As the end of the year approaches, one tends to relax more with friends and it’s always enjoyable to see how those who are not caught up in the political bubble in Ottawa perceive our politicians and political parties.
These discussions reminded me of the expression that “perception is reality” in politics. We don’t have to look too far to see examples of this as it plays out almost every day as all political parties in one way or another adhere to that slogan in the way they conduct the business of politics and in the way they promote themselves or their ideas.
Mind you, a lot of this is nothing more than smoke and mirrors and well scripted talk points which are repeated over and over in the hope that voters will change their perception of that party or that of their opponents.
In the recent past, we had the “Billion Dollar Boondoggle” which was largely political hype, but damaged the Liberal brand and the Liberal sponsorship scandal and resulting inquiry which tainted a whole party for many years afterwards. Both cases helped to change voter’s perceptions of the once Natural Governing Party.
We see much the same type of maneuvering playing out to today. Do you remember the endless Conservative SO 31s attacking the NDP over a carbon tax? This is but one example of how the Conservatives are trying to influence voter’s perceptions of the NDP. We also have the Conservatives preaching that they are the party that can best manage the economy. So far the Conservatives have gotten away with it because voters still perceive Harper as the best choice to lead the country in a period of economic uncertainty. The question becomes will such examples as Bev Oda’s spending and the F-35 debacle begin to change voters perceptions on that point?
I suspect it will be a long process because Canadians have not yet found a leader who as of now measures up to Harper. Voters do not yet perceive Thomas Mulcair as an adequate replacement to Stephen Harper. But, with hard work and planning and the inevitable government mistakes that no political party is immune from, voter’s perceptions of Mulcair can change. How many of you remember how voters saw Harper leading up to the 2004 election? Would anyone have thought that someday he would become Prime Minister?
We have another example as the opposition continues to try to paint the Conservatives as bullies and a threat to democracy. This has been largely helped by the Conservatives themselves, as they have rammed two omnibus bills through the House, their House Leader crossed the floor to berate the opposition and anyone watching Question Period sees a government side that rarely answers a question, but which prefers to attack the character of the questioner, forgetting that opposition MPs were also elected by Canadian voters to represent their interests.
Most recently we have seen the government side bemoaning the cost of “written questions” as they try to get voters to perceive written questions as a huge burden on the taxpayer. The real burden of course is on the government side which must provide answers to questions that they would routinely stonewall in the House of Commons. The reality is the cost for a trip in a government jet by a minister or the Prime Minister would easily cover the cost of most if not all written questions in any given year.
The opposition still has a way to go to make the bully perception stick, but political change usually comes one small step at a time. Many of us can remember the original Trudeau mania, but that too changed over time to a voter perception that he was arrogant and out of touch. Today, opponents of Justin Trudeau, helped by Justin’s ability to put his foot in his mouth, are trying to paint him as all flash and no substance. The truth will become more apparent as the Liberal leadership race unfolds, but if not Justin, there might very well be another candidate that surprises the political pundits and revives the interest of voters in the Liberal party. While it is in the best interests of both the Conservatives and the NDP to paint the Liberals as dead, there is no guarantee voters share that perception at this stage.
As recently as today, we have media stories that the Prime Minister sees no need to have a cabinet shuffle and that he is happy with whom he has in cabinet. Is that the voter’s perception too? Do voters perceive a strong, vigorous cabinet or one that has gotten stale? For that matter do his own backbenchers share the Prime Minister's perception of his cabinet?
Last but not least we have the perception that Stephen Harper will be around to lead the Conservatives in the next election in 2015. Will he? No one knows. He has been the Conservative leader since 2003 and Prime Minister since 2006. Assuming he stayed until 2015 that would be a long time for any Canadian politician to bear the daily political cut and thrust and nastiness they have to encounter every day. Will the Calgary convention in 2013 be his swan song or will he be around for one more go at the Liberals and NDP? For now it is in both Harper’s and the Conservative Party’s interest to leave voters with the perception that he will be around for a few more years.
It has been an interesting year in politics and next year will provide us with an opportunity to see if voter’s perceptions of our leaders and their parties will change. Whatever happens, it won’t be dull.