The maestro is at it again. Stephen Harper controls the political universe. His opponents make a lot of noise, but down deep, they're timorous. His stock rises, theirs falls.
He forced an election last fall without a compelling reason. He said his legislative program was being blocked when it wasn't. He unfixed his fixed election date. Now, when the popgun shooters on the Liberal benches want to bring on an election, Mr. Harper, with a straight face, flattens them with shame. They don't have a good reason, he says. It being Ottawa, hypocrisy's hometown, no one even burps.
The PM caves on employment insurance, doing stuff he said he'd never do. But he wins the spin game. Headlines suggest his opponents have fallen victim to his sorcery, as they have so many other times. Threatened by the notion of a coalition, Mr. Harper has turned the public perception of a coalition government - routine in other countries - into some kind of rare disease. Michael Ignatieff dare not mention it. Nor, despite the growing deficit, dare he mention new taxes. While planning to raise EI premiums, the PM has cast tax hikes into something worse than scurvy.
He lords over all. It's a jaw-dropping performance. It's as if he's bulletproof when, in fact, he's highly vulnerable.
Vulnerable? There's a wonderful litmus-test question once posed by Ronald Reagan. In campaigning against Jimmy Carter, the Gipper famously asked whether the country was better off than it had been four years earlier. If the Harper foes put forward that query, they might find more appetite for going to the polls.
Our economy was quite splendid four years ago, just humming along. It staggers now. Owing to the global recession, unemployment nears double digits. The deficit gathers at an alarming rate, moving toward record levels.
On trade, our exports to the United States have declined over the past four years. Instead of pursuing alternative markets, the government, in the grip of old-think, dithered. Only now is it waking up to Asian opportunities.
On the Afghan war, the Conservatives saw promise four years back. Gung-ho on the mission, Mr. Harper forced a quick vote for its extension. His optimism was misguided. Today, more than 100 deaths later, the inferno worsens. Our withdrawal is planned.
There's the environment. A breakthrough has seen the Conservatives progress from climate-change deniers to climate-change dawdlers. Instead of having Canada take a lead on the international stage, it plays a wait-and-see game.
Four years ago, the Tories made high-sounding promises on democratic reform and transparency. Today, Mr. Harper runs one of the most overcentralized command centres the country has ever seen. On matters too many to mention, his cynical government has seized the moral low ground.
On health care, there's been little progress of note. There's no national energy policy, despite the projected shortages of natural gas. There's no overarching ambition for this country, period.
There've been some accomplishments: a revitalized military, a higher profile for Arctic sovereignty, anti-crime measures and, by way of the PM's brilliant stroke on nation status for the Québécois, some progress on national unity.
The Conservatives should neither be blamed for starting this recession nor credited with ending it. Economic tides from afar were, and remain, the decisive influences. The Tories' stimulus spending will help the recovery, but the outlays were opposition-induced. Their economic forecasts have been repeatedly cockeyed and embarrassing. Because of their prerecession profligate spending and their slicing of major revenue providers such as the GST, the Conservatives bear a goodly part of the responsibility for what could very well become a structural deficit.
The record leaves ample ammunition, but the Liberals have allowed Mr. Harper to frame the debate. Smartly, he has made the opposition the issue. And he's kept the national discussion focused more on his political machinations than his policy history.
So far, the Liberals have come at the PM with an empty suitcase. Their policy alternatives are few, and there's no application of the Reagan litmus test. It's a test they should have ringing in every Canadian ear. It may even be justification for an election campaign.