I picture Conservative leader Stephen Harper sitting at a mahogany desk with a newspaper and a be be gun. Sometimes, I think Harper is one of those people who wears a “The man, the legend” t-shirt around the house. He toots his own horn on leadership, while “getting tough on” everything that he reads in the morning news.
In response, Liberal leader Stephane Dion and NDP leader Jack Layton both want to toughen up their image, as if Canadians want their prime minister to be a tattooed greaser with a ducktail and a pack of cigarettes rolled into his shirtsleeve.
The pair have let Harper set the terms of what makes a strong and a weak leader. So far, they’ve missed the opportunity to show what’s Harper’s missing — that “strong” in the Conservative lingo doesn’t leave a lot of room for compassion.
Harper knows that his unfeeling robo-PM image is his Achilles’ heel. And he’s done a good job of projecting the softer visual (even if his flyswatter instincts occasionally glint.)
But compassion, not so much. And opposition parties could poke at the soft underbelly fairly easily. After all, the Conservatives tore up the multi-billion dollar Kelowna accord, “defanged” Status of Women Canada, reduced the comparative importance of family reunification in immigration policy, ended funding for medicinal marijuana research, and argued that younger and younger people should be charged as adults — while choking off judicial discretion with higher mandatory minimum sentences.
In his campaign speeches, he’s essentially been preaching “I feel your pain” strictly to the white 905ers who are key to his majority. But if confronted with the Conservatives track record, Canadians would see Harper as short on compassion.
If only the Liberals and the NDP were willing to call him on it. But both parties have been losing ground as the party that represents compassionate Canadians — by voting in favour of many of the key planks in the Conservatives’ tough on crime agenda. Have they shot themselves in the foot?
Compassion is not weakness. If Dion could wrap his mind around this, he could go a long way toward differentiating himself from Harper’s plan to substitute diesel tax cuts for care for our neighbours.
Gays have a long track record on compassion — and not just as Katherine Hepburn’s weird bachelor friend in Adam’s Rib. In this issue, Capital Xtra is presenting a feature on the ways that our community demanded humane care for early AIDS patients. Over the past 25 years, we’ve watched a consensus build that patient-directed treatment — in all areas of the medical establishment — is the only sensible, compassionate way to help people.
And at the same time, our pitch on harm reduction — promoting condoms, not abstinence — has met a lot of resistance, even though it is the humane, common-sense approach. The flash point, of course, is Vancouver’s safe injection site, which Harper and Health Minister Tony Clement tried to shut down until the courts overruled them earlier this year. Where’s the compassion in leaving addicts to contract hep C and AIDS and overdose on the streets?
It’s the same with mandatory minimum sentences. I refuse to characterize this as “getting tough on” anything, since we know that ever-rising penalties don’t curb crime as much as they feed the prison industry. And we also know that crime in Canada is on the decline. Indeed, mandatory minimums and charging young people as adults is cowardly — caving in to fear and letting ourselves be directed by our baser instincts.
At the moment, there’s not a lot to contrast it with, since Layton and Dion would rather play tough guy. The key to their success — appealing to a compassionate Canada — is receding, but not yet out of reach. But is either leader strong enough to make the pitch?