Day to day, figuring out a Conservative party (or, more accurately, a PMO) communications strategy is a confusing trial of trying to guess what kind of game they’re playing. Is it the short yards they’re after today, or the long bomb?
In light of the kind of spring his party had in the headlines, Conservative House leader Peter Van Loan gave what some might consider to be either an hilarious or totally delusional quote on Monday. “We’ve had a very productive session, the government got a lot done,” Van Loan told the Globe and Mail. He went on to say the Conservative caucus would be returning to their ridings this summer “feeling positive”. Then Van Loan said: “I think everyone senses that, to the extent there’s momentum out there, that momentum is at our backs.”
Ha. Good one, right? I mean, let’s review.
I mentioned the headlines this summer. They weren’t great. There were as many as five bills introduced in the last few months that could potentially be challenged in the Supreme Court. They are: C-13, the government’s cyber-bullying bill; C-23, the Fair Elections Act; C-24, which would allow for a dual national accused of terrorism to be stripped of citizenship; C-31, the budget; and C-36, the government’s new prostitution bill. Of those, three have already achieved Royal Assent (ie. they are law).
That’s not a huge list, but that there’s a list at all is the point. Each one of those bills brought a round of negative press and columnist ire. And we haven’t even mentioned Prime Minister Harper’s bumbled Supreme Court appointment, (which is still causing issues and, I would suspect, will continue to) and his very public spat with the Chief Justice.
As if that wasn’t enough, to top it all off, the Conservatives set off to those summer riding barbecues with a (basically) re-approved controversial fighter jet and a conditionally-approved controversial pipeline bidding them farewell from Ottawa. Those drew criticism, too, most especially from the opposition parties, who will be spending time in their ridings this summer as well, and now have plenty of ammunition.
So, momentum? What momentum?
Maybe Van Loan’s was just a throwaway comment, just spin. After all, what else would the government House leader tell a journalist? But what if he was serious? Not in a so-delusional-he-believes-his-own-lies kind of serious, but genuinely so? Then we’d have to ask why. And all of those negative headlines would have to be seen in a slightly different light. So let’s try it, assuming the long game.
Let’s start with the courts. There is no issue with the courts. Yet. Those challenges the headlines are predicting today will likely come, but in the meantime each one of those bills will most likely become law. And look at what they cover. Cyber-bullying, prostitution, terrorism – all fairly major words when you’re talking to families about public safety. Even the Fair Elections Act purports to be a cleansing tool, suggesting there’s something currently unfair about our elections (there isn’t, unless you count first-past-the-post, and it does nothing to change that).
And let’s say those court challenges arise while the Conservatives are still in power. Fine. They will be forced to re-work their laws, which they will do as they see fit (see: prostitution), and equally be in a position to highlight the string of Supreme Court rejections as evidence, as they see it, of a judiciary corrupted by activist special interest groups that want to undermine democratically elected consensus. That conflict, by the way, isn’t one the Conservatives are likely to shy away from. If anything, they may even be planning on it.
As for the pipeline approval, that too will be disputed and challenged, but not before the overall message is telegraphed once again that expanding Canada’s energy markets is generally something the Conservative party favours. As it happens, they’re already in good company. Canadians, and British Columbians specifically, appear to be almost evenly split on the decision to approve the Northern Gateway.
On that, the opposition has quickly stuck it into a negative position by rejecting the government’s approval automatically. But if the Northern Gateway never happens and Keystone XL is rejected, and the urgency of the situation begins to either set in with (or be sold to) Canadians, the NDP and Liberals may actually be setting themselves up for some uncomfortable questions about reasonable alternative strategies to keep Canada’s economy afloat that aren’t resource-based – particularly from everyone outside B.C. The Conservatives will face questions about why their plan didn’t work, but their answer will be one they already started practicing this week by standing at arms-length from the approval announcement: it’s the process that fails, not the policy.
So, momentum? In a way, yes, for the long run, anyway. Perhaps that's the kind that matters. They played a similar game in 2011, after all.