Friday, September 19, 2008

All politics local -- except for Mr Harper

Are the wheels falling off the Harper Express? Too early to say at this point but there were a few more sputters on the rails that threatened to derail the train to a majority government. Now two more Conservatives have gotten in hot water. First, Gerry Labelle actually questioned some of the more hardline elements of the party's platform -- in particular criticizing the meekness of the Cons' environmental policies and cuts to arts programs, and asking if it was wise for Slim Jim ™ Flaherty to say Ontario was the last place to do business. (The link is to a story in French.)

Second, Lawrence Cannon had to apologize for very indelicate remarks an aide of his made about Aboriginals that implied that all Natives are alcoholics. Cannon is trying to drum up votes for Harper in Québec where race relations can be a touchy subject even at the best of times.

The problems when you have a single leader controlling a message and making sure your lieutenants stick on mesage are twofold.

First: Some of your people are bound to step out of line. And when that happens, havoc can ensue. I remain convinced that the reason why people like Newt Gingrich and Mike Harris were possible is that media appearances were strictly controlled except for the "top of ticket." It worked very effectively. In the States, the "Contract With America" became a reality because many voters who hated Bill and Hillary Clinton didn't care which Republican was running in their district, they just pulled the switch for whatever Republican it was. Same here in Ontario, where people were just fed up with the ND's Bob Rae (who's since moved to the Liberals) as well as Lyn McLeod who came off as too timid They too didn't care which Conservative it was, they just marked an X beside that candidate.

Second: Even managing to keep people in line, a national platform doesn't necessarily allow for local circumstances. This is the case for all parties, but it's become a particular problem for the Conservatives. This is especially true in a case where a sitting MP or a prospective one running for office has to defend competing interests in a urban / rural district rather than a constitutency that is primarily one or the other. In an all or nothing platform like the Cons', there is no flexibility and one is bound to tick off one group or the other rather than seeking consensus.

To illustrate: Both urban and rural people want to fight crime, but people in the cities tend to eschew guns in the home while those in the country and the outports see guns as a vital part of their lives. For another, farmers understand the need to protect their land for future years and generations but their understanding of helping to clean the environment may very well be different than those in ciites who have to deal with smog; furthermore those same farmers may not care that much about cutbacks to the arts as much as city folk do.

(Jim Travers had a good column earlier this week about this in one battleground district, Perth-Wellington, where relations between Stratford and the surrounding countryside have never been that great. Stratford, beyond the Festival and related arts activities, also has an auto parts industry that is currently struggling with the current economic downturn; meanwhile the farmland beyond is right in the middle of Ontario's Bible Belt with Stratford a small-l liberal anomaly in an otherwise socially conservative part of the world.. At present things are coming to a head about the desire for federal funding of a satellite campus for the University of Waterloo. The area is represented by a Conservative at present who might get re-elected on the basis of a socon majority.)

There's only so much deviation that should be expected, otherwise why has one committed to a platform? But to expect complete subscription to orthodoxy will lead to problems. Candidates should be free to say how they'll help both town and country and not have to pit the two against each other because head office tells them to.

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