Column: The three pillars on which Harper will rise or fall

He left this place before Christmas with a bump in the polls and a potential road map to a fourth victory. When the
House of Commons reconvenes Monday for a pre-election sprint, Stephen Harper will seek to recapture that combination in a political environment which has been radically reconfigured in six short weeks.

How to get there?

Evolution, dear voter, evolution.

We’ve been officially informed that our role in the fight against the Islamic State has evolved since the last MP of 2014 rose in the Commons in umbrage.

Then, we trained and rather antiseptically dropped bombs from the air. Now we are in a “robust” mission in which we kill the bad guys in firefights.

With the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, our anti-terrorism stance evolved and international jihadists “had declared war” on Canada and like-minded countries, Harper says.

Then, we would not be intimidated and remain vigilant. Now we must confront them.

With the plummeting price of oil, our entire economic message has evolved, from energy strongman to diversified manufacturer and innovator.

Then, we were “an emerging energy superpower,” (according to the prime minister to a 2012 Chinese audience), now oil “isn’t remotely the entire Canadian economy,” he says.

These are the three pillars on which this Parliamentary sitting will balance and on which much of Harper’s re-
election hopes will hinge.

Anti-terrorism legislation (to be introduced Friday), war in Iraq and an April budget which will – somehow – be balanced even though a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t surplus has been spent on pre-election tax breaks and the price of oil has added a dollop of hocus-pocus to this year’s budget-making.

He reinforced them all in an Ottawa speech Sunday in which he gave the back of his hand to the “pundits, the self-appointed experts and elites,” as if nine years in, he is the underdog on the outside.

If you subscribe to the theory that incumbent governments defeat themselves, particularly those headed into their second decade, any one of these grenades mishandled will mean Conservative damage could be extreme.

But if Harper successfully juggles all three, the bump will be back.

The move of Canadian special forces closer to the ISIS front lines has changed our rules of engagement, but it appears we are not alone. There are reports U.S. special advisers are closer to the front lines in a battle to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul.

A spring offensive is planned by allies and the question that Canadians should be asking is not whether Harper will renew the mission but whether our role will continue to evolve without the government being transparent about the role.

There has been a subtle shift in policy among allies who speak of being more aggressive and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has called the Islamic State battle a world war.

But when Kerry calls allied strikes a success so far, he is talking about Iraqis taking back about 700 square kilometres from ISIS. To keep that in perspective, ISIS was estimated to control 91,000 square kilometres of territory in Iraq and Syria before the airstrikes began.

This is no short-term campaign and the legitimate fear of Canadian mission creep should not be measured in six-month increments, but over a period of years.

First up will be anti-terror legislation and the government has set the stage after the Quebec and Ottawa murders, labelling the killings terror attacks and tying the Sydney hostage-taking and the Paris murders back to the situation at home.

Harper will likely have leeway from the Canadian public to move on the file, even though there are already anti-terror laws on the book and he will have to guard against overreaching.

He will be seeking more power for police on preventative detention, better sharing of information between security agencies and beefing up powers to stop those under suspicion from boarding planes.

The legislation, however, will be scrutinized to ensure, as Harper promises, it does not erode Canadians’ privacy and freedom of movement.

Harper’s biggest vulnerability, however, lies with a budget that has been pushed into April.

Economic competence has become part of a Conservative brand now tarnished by the government’s stubborn insistence that it will bring in balanced books so it can deliver on tax breaks crafted to ensure re-election.

Plunging oil revenues will cost the treasury $4.3 billion, according to the Conference Board of Canada, but Conservative tax breaks will cost $4.6 billion.

Are you really the trusted steward of the economy when you are in a box of your own creation by making campaign promises four years ago?

Harper didn’t create the oil price crisis, but his reaction so far shows politics is paramount and economic reality is kept at bay.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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