Chantal Hebert takes a break from her usual criticisms, to write a column on the Conservatives fortunes:
When all is said and done, federal Environment Minister John Baird did more harm to Conservative election prospects than Brian Mulroney last week.
It amounted to ripping a scab off a wound that had barely begun to heal.
For all intents and purposes, the Bali meeting was a multi-day communications disaster for the Harper regime. It set back a year of Conservative efforts to re brand the party on climate change and confirmed the issue as the government's Achilles heel.
It is hard to think of another high-profile international venue where Canada took more of a public relations beating and did so with help from such a large array of Canadian interests.
For the Harper government, the Bali meeting could have been an opportunity to square the circle of its repositioning on the environment, by stepping in front of the upcoming American parade. Instead it locked itself in step with a moribund administration.
For as long as the debate was focused on the Kyoto Protocol, blaming the Liberals for Canada's lagging climate change record was a credible Conservative mantra. But last week, the debate shifted to the future and, with the spotlight squarely on them, the Conservatives were only too easily portrayed as climate change isolationists rather than activists.
I would argue that the Conservatives dodged a small bullet in the near term. Coverage of the events in Bali were highly critical, but the performance was largely over-shadowed by the Mulroney affair. Programs like Question Period ignored the issue entirely, pundit panels brought it up as an afterthought, columnists were clearly focused elsewhere. That said, there is plenty of ammunition available to the opposition to attack the Conservatives moving forward. The closing themes are clear, Canada the isolated, Canada the obstructionist, Canada the laggard. The Baird/Harper spin machine will have a real challenge distracting and confusing, primarily because they will be attacked from all quarters.
The knee jerk criticism of the past Liberal regime only takes the Conservatives so far, and the argument loses relevance with each passing day, in what now amounts to a two-year Tory reign. While the Conservatives have the easy retorts for the Liberal attacks, the same dodge doesn’t work when you include the NDP, the Bloc and the Greens all echoing the same. In addition, I expect a far more visible and engaged environmental community, which will be quite animated. The Conservatives may prefer to talk about other things, but given the opposition, they will not get to choose the election ground.
Last summer, I thought the Conservatives had made some progress in “neutralizing” the environment. The Conservatives were never going to carry the issue, but they had made strides in developing a few talking points to disarm many of the attacks. In other words, the propaganda was good enough to distract and confuse, all that was required really. However, what we have now is a completely different scenario, one that essentially leaves the Conservatives forever exposed and vulnerable. You can’t spin the optics coming out of Bali, you can’t spin the alliances that were formed- well you can, but not very well.
We now have a large chasm in Quebec, between the federal and provincial governments, with the Conservatives clearly on the wrong side. Duceppe will use the environment to full advantage, to demonstrate that Harper doesn’t represent Quebecers. All the Eco this, and Eco that, throwing billions around is now irrelevant, because the stench of Bali will be the focus. Does anyone even remember what Baird announced, during his carefully orchestrated press conferences in Bali? Those distraction initiatives get lost in the shuffle, it is the overriding themes that matter.
If we do have an election this spring, the Conservatives performance in Bali, will be fresh in the public consciousness. It puts the environment square in the middle of any conversation, it asks what our role in the world should be, it asks who the government allies itself with, it asks where we go in the future. The Achilles heel remains, and the Conservatives may well pay the price come the election (as they should).