National Column: Morneau attacks become character assassination

by Chantal Hebert

Over the nine weeks of the fall sitting of Parliament, the Conservative official Opposition has devoted no less than 15 questions daily to matters pertaining to Finance Minister Bill Morneau. Monday’s question period unfolded on the same theme.

That works out to more than 600 questions over the space of less than three months. That total does not include the NDP contributions to the same discussion.

No recent federal finance minister has come under fire for such a prolonged period of time. Indeed, rarely has a minister – federal or provincial – lasted so long on the hot seat.

Over the weeks, the Conservative line of attack has pivoted from a debate over Morneau’s poorly communicated plan to tighten the tax rules governing private corporations to the ethics of the minister.

By last week – with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer formally calling for the minister’s head – the opposition rhetoric had veered into character assassination territory. Morneau may be too politically clueless for the good of his government, but it is a leap too far to imply – as the official Opposition has taken to doing – that he is dishonest.

The Conservatives say they are building a compelling case that Justin Trudeau leads an elitist, ethically challenged government. They have to believe they are playing the long game, for there is so far scant evidence that the strategy is paying off.

In October, Scheer lost a Quebec seat the party had held for a decade under Stephen Harper. The Liberal victory in Lac-St-Jean is in line with the provincial trend. A Leger Marketing poll published on Monday in Le Devoir pegged Trudeau’s Liberals at 47 per cent in voting intentions, almost 30 points ahead of the Conservatives in Quebec.

The Morneau saga has had the most traction in the English-speaking media. And the voters who are paying attention do tend to think poorly of the finance minister.

Yet it is Scheer and not Trudeau who is bracing for another bad byelection night when the voters of South Surrey-White Rock go to the polls next Monday. The Liberals have high hopes for an upset victory in this long-standing Conservative B.C. seat.

The Leger poll did show the gap between the Conservatives and the Liberals narrowing in Ontario. But with a provincial election in the offing for the first half of 2018 and the Tories in the lead, Scheer may be basking in the popularity of his Ontario counterpart.

The sight of the blood of a finance minister in the water may be blinding the Conservatives to the limits and the perils of the exercise.

Performance in question period is a poor predictor of electoral strength. Just ask Thomas Mulcair. Before the last election, the former NDP leader totally eclipsed Trudeau in the House. Mulcair also brought more gravitas to the role than Scheer has so far. And he had a juicy senate scandal that led all the way up to the prime minister’s office to play with. That was of little benefit in the last election.

By pivoting from public policy to personal politics, the Conservatives have made Morneau the issue rather than the government or its policies – and exposed some of their own long-standing vulnerabilities.

Many voters felt the Harper Conservatives exhibited an unsightly mean streak over their years in government.

In opposition, the virulence of the attacks on Morneau is increasingly getting in the way of Scheer articulating a coherent policy message, let alone distinguishing his party from its previous take-no-prisoners incarnation.

The Conservatives are not the first to bring a scorched-earth approach to their role as official Opposition. Under John Turner in the mid-1980s, the so-called Liberal Rat Pack made life hell daily for Brian Mulroney’s rookie government, terminating the career of a number of Tory ministers in the process.

At the time of Harper’s first mandate, StÈphane Dion’s Liberals milked the past of then-foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier’s girlfriend for a lot more than it was worth.

But it is also a fact that neither Turner nor Dion has gone down in history as a strong or successful leader. Neither was gifted with an abundance of moral authority over his caucus. That is one of the reasons why they – like Scheer this fall – let their attack dogs run so free in question period.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer.
Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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