Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Harper does well in the sun, but campaign still just starting

VICTORIA - Quite a sharp contrast between the campaign visits here by Stephen Harper and Paul Martin.
Both men picked seniors' facilities. But, appropriately given the way the campaign is going, Martin came and went under a grey skies and rain while Harper hit town on one of the best days this year.
Martin took only half-a-dozen questions from reporters before climbing back on the bus, while Harper stood around for 40 minutes, long after handlers started looking edgily at their watches. Martin didn't have a whole lot specific to say, while Harper was willing - mostly - to respond directly to questions.
None of it matters that much right now. This is a strangely unformed election campaign. Talking to campaigners for all the parties, it seems the only consistent theme is that voters in B.C. feel more than usually abused by Ottawa. But they haven't yet decided what to do about it, which explains the close results in the polls and the large chunk of undecided voters.
One nice thing about that is that it means B.C. matters. The best seat projections put the Liberals slightly ahead of the Conservatives, 37 seats short of a majority. B.C.'s 34 ridings could make the difference on June 28.
The Liberals made a big push to reach out to the province this week, with the 'Dream Team' - or Parachute Club - candidates unveiling a 'made-in-B.C.' platform. it didn't really say much, waffling on offshore oil and gas, promising some unspecified action on grow ops, better roads between smaller communities and an overhaul of the DFO.
But the platform did raise some obvious questions. If these things are important, why aren't they in the main Liberal platform? And why do we have to send Ujjal Dosanjh, David Emerson and Dave Haggard to Ottawa to fight for the things that Stephen Owen and David Anderson were supposed to be looking after for the past four years?
The whole thing also created the odd sense ot the B.C. wing of the party running against their own party.
So what's your B.C. agenda, Harper was asked? British Columbians, like other Canadians, were mainly angry at an unresponsive federal government, he said. "We run on the same platform everywhere," he said.
Harper wanted to talk about programs for seniors at the Victoria stop. But much of his time was spent defending the Conservatives against Liberal claims that the party had a hidden side, one that ran contrary to Canadian traditions of respect for individual rights.
I'm not sure how successful he was. Several questioners asked him to respond to the comments of Calgary Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant, who had claimed that Canadians who exercised their right to choose an abortion and doctors who performed them were the same as the Iraqi terrorists who chopped off the head of Nicholas Berg.
I have a standing rule not to write about abortion. It does not lend itself to discussion in a 650-word column. But that was a remarkably stupid, hateful and destructive remark.
Harper only said pro-lifers tend to talk that way, and he doesn't think it's very effective. He promised not to introduce legislation changing abortion laws if the Conservatives the government. But if a private members' bill made it on to the floor of the House, he'd allow a free vote, he said.
That's highly unlikely, and it's also highly unlikely that any changes would pass even with a free vote. But Harper's easy tolerance of extreme views on what most Canadians accept as a complex, difficult matter of personal choice will scare many voters.
Not a bad start for the Conservatives. But the real tests will come over the next two weeks as voters try to figure out just what to do when they hunch over their ballots in some school gym, and all the parties try to avoid the kind of major mistakes that can change the campaign in an instant.
Footnote: Harper did come out in favour of offshore oil and gas development, noting the benefits it brought to Atlantic Canada and the provincial government's position. The Liberals are blocking economic growth in B.C., he said, singling out senior minister David Anderson. "A Liberal government, a Mr. Anderson Liberal government, would be disastrous for the economic development of this province."

No comments: