By PAT WATSON
Whether Conservative and undecided voters support the Stephen Harper government in the next federal election will depend on one of two things. Voters will either be willing to overlook the growing list of transgressions because they believe that the Harper Conservatives have benefited them financially and handled the Canadian economy well during a difficult economic recession. Or they will reject the Conservatives because of this government’s blatant disregard or contempt for the rules and traditions of Parliament while the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) takes on an air of autocracy.
A Conservative win or loss will come down to a vote either on economics or principle.
Many long time Conservatives who strongly identified with the Progressive Conservative brand of politics feel betrayed by what many consider the unprincipled behaviour of members of Harper’s government. They point to the recent reprimand by Speaker of the House Peter Milliken with regard to the government’s refusal to disclose the cost of its tough-on-crime bills and corporate tax cuts. Then there is the case of the Minister of International Cooperation and MP for Durham Region, Bev Oda, who lied to a House of Commons committee about who altered the recommendation that would deny funding to a Christian advocacy group.
In another matter, a federal court of appeal ruling determined that the Conservatives tried to sidestep campaign laws in what is being called the “in-and-out” election-financing scandal. During the 2005 campaign the Conservatives transferred money from national to local offices and then back again to avoid the appearance of exceeding the maximum allowance on campaign spending.
Those who have become disillusioned with the Conservatives on matters of principle may also remember that Stephen Harper campaigned on a platform of transparency and accountability but has since chosen – through the PMO – to tightly control the message. This is a government that prorogued Parliament in order to avoid answering questions about the Canadian military turning over Afghan detainees to the Afghans for questioning, with the knowledge that Afghan authorities engaged in torture, in contravention of United Nations policy against such action.
If, on the other hand, voters are pleased with the benefits gained from the continuing cuts to corporate taxes; if they feel strongly that the Harper government’s multi-billion-dollar stimulus spending (never mind the significant deficit with which we are now faced) was the right thing to do; if voters feel that we were a safe harbour during that challenging period from which the economy is now haltingly emerging thanks to the way the crisis has been handled by Harper; and if they feel that the Liberals under leader Michael Ignatieff could not have done as well, they may be comfortable giving Harper another chance.
If, on the other hand, they are concerned about the seemingly lack of morality in government and the perceived bullying tactics of this government and its ministers, they may choose to look for an alternative.
It might be worth noting that Ignatieff is just about where Harper was before the Conservatives were first elected. Harper was not trusted by middle-ground, socially liberal and fiscally conservative Canadians. Yet, his party won the elections (albeit with a minority government) thanks in no small part to the scandals that plagued the Liberals who had at the time been in power for 11 years. Many Canadians have a trust issue now with Ignatieff in much the same way that they did then with Harper.
Whichever way the writ drops, and we could find out not long after March 22 when the next federal budget is tabled, it is not hard to imagine another minority government.
However, which party will form the government will depend on whether or not voters choose economics over principle.