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

Adam Radwanski

Perception vs. reality Add to ...

It's a common trap that opposition parties fall into.

You spend all your time chronicling the government's many sins - every hint of arrogance, every scandalous expenditure, every missed opportunity. You have a mental note of every misstep by its underqualified ministers, and every mistruth they utter. You're on the receiving end of every underhanded tactic to consolidate the government's hold on power. After a while, you become convinced that there is nothing more important than replacing it at the earliest opportunity.

Then you make the mistake of thinking that your average voter - who doesn't have the same vested interest, and isn't immersed in the government's day-to-day foibles - feels the same way.

It's an especially easy trap for the current opposition to fall into, given what it is and what it's up against. The Conservatives can be particularly maddening to watch day-to-day; the hyperpartisan approach of the PMO, cabinet ministers and MPs can be off-putting to anyone who spends an inordinate amount of time watching what happens in Ottawa. Meanwhile, despite Michael Ignatieff's noble efforts to present himself as a truly national leader, a disproportionate number of senior Liberal staff and caucus members hail from the Toronto area - a place where negative perceptions of the Conservatives are much more commonplace than they are in most other parts of the country.

Certainly, the signs of it have been there. Since Ignatieff took over eight months ago, there's been a sense of the inevitable about how the Liberals have presented themselves - an expectation that it was only Stephane Dion who'd gotten in the way of what Stephen Harper had coming to him.

If so, polls like this one - and the many similar ones over the past couple of months - should be causing a serious re-think.

It's not that there's any groundswell of support for the Conservatives. (The polls should also be causing a re-think for them, but more on that - hopefully - in a subsequent post.) But there's also no overwhelming urge to get rid of them. And when you think about it, why would there be?

Yes, it's not hard to dislike Stephen Harper if you watch him on a day-to-day basis. But in the big-picture sense, it's not entirely clear to your average person what it is that's fundamentally wrong with his government.

The opposition, to this point, has done a lousy job of framing the case against the Conservatives - because fundamentally, it's yet to disagree with it on major issues of economic stewardship (at least since January's budget), major social priorities, foreign policy...anything, really. There's hasn't even been a convincing, consistent argument that the government is economically incompetent - admittedly a tough case to make when it more or less adopted your budget demands

Instead, policy differences like the trumped-up EI spat are predicated on the notion that all you need is an excuse to bring it down, and that all Canadians are looking for is an excuse to replace it.

I was assured recently that a Liberal platform will be ready to roll out in September, if it's needed. But my sense, from the odd conversation, is that it'll be the sort of platform meant to demonstrate the opposition is ready to govern, rather than to make a really compelling case for it. Nothing that'll make too many waves; more a projection of competence, of moderation, of a reasonable alternative to the current government if that's what you're looking for.

There are many elections in which that works, because - as the cliche goes - the government has defeated itself. It worked (to draw on my usual provincial examples) for Dalton McGuinty's Liberals against the Ernie Eves Tories in 2003. It worked, too, for Stephen Harper in 2005-06, albeit with a strong accountability strain to capitalize on the Liberals' weakness. But there's not all that much indication that the Conservatives are presently doing the Liberals' work for them.

But then, it might look otherwise if you're inside the Liberal tent.

 

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