Opinion-Policy Nexus

Published Apr. 15, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record 

One of the most iconic scenes in American cinema comes from the 1955 Billy Wilder film, The Seven Year Itch. It shows Marilyn Monroe, the love interest in the film, standing on a Lexington Avenue subway grate, trying to hold down the billowing skirt of her sexy white dress.

What does this have to do with Stephen Harper, you may ask? Well, maybe a bit.

In the film, the male lead, played by Tom Ewell, finds his eye wandering after seven years of monogamous marriage. (Enter the tempting Ms. Monroe.) It just so happens that Prime Minister Harper recently (in February) celebrated his seventh anniversary in 24 Sussex, and it is no secret that the affections of some members of his uncommonly faithful caucus are beginning to wander. The pre-Easter flap over abortion is one indication of caucus restlessness, and we are bound to experience more of that in the coming months.

How much longer? MPs wonder. How much longer will the ambitious among them have to wait for the leader to depart and give them a chance at the brass ring?

Ottawa pundits, weary of Harper, are asking the same questions, to the point of suggesting that the prime minister has some sort of obligation to inform his party whether he intends to hang around to lead into the next election, scheduled for October 2015. If he is going to leave, or so say the pundits, he should tell his followers now so that they can plan an orderly succession.

(Don’t pay too much attention to the pundits. The last thing Ottawa journalists really desire is an orderly transition. That’s boring. A wide open scramble among inflated egos makes much better copy, especially if the scramble spills a bit of political blood.)

There is no reason to suspect Harper cares about any of this gratuitous advice. The job of his Conservative MPs is to show up and vote the way they are told before lapsing back into silence. And Harper has never paid any attention to the opinions of the media; there is no reason to think he will start now.

But the polls are interesting. As might be expected, Harper leads when respondents are asked which of the party leaders has the best experience to lead the country, but he trails Justin Trudeau when they are asked to name the most inspiring leader. A Nanos poll last week gave the Liberal party a four-point lead nationally over Harper’s Tories. Given the hype surrounding Trudeau and the Liberal convention, that’s not particularly surprising, either.

Of potentially greater significance is the decline of the NDP, the official Opposition in Parliament, into third place on most indicators. The Orange Revolution seems to be over. For the moment, it appears that Trudeau is retrieving the youth and soft Liberal votes that went to the NDP in 2011. It’s not so much that Thomas Mulcair has been an inadequate leader. He’s done and been everything the NDP could realistically have expected. In the beginning, he suffered by not being Jack Layton; now he suffers by not being Justin Trudeau. But, hey, no one ever said politics was fair.

The competition changes as of this week. Now that Trudeau is officially the Liberal leader, he will be vulnerable to attack from both the left and especially the right.

He knows the attacks are coming and claims he will be ready for them. But he says he will not indulge in the negativity that characterizes Tory politics under Harper.

“The biggest difference between a party led by me and one by Stephen Harper will be one of tone, one of respect for Canadians and their intelligence,” Trudeau says. “We don’t have to play by his rules.”

There’s a meanness, a nastiness, in federal politics these days, but no one is forcing anyone to play by Harper’s rules. After seven years, perhaps it’s time to scratch that itch.