Stephen Harper’s strategic incoherence

Prime Minister Stephen Harper strikes fear into the hearts of his political opponents. He has gone about the business of gradually redefining the landscape of Canadian politics in his favour. The Conservatives have made incremental gains, from one election to the next. Harper is therefore regarded as a master political strategist.

The fear is legitimate. Prime Minister Harper is skilled at the public relations aspect of the job, and he is highly aggressive. He has been extremely effective at keeping his political opponents on the defensive.

But the Prime Minister’s reputation as a master strategist is bogus. It is becoming increasingly obvious that his political gambits are often incoherent.

A couple of weeks ago, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty released his fall fiscal update. That’s a standard practice in Canadian politics:  the Government delivers an economic update in the fall, followed by a full budget in February.

In this case, an announcement which ought to have been business as usual instead precipitated an extraordinary crisis.

The fiscal update was the latest example of Stephen Harper’s aggressive approach to politics. And it was so odious to the opposition parties that they banded together and threatened to replace the Conservative government with a Liberal/NDP coalition.

Here’s an “inside” account of those remarkable events. It comes from an informative article in Macleans, Inside A Crisis That Shook The Nation:

Nobody guessed … that Flaherty was about to announce a proposal to yank away the $1.95 per vote subsidy the federal parties are paid every year, a taxpayer underwriting of party costs that amounts to less than $30 million.

That subsidy was introduced in 2004, part of [Liberal Prime Minister] Jean Chrétien’s landmark reform of political financing. …

For the 12 months that ended last Sept. 30, the Conservatives collected about $10.5 million, the Liberals $8.75 million, the NDP $5 million, and the Bloc [Québécois] $3 million.

But the importance of that public money varies according to the parties’ capacity to raise their own funds—and therein lay the problem for Harper’s opponents. The Tories’ mighty fundraising machine pulled in $19.7 million in the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, the Liberals a paltry $5.7 million. Considering they have a much smaller voter base than the Liberals, the NDP did better, also raising $5.7 million. The Bloc’s backers contributed $861,000. So the Tories are the least reliant of any party on the taxpayer support. …

But why would the government imagine that the opposition parties, who together control a solid majority of House seats, would go along with a brazen bid to cripple their operations?

A Conservative official told Maclean’s that a key assumption was that the NDP would side with the Tories, seeing a chance to bankrupt their shared historic adversary—the Grits [i.e., the Liberal Party]. Although NDP fundraising is not as robust as the Tories’, it’s markedly healthier than the Liberals’. “We thought,” said the Tory insider, “the NDP would see that the Liberals would be hurt more than them.”

Now that’s a brilliant manoeuvre! The NDP would vote with the government, even though the loss of public financing would cause them some pain. The Liberal Party, which has been in freefall for the past three election cycles (2004, 2006, 2008) would be fatally wounded — to the mutual benefit of the Conservatives and the NDP.

You can see why Stephen Harper is regarded as a strategic genius.

Except there is that other matter to bear in mind. I speak of Stephen Harper’s Achilles heel — his strategic incoherence. In addition to the elimination of public financing for political parties, the fiscal update included “two more incendiary proposals”:

Flaherty vowed to temporarily take away the right of public sector unions to strike, and remove the right of women claiming they were underpaid compared with men to take their pay-equity complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

The NDP has traditionally relied on a disproportionate share of support from those two consituencies — women and union members. Hence, “a senior NDP official said those provisions left no chance the party could vote for the update.”

Poof! That’s the sound of Stephen Harper’s latest Machiavellian manoeuvre going up in smoke.

The Conservatives were relying on NDP support for their fiscal update. But the Prime Minister had poisoned the well he intended to drink from.

That’s what you call strategic incoherence.

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