Sunday, October 22, 2006

Bush and Harper Running for Liberal Leadership?

Listening to the rhetoric being traded by the candidates for the leadership of the federal Liberal party, one would suspect that Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper and U.S. President George W. Bush were candidates for the job.

Each candidate has taken seemingly every opportunity to draw as close a relationship between Harper and Bush as humanly possible. Waxing rhetorically about the “similarities between Harper and Bush”, the leadership candidates have made a point of forcing the issue.

Even when mocking this tendency, Stephan Dion asserts, “yes, Harper is terrible,” while shrugging.

It’s safe to say that if any of the leading candidates – frontrunner Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae, Stephan Dion and Gerard Kennedy – were running against Harper or Bush for the Liberal leadership, they would win in a landslide. Unfortunately for them, they aren’t. So is focusing on Harper and Bush a wise decision?

Regardless of the wisdom (or potential lack thereof) of treating Harper and Bush as de facto candidates new. Before the campaign even began, the youth wing of the Liberal party distributed approximately 100 stickers to their university chapters . The stickers were a photoshopped mock-up of the Brokeback Mountain movie posters, with Harper and Bush’s faces substituted for those of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. It is branded “Brokeback Conservativism”, and described as “a story about two friends who share ideas, ideologies, and long walks on the beach…”

The obvious homophobia aside (from members of the ever-so-tolerant Liberal party, too…), the stickers are merely one symptom of the Liberal party’s use of George Bush as a political tactic.

This was also prophetic of the candidate’s use of Harper/Bush comparisons during the campaign. John Diamond, the president of Young Liberals of Canada, in an interview with Concordia’s The Link, suggested this would be brought up during the leadership campaign – which it has.

There are some within the Liberal party who are concerned about this tendency. “I think [the campaign] is a little over the top. I don’t think that they have that much in common,” said Nick Blesser, the 2005/06 vice-president of the Concordia University Liberal Party Association. “I think it’s demonizing both individuals, which is not always a good idea. It creates more skepticism, and there is already too much of that among young people today.”

Blesser also clued into the homophobic statement made by the stickers. “Are you implying something sexual? No, I don’t,” he said.

It seems that the Liberal party’s attempts to equate Stephen Harper with George W. Bush have been bearing fruit. As the U.S. inches ever closer to its midterm elections, Canadian pollsters have found that the Conservative and Liberal parties are currently tied for support amongst Canadians. In a Strategic Council poll of 1,000 voters, the two parties were found to be tied at 32% apiece, with support in Quebec dipping to 16%.

According to the Strategic Council’s Allan Gregg, same-sex marriage, the Kyoto protocol and the war in Afghanistan are the key issues separating the Liberals and Conservatives in Quebec.

Diamond focused on Harper’s promised vote on potentially re-opening the same-sex marriage debate, saying, “To me, [same-sex marriage] is an issue of equality. [Harper] wants to open reopen this discussion, these are things that smack of George W. Bush republicanism.”

It isn’t limited to the leadership campaign, either.

Scott Reid, a Liberal party spokesperson, has delighted in pointing out what he wants Canadians to believe are Harper’s “three B’s: Bullying, BS and Bush”. He takes any opportunity he can to needle the Conservative party about allegedly “wearing Bush’s belt buckle” or “Bush’s pyjamas”.

The focus on equating Stephen Harper with George W. Bush may be paying dividends for now, but one can’t help but wonder if they will continue to be successful once the American midterm elections have passed, and the imaginations of Canadians are drawn to more important matters.

Worse yet, the Liberal party may want to consider what it will do should the current minority government endure past 2008, when Bush leaves office. Suddenly, what may well be their most successful PR tactic will have disappeared into history’s long night, leaving the Liberals to find a new tactic.

Perhaps what would be wise is if the Liberal party were to focus on establish a record as the Opposition to campaign on, instead of resorting to distraction tactics while quietly playing partisan politics with key issues such as the environment.

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