Stephen Harper begins his week in a sweet spot.
The daily grind of politics is being played in his comfort zone right now. Almost everything the prime minister has touched so far in 2015 has glittered, if not gone solid gold.
But any comfort zone built on anti-terror legislation, a military campaign in Iraq and opposition to niqabs at citizenship ceremonies cannot be sustained.
His opponents rightly accuse the prime minister of pandering to fear and divisiveness on those fronts, but Harper is no longer governing in 2015, he is campaigning, and his goal is winning votes, not practicing any form of statesmanship.
He is riding what looks like an unprecedented wave of support for the anti-Islamic State military campaign and his anti-terrorism law and he is using an irrational fear of a Muslim face covering to build support in Quebec and raise funds.
So, sometimes we have to turn a question around and ask not, “how does Harper think he can get away this?” to, at least in the short-term, “why does it work?”
Harper may not have created fear in this country. That was borne of the twin murders of soldiers here last autumn, a hostage-taking in Australia, the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, the fear and shootings in Copenhagen, the specific mention of the West Edmonton Mall in an Al Shabab video and the incomprehensible lure of the Islamic State to Canadian youth.
But he has not climbed out of the partisan basement where wedge issues and florid rhetoric reside, never seeking to allay fears, provide perspective or reach across the political aisle for the greater good.
He has exploited fear to further his political fortunes.
Following the Hebdo shootings, Harper said an international jihadist movement had “declared war” on Canada, while U.S. President Barack Obama chose much less inflammatory language, counselling calm and perspective.
According to Pew Research, there was no uptick of fear about domestic terror attacks in the U.S. following the Paris shootings and those fears have not ramped up in recent years.
Words from leaders do matter.
Harper certainly didn’t create the ISIS menace, but he has inflated our modest contribution to degrading the militants into a jingoistic rallying call with his praise for our soldiers who have shot the bad guys, then trotted out newly minted Defence Minister Jason Kenney to warn of the “high probability” of new domestic attacks and reminding us the threat of terrorism has never been greater.
Now Kenney is pointedly refusing to rule out an expansion of our role into Syria or Libya.
Harper did create the trumped-up controversy over the niqab.
It was his government (Kenney again) that barred Zunera Ishaq from wearing her veil at a citizenship ceremony and when she took the government to court and won, it was Harper who announced (in Victoriaville, Que.) that he would appeal the decision because it is contrary to the way one behaves in joining the Canadian family.
Harper is again speaking for the majority here, according to Conservative internal polling, but it is a majority with a lot of time on their hands to worry about such things because there might be, at the high end, 100 women in Ishaq’s position. There is no niqab revolution at citizenship ceremonies sweeping at our shores.
While Harper has now skilfully played wedge politics on three issues, none of them is likely to drive votes in the autumn, although a terror threat will mean that foreign affairs will carry more weight than normal in a national vote.
What this troika of hot button issues has done is push the economy into the background in the national debate but this is only temporary.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau can try to score points by reminding Canadians that Harper is cynically playing to Canadians’ base instincts, but there is more reward in putting the focus back onto the economy.
It may have been deftly parked behind increased spy powers, airstrikes and the phony threat of the veil, but the government still has a budget to deliver.
The election will be ultimately be decided on the state of the economy.
Polling in this country routinely puts that at the top of the list of voters’ concerns.
That is not the safe turf it has traditionally been for Harper.
Things look solid for Harper and his Conservatives right now – but you can only play the fear and division card for so long.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2015 Torstar Syndication Services