Monday, September 21, 2009

Diminishing Returns

I admit that I am mildly surprised. I doubted that Stephen Harper would accept Jack Layton's offer to keep his government alive. Indeed, Harper did little to solicit Layton's support. That support probably had more to do with the NDP's readiness to face an election than it did with its stated interest in making Parliament work.

What was even more surprising was the Bloc Quebecois' support -- although these days it's hard to vote against a tax cut. After the dust had cleared, those ads that the Conservatives have been running about Micheal Ignatieff forming a coalition with socialists and separatists -- the ones that end with the tag line, "We can't trust him. We just can't trust him." -- took on a whole new meaning.

The really insightful event of the week was the Harperites proposed reforms to the EI system,which they apparently never brought to the table this summer. The proposed changes are absolutely consistent with the wedge strategy which has defined the government from day one. As Tom Walkom pointed out in The Toronto Star, they are designed to play one segment of the labour force against all the others: "The Prime Minister's proposed temporary reforms are aimed at jobless Ontario auto workers, a key NDP constituency."

These folks are "relatively well paid older workers who find themselves out of a job." They live primarily in the Windsor and Oshawa areas; and, in the last election, the NDP lost Oshawa by only 3200 votes. Draining NDP votes from key Ontario ridings could make up for the seats Mr. Harper will lose in Quebec the next time out. Harper had originally sought to draw votes away from the Bloc Quebecois, by recognizing Quebec as a "nation within a nation" two years ago, until he blew up that support in a frantic effort to keep his government alive after his November fiscal up date -- the one that forecast no deficit. Mr. Flaherty readjusted his figures last week. That number has gone from 0 to $56 billion in 10 months.

Wedge issues have been the hallmark of modern conservatism. They were the core of Ontario's Harris government, whose chief of staff -- Guy Giorno -- is now Harper's chief of staff. They were central to the second Bush administration, whose chief political strategist -- Karl Rove -- was occasionally referred to as "Bush's Brain." In both cases, the strategy was subject to the law of diminishing returns, because it relied on "micro targeting," -- which further subdivided the wedges -- until voters saw themselves only in terms of what distinguished them from their fellow citizens and not in terms of what united them. In the end, politics became the equivalent of herding cats -- and ended in a cacophony of discontent.

Mr. Harper's party is not the only party whose appeal is based on wedge issues. The Bloc Quebecois is founded on the principle of wedge politics. Nationalist voters in Quebec are a large and fairly stable unit -- unless leaders like Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney or Jean Chretien, native sons all -- convince a significant number of their fellow citoyens that Quebec's interests are better served within the government than without.

Michael Ignatieff is no native son. But his grandparents and his uncle settled along the banks of the St. Francis River in Quebec's Eastern Townships. He knows Quebec much better than the Prime Minister. Be that as it may, he now is at what The Star's James Travers calls a "rare moment." Having released his party from the role of grumbling enabler to loyal opposition, he must now "seize this moment between crises to reintroduce himself to Canadians and restore party confidence that it hasn't made another leadership mistake."

Crucial to that mission is a rejection of wedge politics. Ignatieff must convince Canadians that -- while he understands their differences -- he also understands what unites them. Canadian voters have stopped coming to the polls because they have figured out they are pawns in a game where they are being played against each other. Mr. Harris and Mr. Bush both discovered that -- in the end -- wedge politcs is a losing strategy.

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