The Conservative government has proven to be a competent manager of the economy during the global recession. It has provided a coherent vision in its dealings with the international community. It has pursued with some success a domestic agenda that includes toughened crime laws. Yet it is the government's capacity for shooting itself in the foot that has become a concerning characteristic.
The announcement that it will backpedal, after only 48 hours, on its commitment in the Speech from the Throne to have Parliament examine gender-neutral language in the national anthem only invites ridicule. Yet it follows a pattern.
The threat to cut public funding for political parties, a throwaway line in the Nov. 2008 fiscal update, precipitated a national crisis. The Dec. 2009 prorogation controversy eroded support for the party at a time when polls showed the Conservatives edging into majority territory. Stephen Harper's government has a peculiar talent for taking a non-issue and making it into a big issue, in the process undermining its focus, and raising questions about the judgment of those near the Prime Minister.
In a week when the government unveiled the fruits of its six-week "re-calibration", a week which featured both a Throne Speech and budget, these vital documents have been overshadowed. Instead, public debate has been focused, in the first place on the merits of changing the lyrics to O Canada to remove the reference to "thy sons command," (one option was to restore the gender-neutral original wording, "thou dost in us command"), and now over the bizarre e-mailed announcement by the Prime Minister's spokesman Dimitri Soudas on Friday afternoon that its consultation period had ended after only two days, and without the promised Parliamentary review. "We offered to hear from Canadians on this issue and they have already spoken loud and clear," said Mr. Soudas. The matter is, as far as the government is concerned, closed.
There was no public clamour for a review of the lyrics to O Canada. It was the Conservatives who opted to make it an issue. Their motives remain obscure. It was not necessary as an appeal to women voters. The government had already announced a focus on maternal and child health during Canada's leadership position at the G8. The budget included new measures to support vulnerable women: $10-million over two years to address the scandal of missing and murdered Aboriginal women; changes to the child care benefit that will help single parents.
But now the anthem has become an issue. The Conservative base is angry. Those members of the public who enthusiastically took up the invitation in the Throne Speech to join in a national debate are angry. The Prime Minister should re-calibrate his office's focus on the issues that matter.