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Editorial cartoon by Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail (Anthony Jenkins)
Editorial cartoon by Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail (Anthony Jenkins)

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In search of lost Conservative substance Add to ...

The polls are deadlocked. The issues are banal. The scandals are enviously pathetic. And despite the best efforts of some of the more moderate voices in Ottawa, the vitriol remains. Hopefully it is not too late for a dramatic shift that could raise the level of debate in the House of Commons and bring some more important issues to the fore.

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Canadians are profoundly uninterested in our lacklustre national politics and, more pointedly, our political leaders for very good reason. While the country has survived the recession better than many other nations in the world - a result that owes more to the good sense of our business leaders than it does to our politicians - our government is adrift and directionless. Stephen Harper has indeed proven himself to be a steady hand at the tiller over the past several years as Prime Minister, despite his occasional histrionic outbursts. But the government nonetheless has little of substance to be proud of and even less on the horizon (the debate over the long-gun registry is a clear example of this). Still neck-and-neck with the often hapless and increasingly divided Liberals after four and half years in office, the Conservatives have been a wonderful study in how to tread the political waters of Canada - supposedly working diligently, yet going nowhere.

While it is a truism that pre-election polls end up meaning very little come election time where it is anyone's game, it is hard to look at the most recent national canvassing without some forlorn sense that the country is bound to wallow in this state of tepid minority governments for some time if nothing significant takes place. The polls are a clear expression of the dismay voters feel toward both major parties and a demonstration of Canadians' frustration with the dearth of political leadership in the country.

The Conservatives, however, have had their fair share of opportunities over the years, from Stéphane Dion to broken down buses, to produce the majority government that they have been yearning for. Yet every time we think their wagons are circling the frightened Liberals and preparing to take scalps, the Prime Minister and his crew fall right off them after having momentarily forgotten they also need to steer while attacking. Perplexed and angry, they dust themselves off and regroup in order to launch another offensive, all the while disregarding the idea that a change of strategy might be the best option, rather than the same tactics that continuously fail them.

Through their incessant regurgitation of the same tired talking points, the Conservatives are shifting away from being a one trick pony; they are verging on just becoming a trick, with the pony precipitously close to being put out to pasture any minute now if things don't change. If Canadians have to be warned about the treasonous plans of the fabricated "coalition" too many more times they may actually vote the coalition in just to amuse themselves and vivify our national affairs.

With the return of Parliament last week, Canadians should hope our overly combative elected officials will be overcome with a sense they should actually be discussing some more critical issues than those currently on the menu. It may seem like a novel concept, but perhaps we can be treated to something of importance, something that has a significant effect on the country rather than the poorly scripted and tasteless rhetoric that flies in the House of Commons. Issues such as the crucial need to reform health care, better funding for our high schools and universities and the rethinking of the obsolete policy of drug prohibition are but a few examples.

The Conservative government, if it truly wishes to become the party of a majority of Canadians, should reel in its attack dogs and veer toward the middle where most of the votes in Canada are found, while trying not to alienate the party's powerful base. It goes without saying this will be a difficult task, but the addition of Nigel Wright as the Prime Minister's new chief of staff could herald a new era at Langevin Block.

The stakes are high on all sides, but particularly so for the Prime Minister. If he wins a minority in the next election, it could spell the end of his leadership of the party. If he loses, he is almost sure to resign. With that in mind, the government should not be afraid, and neither should we as Canadians, to take on challenging issues and to propose the kind of grand projects that have defined this country, from the Canadian Pacific Railway to the North American free trade agreement.

Such ideas need not be costly, but they should aim to inspire our citizens and elevate the level of discourse among our leaders. Although this road is certainly risky, not to mention completely contrary to the approach for which this administration is known, the government might be surprised by how Canadians respond to issues of substance instead of the unimaginative pettiness that presently marks our politics.

Sandy White was a political aide to Christian Paradis when he served as Public Works minister

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