If, as the Conservatives interpret it, politics is war, it’s no surprise they have been winning. They are the only side that’s been deploying the heavy artillery.
In response to their personal attack ads against Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, the Liberals have been absent from the battlefield, standing next to the forest. In the Dion case, they didn’t have the money to afford counterblasts. With Iggy, they’ve been cautious, not wanting to be accused of joining Stephen Harper on the political low road.
That is changing. Liberal ads released this week on the closing down of Parliament hit the prime minister where it stings — with a cover-up charge. Team Ignatieff is aware that it’s not the alleged torture of Afghan detainees that’s got the public worked up. It’s the autocratic arrogance of the PM in thinking he can repeatedly manipulate the democratic system for partisan gain.
Given the heady response they’ve been getting on the prorogue issue, the Grits feel they’ve got momentum on their side. That they may be right was indicated by Harper’s response. In obvious damage-control mode, he’s come forward, volunteering many a media interview. That’s something he doesn’t do often.
He tried to excuse the shutdown of Parliament by saying the government needed more time to prepare for a new budget. But as it stood, the government had a five-week Christmas break even without a prorogue. In any case, the PM was contradicted on the point by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who said yesterday budget consultations weren’t affected by prorogation.
The other Conservative defence line is the rationale that the Liberals once did this kind of thing, so it’s OK for us to do it. It never seems to bother team Harper that anyone with a measure of self-respect doesn’t seek to excuse their own inadequacies by constantly dredging up the inadequacies of others.
In the abuse-of-power sweepstakes, the Liberals of Jean Chretien did indeed run up quite a tally, not the least of which was the closing down of an inquiry into alleged brutality by Canadian soldiers in Somalia. The move was dictatorial and inexcusable. But Ignatieff had nothing to do with any of the malfeasance in the Chretien days. In any case, the Conservatives promised a new era of accountability and transparency. The promise has become a standing joke.
On one level, the lack of civility in our politics, it’s unfortunate the Liberals are resorting to attack ads. But to compete against the Harper goon squad, they didn’t have much choice. They could continue to get run over. Or they could finally start giving this prime minister some of his own medicine.
Lawrence Martin is a journalist and author of 10 books who writes about national affairs from Ottawa.