Prime Minister Stephen Harper is doing the obvious for any sensible political leader nine months from an election: compress liabilities, press advantages.
Meeting Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne compressed a liability. Yes, the Premier had been an annoying whiner, and had tried to score points off the Prime Minister. But it began to look a bit petulant for the Prime Minister to rebuff her demands for at least a chat.
Julian Fantino, who fell through the trap door of prime ministerial annoyance this week to the irrelevance of Associate Minister of National Defence, had been a Veterans Affairs minister with a leaden tongue and deaf ear. Mr. Fantino was not the only problem associated with that portfolio – strange policies lay at the core of the difficulties – but he seemed to make everything worse.
Mr. Fantino had become a liability against the effective veterans' lobby. It takes persistent ineptitude for a Conservative government that likes the idea of the military – if not the military itself – to run afoul of that lobby.
Politics hath no more fury than veterans scorned, as Mr. Fantino discovered. Veterans have a built-in sympathy across the political spectrum and beyond the military world. The Afghanistan mission, whatever its debatable military utility, ramped up sympathy for the military in general and for those who served in that mission, some of whom came home beaten up physically and mentally.
Mr. Fantino was a star recruit whose light began to dim soon after arriving in Ottawa. The former top cop in Ontario and an Italian-Canadian from Toronto, a majority of whom had historically voted Liberal, offered the party a twin public relations triumph. He was rewarded, after arriving in Ottawa, with the nothing job of being minister of state for seniors, then became minister of International Co-operation at a time when the foreign budget was declining in real terms.
Mr. Fantino, as Veterans Affairs minister, had little choice but to read scripts defending, among other policies, the closing of departmental offices across the country. These closings were classic Harper government: explained as making things more efficient in the pursuit of leaner government while actually making things less efficient for those in need of services.
Mr. Fantino's departure was required to compress a liability, but that he survived as a cabinet nonentity now means that Mr. Harper's cabinet is tied for being the largest in Canadian history. How this bulging size can be squared with incessant rhetoric about being flinty with "hard-earned taxpayers" money is one of those disconnections between reality and presentation that is deeply rooted in this government.
Speaking of presentation, those who watched the thrilling Canada-Russia junior hockey final might have noticed the ad during the second period for the federal government's apprenticeship program.
That ad was paid for by those same "hard-working taxpayers," namely you, and was a thinly disguised political message from the Harper government. It even ended, as many government ads do, with the Conservatives' campaign slogan: "Strong, Proud and Free." It's an old story by now about how the government constantly presses its advantage by spending untold millions and millions of dollars of public money vaunting its programs.
Other governments have done some of this kind of advertising, but none has done it so often and at such great expense. And, one might add so shamelessly, the Conservatives' belief being that the tut-tutting, or even outrage, of critics is overwhelmed by the effectiveness of the messaging on those who barely care about politics.
The Conservatives have their own money to spend, too. A guy trying to work off a bit of seasonal excess in the gym yesterday suddenly heard shrieking rock music give way to the measured voice of Mr. Harper. The ad featured him praising his government's economic policies and was paid for by his party.
With more money than the other parties, the Conservatives can run attack ads, as the Conservatives do constantly against Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, plus soft ads of reassurance about the steady leadership of the Prime Minister. Again, the Prime Minister presses his advantage, in this case party money.
The double whammy of government-sponsored and Conservative Party ads have been a feature of Canadian politics as part of what the Conservatives call, borrowing a phrase from U.S. politics, the "permanent campaign." Now that an election is nine months hence, the intensity of pressing this advantage will greatly intensify.