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Rick Salutin (Deborah Baic)
Rick Salutin (Deborah Baic)

Rick Salutin

Voters won't take the bait Add to ...

Mario Laguë, Michael Ignatieff's communications director, died Thursday in a motorcycle accident on his way to work. I hadn't heard of him till this week, when a memo he wrote to MPs made its way into the press. I found it prescient on our current politics and especially this summer's surprising focus on the census. It was about "not taking the bait."

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He said the government was trying to discredit Auditor-General Sheila Fraser in advance of a report that looked like it would put Stephen Harper's Tories "in a bad light." The supposed means involved leaking a $345 course taken by one of Ms. Fraser's employees for "rebirth" sessions to "heal subconscious memories" using breathing techniques. I take it the idea was that anyone who'd put out good money for such goofy stuff isn't reliable on financial matters.

But what would have been the thinking behind such a leak? It's that potential Conservative voters, stationed in Tim Hortons outlets across the country, would find this pretty absurd. They might. On the other hand, they watch TV, they know there's huggy stuff out there in therapy land. They may even have friends or family members who've tried some of it, to find a little peace of mind. But you're counting on them to be uneasy about it, and basically to fall in line.

It seems to me this is similar to the Harper strategy on what are now the government's defining issues: being tough on crime, refugees, terror and so on. Even if many voters feel uneasy with the government's approach, doubt its claims and suspect it's really about pushing emotional buttons to win votes, still … no one wants to seem soft on crime or take risks with their family's safety. So it's basically a winner for them. Except for that darn census. How so?

The long-form census shift was probably introduced as a bit of red meat for the Reform base. Yet the country seems to have seized on it. This is reflected by the downward Tory drift in the polls. It's as if the population chose to focus on this issue, rather than the crime and fear agenda. They didn't take the bait and they used the census ruckus as a way of changing the subject.

Jeffrey Simpson argued forcefully on this page that the census blew up in Mr. Harper's face because our "civil society" - respectable organizations of solid citizens - rose up as one to demand their rightful stats. Yet the Harperites surely factored that in (or out) when they chose to neuter the long form. They likely thought such "elite" reactions would cut for them at Tim Hortons. But what if the unease out there in ordinary voterland is greater than it seemed when it comes to crime and the rest of their agenda. People might not want to go head to head with Tory heavies who come at you armed with costly surveys and public-relations advice. But they might be prone to shifting the ground to an unexpected issue, like the census, and artfully dodging an unfruitful debate about which they feel ambivalent. U.S. voters dive into issues like crime on cue from their politicians. Canadians are a slier and cannier electorate. Maybe they didn't take the bait, and switched the topic.

We've seen that before, with the eruption of the prorogation issue and the arts issue in Quebec. Both served as pretexts to withdraw support from the Conservatives without embracing other parties. Most Canadians don't seem to want to be seen as left-wing or even social democratic - otherwise, the NDP would do far better than it does. But their instincts do take them in a more social and democratic direction than Americans.

Besides, what's the point of having a country if you just replicate somebody else's obsessions? You know Canadian political culture is unique because if you describe it to people elsewhere, it sounds impenetrable. They need local translators to explain incendiary terms here like Meech Lake, sovereignty association and now, the mandatory long-form census.

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