Strategists for each of the federal parties will be watching the next few rounds of opinion polls intently as they assess the magnitude of the “Khadr bump.”
There is a consensus that the Trudeau government’s controversial apology to, and $10.5 million settlement with, Omar Khadr and will drive down public support for the government – possibly enough to drop the Liberals into second place behind the Conservatives.
An indication of what is to come could be seen last week in an Angus Reid Institute poll in which 71 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that the government had “done the wrong thing” with Khadr. Tellingly, 61 per cent of those who said they had voted Liberal in the 2015 election agreed it was wrong to settle with Khadr.
He is the Canadian who, at age 15, was imprisoned and tortured in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay until he confessed to killing a U.S. serviceman in Afghanistan in 2002. Canadian officials were aware of the interrogation and torture, but would not intervene to protect Khadr.
The “Khadr bump” should start to appear in this week’s Nanos Research report. Nanos operates with a rolling sample of 1,000 Canadians, replacing 250 each week with 250 fresh respondents. It is generally a reliable gauge of the nation’s political mood.
Last week’s report, completed before the Khadr announcement, showed the Liberals holding steady with a seven-point lead – 38 to 31 – over the Conservatives (who did not get any bounce when they chose Andrew Scheer as leader). Other pollsters will soon be weighing in, too.
Liberals have to be disturbed by the unhappiness in their ranks. The apology is not the big issue; governments in Canada these days are only too willing to apologize for past mistakes, insults or injuries. An apology serves as an easy and inexpensive way to right an old wrong or to bury an issue that upsets an important interest group and distracts the government from its agenda.
The big issue in the Khadr affair is the money. A significant segment of the public – as its reaction is being revealed in phone-in programs, letters to the editor and on social media – is appalled by a multi-million dollar award to a man whom many Canadians regard as a terrorist more than as a child soldier.
One wonders if anyone in Trudeau’s inner circle paused to consider how that $10.5 million would go down with the middle-class taxpayers whose electoral support the Liberals courted so single-mindedly.
Did anyone realize that it is more money than most middle-income families will ever see? A family with a comfortable household income of $150,000 annually would have to work for 70 years to earn $10.5 million.
The explanations offered by the prime minister – that the Liberal government, unlike the Harper Conservative government before it, was determined to defend Khadr’s Charter rights; that Khadr would have won more than $10.5 million if he had pursued his lawsuit against Ottawa; and that defending Khadr’s suit could have cost taxpayers as much as $40 million – do not resonate with the 71 per cent of Canadians who think the government got it wrong.
Bruce Carson, a Conservative insider who specialized in issues management for Prime Minister Harper, has some sensible suggestions for Trudeau. Trudeau, Carson says, should get out of the line of fire and designate a single surrogate like Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to do all the speaking for the government. They should come up with a simple, clear explanation, and stick to it. They should disclose all the details of the legal agreement with Khadr.
“There will be pushback from those in the Liberal camp who believe this will blow over, but it won't,” Carson says. “It's simple and people understand it. It has white hats and black hats. The government has to defend itself. Khadr should go to ground – no more interviews. This will be hand to hand combat for a while.”