Look who's blundering now
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 21 January 2006)

Whatever happens between this morning and the counting of the last ballot on Monday night, Canada has been through the most interesting political campaign in more than 17 years. We have had nothing comparable since Brian Mulroney bet his government on a Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. and legions of articulate Canadians claimed it would destroy our institutions and make us vassals of the Americans.

In 1988 we knew from the start that something crucial was at stake. Those who voted for Mulroney thought the issue was common sense vs. hysterical anti-Americanism. Those who voted for John Turner's Liberals believed we had to choose between Canadian survival and U.S. imperialism.

But when this wintry election campaign began, many among us considered it no more than a boring nuisance imposed upon a long-suffering populace by the political class. Instead, it became a series of startling revelations about the Liberals, the NDP and even the Canadian Auto Workers. At the same time, it presented a new and unlikely version of Stephen Harper as a man of the moderate centre-right, committed to imposing his vision through gradual change.

No one anticipated the great surprise of the campaign: At precisely the same moment, the Conservatives learned how to run a campaign and the Liberals forgot.

This was particularly startling because Paul Martin, more than any other Canadian of his generation, was prized for his competence. Yet he stumbled again and again while Harper (too inexperienced to be prime minister, according to an op-ed appearing in these pages by Andrew Cohen) moved deftly from strength to strength. Harper has operated this time like a Liberal leader of the old days, maintaining party discipline, speaking with the apparent confidence of a natural winner, making his disdain for his opponents obvious without resorting to displays of rage or dishonesty.

Not everything that befell the Liberals was Martin's fault. He could hardly be blamed for the heart-stopping announcement that the RCMP was investigating his finance minister about a possible leak of tax information. On the other hand, it was Martin's choice to play the anti-American card with embarrassing clumsiness. He chose to yammer on endlessly about superior-to-the-U.S. "Canadian values," long after many voters had stopped trying to figure out what he meant. And it was he who insisted, with unblushing effrontery, that only the Liberals could deal with national unity.

Martin was also responsible for the deal he made with the New Democrats last spring to keep his government alive for a few more months. The NDP, spoilers in so many local elections, helped spoil Martin's dream of a majority government by forcing NDP ideas onto the Liberal agenda and budget. We have grown accustomed to being bribed with our own money, but not many of us have expressed a wish to have it done under NDP direction. It was the first sign of Martin's desperation, which later emerged more obviously in the attack advertising.

Martin was also the reason the Liberal party was divided against itself. The overturning of Jean Chretien by internal coup may have seemed like a good idea in 2002 and may have been unavoidable. But when victory was finally assured, Martin and his fellow mutineers needed to forgive, forget and embrace those who chose loyalty to Chretien. Instead, their vindictiveness fatally intensified the residual anger. In 2005-06 the party continues to implode. The ghost of Chretien has a life of its own.

This is an election in which people keep waking up in the wrong bed, as if dedicated to illustrating the cliche about politics and strange bedfellows. There are, for instance, all those Liberal MPs who oppose same-sex marriage and yet find themselves running behind a leader who now appears to consider their views little short of criminal.

On this issue Martin huffed and puffed himself up to a level of moral outrage rarely seen in recent politics, arriving eventually at the point where he condemned Harper's plan to have a free parliamentary vote as a threat to civil rights, rights that Martin himself didn't support until a very few years ago.

From that grew (naturally, in Martin's eyes) a belief that Harper would override the constitution. And from there it was only a hop and skip to the promise, delivered apparently off-the-cuff in a TV debate (even the deputy prime minister didn't know it was coming), that the Liberals would quickly set about eliminating the notwithstanding clause from the Constitution so that no one could ever again overrule the Supreme Court, the way that Martin feared Harper would do. Harper's cool and measured response to that craziness was one of his best moments, a triumph of unhurried statesmanship under pressure.

But it was Buzz Hargrove, head of the Canadian Auto Workers, who most spectacularly popped up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hargrove tried to reinvent himself as a cunning Dr. Spin who would tell mildly leftish voters how to keep Harper from office. Going beyond traditional ideas of strategic voting, he devoted himself to strategic campaigning. As head of a union that helped create the NDP, he announced that he was working for the Liberals in those ridings where they might beat the Conservatives.

He became Machiavelli, with hugs. There he was embracing Martin on one occasion and, on another, standing beside Belinda Stronach, the auto-parts heiress, to help her beat back the Conservative party she was elected to support before she leapt to the Liberals last spring.

But the event that will no doubt be known as The Strathroy Statement (after the Ontario town where it was given) should give Hargrove his special place in history. On Wednesday, with Martin in the room, he told reporters that Harper was close to being a separatist; then he briefly turned separatist himself, advising leftish Quebecers to vote for the Bloc Quebecois wherever a Conservative had a chance of winning. An hour or two later he acknowledged that Harper was, he guessed, a federalist.

That night The National on the CBC led with Martin doing what no efficiently managed leader should ever have to do five days before a vote -- apologizing, in particular for his new socialist chum Buzz. It was precisely the kind of blunder that the Liberals expected (in fact counted on) Stephen Harper to make.

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