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Robert DeNiro sizes up his opponent in the 1980 boxing film Raging Bull. (Anonymous/United Artists)
Robert DeNiro sizes up his opponent in the 1980 boxing film Raging Bull. (Anonymous/United Artists)

Wounded Harper government girds for another round Add to ...

What the Harper government needs today is a cut man.

Watching a rerun of Raging Bull over the weekend brought to mind how boxers are trained to open a wound on an opponent then work it aggressively, almost ignoring all other parts of their opponent's body. The wounded boxer needs to close cuts quickly and protect them from being widened or deepened.

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In the House of Commons the other day, Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale succinctly drew together the essence of the opposition's new line of attack on the government, focusing on the idea of abused power -an arrogant and manipulative government, one that is far more preoccupied with pursuing its own political gains than working on behalf of Canadians, and all the while eroding both our stated and unwritten rules of politics.

In my opinion, at least a modest cut has been opened.

The Oda memo, in-and-out campaign spending, Jason Kenney's letterhead and other issues that have recently emerged, along with the Speaker's ruling on the government's attempt to conceal taxpayer expenditures, can lend the impression to voters that the government is losing its humility. The central proposition that brought Stephen Harper's Conservatives to office was "accountability." It's a brand value they can ill afford to squander.

Few perceptions could more quickly put paid to the idea of a Conservative majority.

And Thursday morning's piece by Bill Curry points up a new risk for the government. With remarkably little public outcry the government has been running a very significant taxpayer-funded advertising campaign touting its own virtues.

The language in the ads, especially a highly polished, expensive-to-produce, 60-second spot touting the merits of Canada's Economic Action Plan is probably well over the line that the Conservatives would have drawn for their predecessors in terms of what is a legitimate message to be paid for by taxpayers.

The lack of outcry about all of this advertising so far is likely what has emboldened the Conservatives to plan another significant wave surrounding this budget. But context matters, and the context is changing by the day.

Effective critics like Scott Brison, Siobhan Coady and Thomas Mulcair are lacing up the gloves, and for them, there's a lot to look forward to if the Conservatives go ahead with still more advertising.

The Finance Minister and the Prime Minister's Office now have to contemplate whether their new campaign wave will actually be counter-productive, drawing attention to their exposed area, and giving their opponents a chance to "work the cut" over and over and over.

As of this moment, the Conservatives are likely technically correct in arguing that Canadians are more concerned with the economy than this cluster of issues about respect for Canadian democracy, its rules and institutions. But that doesn't mean that no one is paying attention, or that there is no risk to the government here.

The next several days will be a major test of the political instincts of the Harper Conservatives, and whether time in office has dulled their reflexes. Equally, the Liberal leader and his top critics have a moment of rare, significant opportunity - and their skills, message, tone and style will be under greater public scrutiny than at any time since the earliest days of Mr. Ignatieff's leadership.

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