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(For The Globe and Mail)
(For The Globe and Mail)

Lawrence Martin

On Trudeau anniversary, Tories feeling the heat Add to ...

Conservatives will be poll-watching even more closely than usual in the next fortnight. They have just had their best stretch of publicity on their economic performance in a long time – a week’s run of unchallenged rave reviews following the death of Jim Flaherty.

There’s a good chance they will make sizable gains. If they don’t, it’s a further sign that a shift in the public mood away from the governing party has solidified.

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This week marks the first anniversary of Justin Trudeau as Liberal leader. Despite his being constantly ahead of them, Tories are pretty much unanimous in their belief that he hasn’t done anything of note. He’s just an empty suit, they say. But if this analysis has merit, it means the Tories are in worse trouble than they might imagine. It means, judging by his enduring lead, they can’t even beat the Maple Leafs.

Mr. Trudeau’s accomplishment has been to bring back the Liberal support base. That base is traditionally larger than the Conservative one. This has been evident in polls that have shown the Grits around 35 per cent and the Tories at around 30. That picture has held not only for the past year, but dating all the way back to September of 2012, when Mr. Trudeau announced his intention to seek the leadership. With his name on the ticket, hypothetical polls immediately showed the big change.

The Conservatives’ emphasis on the economy hasn’t been working against Mr. Trudeau. But they never had the free run in putting a stamp on what a dazzling job they’ve done for Canada on this front as they did following the death of their finance minister. Opposition critics were silent, as decency required, at the non-stop acclaim. It would have been unseemly for them to mount their counter arguments, of which there are many, at such a time.

In his eulogy to Mr. Flaherty, Stephen Harper showed himself to have a human touch. More known for his classless smear campaigns against opponents than any degree of soft-heartedness, he displayed a sense of self-deprecating humour which becomes any man in power. Mr. Harper talked about how even Jim Flaherty`s enemies like him. In his own case, he suggested even his friends don’t like him. But they’ll like him more after that remark.

In addition, the Conservatives got the good news that the PM’s former chief of staff Nigel Wright would not face criminal charges. Charges would have been crippling news. On the foreign front Mr. Harper was able to pose, as he likes to do, as the hardliner of the Western world with his tough talk on Ukraine.

Tories hope that the corner is now being turned, that they’ll draw even with the Grits or close to it. If there is little or no movement, they might as well go back to the drawing board. It will be a clearer signal than ever that the economy cannot save them. It will be a signal that after many years in power, fatigue has set in and the public wants change, pure and simple.

This was the case in the latter years of the St. Laurent Liberals, the Pierre Trudeau Liberals, the Brian Mulroney Tories and others. If it wasn’t the policies that turned people off, it was the governing culture.

The culture of the Harper operation grates. A country is supposed to be governed by consent, not by coercion. With this man, there has been too much of the latter.

There’s that and there is the progressives’ argument that this is a country moving backward in time. Backward on criminal justice policies, backward on the environment, backward on labour rights, on democracy and backward, with the unremitting focus on resource exploitation, on economic vision.

The Trudeau phenomenon that will be talked about during this anniversary week may not be a phenomenon at all. It’s less the perception of him that counts than of those in power. If the perception of those in power doesn’t change soon, the die is cast.

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