Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A "true nationalist" of which country?

What is the PM doing by calling himself a "true nationalist" in Quebec on St. Jean Baptiste day anyway? Harper made these remarks sur l'occasion de la Fete Nationale hier au Quebec:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper painted himself as a Quebec nationalist on Tuesday as he took part in annual Fete Nationale celebrations.

He used festivities marking the provincial holiday to boast of his government's record in recognizing Quebec's place in Canada. "The true nationalists don't shy away from reality, they want to improve it," he told supporters at barbecue south of Montreal.

"True nationalists don't want to destroy, they want to build. We (the Conservatives) are the true nationalists." (emphasis added)
Now that sounds like opportunistic and out of place Conservative politicking on the day of the Quebec national holiday. And it's not even just run of the mill politicking. Would he utter that sentence, stating that the Conservatives are the "true nationalists" in Ottawa on Canada Day? That they are the party that wants to build Canada? See what I mean? It would be decried as an inappropriate attempt to portray his party as the patriotic one and by implication all others as not. The above statement skates very close to an uncomfortable line, reaching for this "true nationalist" badge. It's clearly an outright appeal to Quebec sovereignists and soft nationalists. I've never been a fan of those who play footsie like this in Quebec. It typically ends up burning everyone playing in the end. It's a questionable judgment on Harper's part to be doing so in such a blatant manner.

So just what kind of country is Harper building then, for Quebecers and the rest of us? The enthusiastic war nation of Canada? The environmental pariah Canada? A very Republican Canada?

A reader passed along this article yesterday which seemed to me a fine reminder of what style of governing and priorities Harper's brought to Canada. It's a report on the visit of Frank Luntz with Conservatives in the summer of 2006, Luntz the Republican spin doctor extraordinaire who travels among the highest echelons of Republican circles in the U.S. and who dispensed a great deal of advice then which has been followed quite neatly. The roadmap Luntz set out then for his willing Conservative listeners:
During his speech, titled "Massaging the Conservative Message for Voters," Mr. Luntz drew a communications roadmap to bring the Conservatives to a majority government -- a roadmap that Mr. Harper's government already appears to be following in several respects.

Focus on accountability and tax relief, said Mr. Luntz. Images and pictures are important. Tap into national symbols such as hockey.

"If there is some way to link hockey to what you all do, I would try to do it."

One of the reasons the Progressive Conservative government was decimated in 1993 was because they had strayed from important Conservative principles such as lower taxes, said Mr. Luntz who watched the election results come in that year from Mr. Manning's suite.

"You tax more (than the U.S) and you have to change that, you regulate more and you have to change that. But you are going to control the government longer than we are."
It's perhaps one of the most striking themes we've seen from the Conservatives, the U.S. driven tax obsession that has permeated Conservative talking points since they've been elected. They believe that the U.S. mindset that is fundamentally opposed to the levels of taxation that we've historically had in Canada is the operative one that should prevail in Canada. I've never been convinced that Canadians are on the same par as American voters in this regard and have found the tax message from the Conservatives to be a bit alien in that regard. Sure there's an appetite for lower taxes, but there's also an appetite to maintain valuable government services. Canadians like that balance. This is principally why the Harris Tories were booted out in Ontario and McGuinty, who raised taxes after promising not to do so was re-elected, for example. He had good reason to do so - debt - and the voters supported it. And perhaps the initial favourable results from the green shift polling is confirming once again, albeit at a very early stage, that the U.S. anti-tax rhetoric does not play here.

How does the "true nationalist" party that seeks "to build" embrace at the same time an American anti-tax ideology with the goal of choking the federal government? How does that square?

Luntz's directive to "tap into national symbols such as hockey" has been played out over and over in the Harper government playbook. They've variously tapped into other national symbols as well to stir up political support: the military, the north, the North Star. And they did it in respect of the Quebec nation motion as well. Harper's "true nationalist" remarks yesterday were in the same vein and clearly over the top.

And Harper may be a "true nationalist,"all right, but just not of this country...