harper, it seems, may reap what he has sewn.

The major impact was felt first in Quebec, where Tom Mulcair decided to be principled and stand fast against the niqab-bashing. This alienated many Quebeckers who had helped elect all those New Democrats back in 2011. Some of those voters quickly swam towards the two parties willing to milk prejudice: the Bloc, and for federalists, the Harper Conservatives. Predictably, those two parties’ votes increased.

But with the sudden plummeting of NDP support in Quebec, we began to see the Liberals pick up support. From whom? From the people who don’t hate the niqab, that’s who – which as you will remember, is the majority which crushed the PQ’s race-baiting campaign last year in Quebec. The niqab gave those voters another reason not to like Harper and, with signs of NDP weakness, gave them a new reason to look at the Liberals.

That was the key that unlocked the race.wk

In short order, NDP polling numbers and seat projections fell – everywhere. That sent a loud message to the many vociferous anybody-but-Harper voters: “the NDP won’t win.”  Many voters simply want a realistic alternative – by “viable” they mean electable and adequately capable. They’d have gone NDP or Liberal, whichever felt more realistic. They were waiting for a sign. Voters saw the sign.

The apparent droop of NDP electability, in the light of the Liberals’ emerging viability, created an opening: people can vote Liberal, without straining their consciences and without risking another Harper majority. Hence the rush of voters in the past two weeks towards the LPC, compounding the loss of NDP support.

Then there was the TPP, which few journalists write about but which has been meaningful in the emergence of a Trudeau Liberal surge. The most we know about the TPP is that we don’t know what’s in it, except that it pays dairy farmers billions more tax dollars. Harper sold it as evidence of good economic stewardship (still his strong card) although the farmer bribe is more emblematic of his worst traits. Mulcair, desperate for an edge, took the NDP into full-fledged traditional foaming-at-the-mouth anti-trade leftyness – an attitude belied by the rather Progressive Conservative stance Mulcair has taken to everything else. TPP had “loser” written all over it for Tom, whatever angle he took on it. So everyone yawned.

But Trudeau? He just shrugged and delivered his lines quietly: “Liberals like trade, let’s wait and see the details,” etc, etc. There are two advantages in this position: first, it’s the only sensible position to take on an unknown, unratified treaty we may (or may not) adopt. Second, it’s a wink to traditional blue Liberals – the ones who own those small businesses Justin was mocking a few weeks ago, the ones he promises to bleed white with new taxes: “don’t worry, we’re still who we always were. Chill.” He has since followed that up with a rather hubristic direct appeal to soft Conservative voters. Don’t worry, we’re still who we always were. Chill.

Every poll out there now puts the Liberals well up on the Conservatives and a mile in front of the NDP.  You don’t call a horse race before the finish line, but when one gets so far ahead he’s not even kicking mud in the other horses’ faces anymore, you can kinda guess the ending.

It is possible the Liberals have peaked a few days too soon. Possible, but not very. The Conservatives have spiraled into weird paranoid fear mongering now (as opposed to their usual fear mongering) while the NDP just keep saying they’re ahead, because they’ve got all those seats in the House from the last time. Someone’s going to have to tell Tom that he has to give those seats back, maybe. Steve may need to hear that too.

So it comes to pass that Harper’s long term strategy (demolish Trudeau) simply lowered the bar for Justin to sail over, while plodding Tom fell behind. If Justin Trudeau hauls his photogenic family into 24 Sussex next month, it would be appropriate for Stephen Harper to greet him at the front door, to hand him the keys.

 

Visit David Laws blog at  Think Anew, Act Anew

 

David Law is a lawyer and law professor based in Ottawa

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