Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Tables Unturning

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, A House Divided (Tuesday December 20, 2005 at 2:52 pm)

The weapons of the enemy are always a promising avenue of attack. Master them, and you’re on your way to mastering the enemy itself. It worked for the Romans and the English, but can it work for Canadian Conservative leader Steven Harper?

Long accustomed to enduring attacks painting him as a danger to Canada, Harper has spent the first few weeks of this campaign focussing on policy in a clear attempt to preemptively define himself.

Now, he’s gone on the attack with a strategy torn from the pages of his opponents (more on which later).

The Conservative leader has alleged that the federal Liberals’ poor performance in Quebec is just what Liberals want. Given that the Liberals are the only national party presenting a real challenge to the separatist Bloc Quebecois in that province, Canadians will naturally turn to the Liberals when national unity is threatened. Therefore, goes his thinking, by letting the BQ surge, the Liberals secure the support of fearful federalists across the country, boosting their performance elsewhere.

If true, Mr. Harper’s allegations merely brand the Liberal Party of Canada as the stupidest strategists in history — a questionable charge for a party which held power for three quarters of the last century, even given their recent weakness.

But let’s say, as we must to believe Mr. Harper’s claim, that the Liberals have the ability to win or lose something in the neighbourhood of twenty seats in Quebec — enough to make the difference between a Liberal and a separatist hold on that provinces 75 constituencies. How many seats would the threat of national disunity add, nationwide, to Liberal totals? Out West, probably none — concessions to Quebec aren’t as saleable as the Liberals might like. Out East, the Liberals have about as many seats as they’re likely to win. National unity wouldn’t likely pick up more than about 15 of the thirty seats they don’t already hold there (at a maximum).

By contrast, what would the situation be if they held the twenty seats in Quebec, rather than lying down? Twenty more seats in the House. In the last election, that would have brought them a majority. In this election, twenty seats could, once more, make that much of a difference. Unless the Liberals are able to gain twenty seats by stoking fears of separatism, it’s unlikely such a stratagem would be worth deploying — holding the seats is more worthwhile.

So even if it’s true that Liberals benefit from fears of separation, they probably benefit less from such fears than they would from a strong showing in Quebec. It’s highly unlikely, then, that the Liberals intentionally do badly in Quebec — it’s more worthwhile for them to do well there, as their historic performance in the province shows. Their present weakness is one of the major contributing factors in their inability to hold a majority.

And most Canadians probably have a certain understanding of this. The Liberals have had a powerbase in Quebec since the Conservatives fell apart there in the 1920s. That they would sacrifice that base in the face of weakness and uncertain performance elsewhere is too preposterous an idea to suggest. No one will believe it.

Full marks to Mr. Harper for trying to turn the tables on the Liberals; but he needs to try a claim that isn’t so transparently ridiculous. It lays his strategy bare, and bare strategies look ugly. He’s right to take the enemy’s weapons, but he needs to wield them with a bit more subtlety and skill.

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