March 17, 2008

Libs' abstention strategy creating 'dissatisfied customers': pollster

Conservatives to use attack ads against Grits, Stéphane Dion on House votes in next election campaign.

By Abbas Rana
A leading pollster says the federal Liberals could suffer political consequences for abstaining from House votes to avoid an election, but Grit MPs say their party's strategy hasn't backfired and they're not receiving any calls from their constituents complaining about it.

"When we do corporate research, most people don't complain when they're a dissatisfied customer. The general rule of thumb is only one in 10 dissatisfied customers actually complain. The vast majority actually do have a complaint but don't take the time to actually register. I wouldn't take solace if I was a Liberal MP by the fact that they were not receiving a lot of complaints about this, because, what's important is the bigger picture—the image that it sends," said Nik Nanos, president and CEO of Nanos Research, in an interview with The Hill Times.

Since last fall, Liberals have either consistently abstained en masse from confidence votes in the House to avoid an election or have sent out only a handful of MPs to vote in the House. The only exception was the March 13 vote on the extension of the mission in Afghanistan, where the Liberals voted with the government and there was no possibility that the government would be defeated as the motion was agreed to by the two major parties ahead of time.

For this strategy, Liberals have been criticized, ridiculed, and even lampooned both inside and outside the party.

Some of the federal NDP spokespersons call Mr. Dion "the leader of the official abstention" and the Harper Conservatives in the daily Question Period have been taunting the Liberals for not showing up for Confidence votes. On Wednesday, March 12, during Question Period, Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) took a shot at the Liberal leader for failing to oppose the government on any confidence vote since the fall.

"... I was wondering at the beginning of this session: (a) whether the official opposition might support us on our budgetary and financial policies; (b) whether it might support us on our crime policies; (c) whether it might support us on our foreign policies; or (d) whether it might support us on our environment policy. The answer is: all of the above," said Mr. Harper, referring to some of the confidence votes for which the Liberal Party indirectly supported the government.

CBC comedian Rick Mercer, host of The Rick Mercer Report, also made fun of Liberals on a recent show for criticizing the Conservatives on the budget but not defeating the government when given a chance. Mr. Mercer and a team of stage performers pretending to be Liberals sang the following song: "We're backing down, and loving it. We said some things that we regret. Pass your budget, don't mind us. Sorry if we caused a fuss. We're backing down with a smile. No election for a while. Pass your budget, take all week. No one can understand our leader speak. We'll pass your bills, have no fear. If anyone needs us, we're over here. An election now just won't do. The future is looking Tory blue."

After watching the skit, Warren Kinsella, a Toronto Liberal and former senior adviser during the Jean Chrétien government, wrote on his blog: "Two things. One, everyone should remember that this [Mr. Mercer] is the same guy who did the 'Doris Day' petition. Remember that? That's what turned Stockwell Day into Laughingstock (not Barney). Two, when they start laughing at you, it's all over. Fini."

Since Mr. Dion became the leader of the Liberal Party in December 2006, Conservatives have been trying to define the Liberal leader as indecisive, weak, and someone who is afraid to take positions on important national issues. For this, they ran attack ads in the past against Mr. Dion, which painted him as a weak leader. Conservatives are also planning on making leadership the defining issue of the next election campaign. Mr. Nanos said that by failing to take a clear position on confidence issues, Liberals are giving fodder to other parties to criticize.

"What it does is that it validates perceptions that Stéphane Dion is weak or that the Liberals are afraid to have an election. In a way, it validates the messaging that the Conservatives are trying to put out there in regards to Stéphane Dion and the Liberals. Every time the Liberals abstain from a particular confidence measure vote, the question becomes, what won't they abstain from? What is the breaking point for the Liberals? That's what the Conservatives are trying to figure out," said Mr. Nanos.

NDP MP Joe Comartin (Windsor-Tecumseh, Ont.) in an interview last week said that he was surprised that the Liberals so far have not suffered any political consequences.

"I'm actually surprised they haven't suffered more in the polls. If they're here as the official opposition, they should be playing that role, but so far, there's some significant unease even in their core support about this strategy, this tactic. They've been treated with ridicule around this issue, of five people, 10 people showing up. There's two bad things for a politician or a political party—either you get ignored or you get treated with ridicule. That's what I'm hearing, that right now they're been treated with ridicule," said Mr. Comartin, adding that the Liberals will be held to account during the next election campaign.

"What an election campaign does, it focuses attention, so, I'm expecting that in a campaign, the electorate will say, 'Yeah, where were you, with the NDP and some lesser degree, the Bloc, were protecting our interests against the Conservatives. It wasn't you.'"

But Liberals disagree.

"I think it's an Ottawa issue. It's not an issue in my constituency. I don't think it resonates with people. At the end of the day, they're going to care if there's an election or not, what's in it for them, and what are the major national issues? And there's the fact that we didn't bring the government down 16 times when they were begging to be brought down because they wanted to time the election before the economy goes to crap. It's not going to be an issue that's going to hurt us, I really don't think so," said Liberal MP Garth Turner (Halton, Ont.) in an interview with The Hill Times.

Conservatives have said publicly that they will use the abstention issue in the election campaign and remind Canadians about the Liberal Party's voting record. Some have also said in background conversations that they could run attack ads once the writ is dropped, based on the Liberal voting record.

Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski (Regina-Lumsden-Lake Centre, Sask.) in an interview last week declined to say if the Tories will run attack ads against the Liberals specifically on this issue, but added that the Liberal Party's voting record will be an issue in the next election.

"The ads that we will be presenting will be factual, number one. Secondly, most Canadians have a firm belief that Mr. Dion is a weak and ineffectual leader. This [the abstentions] just perpetuates that notion. I believe there'll be lots of attention paid on leadership in the next campaign. Mr. Dion will have to explain himself [for abstentions]."

Towards the end of last week, Liberal MPs in interviews said that their political strategy will change after the two-week Easter break and the return to Parliament on March 31. They say they will most probably defeat the government once they return to Ottawa. The chief reason for this, they said was the Liberal-sponsored RESP private member's bill, C-253, or education savings bill, which was passed by the House recently against the wishes of the Tories. Describing it as an irresponsible tax cut for the wealthy, the Conservatives promptly introduced a budgetary ways and means motion last week to cancel out the bill. Although it was a Liberal bill but still only a handful of MPs showed up to vote to ensure not to defeat the government.

"The RESP bill has synthesized a lot of opinion among Liberals. The Conservative reaction to the private member's bill was so over the top, so extreme, that they would bring in a bill to overturn what a majority of MPs in the House of Commons wanted. All of a sudden, it makes you ask yourself, 'Why the hell am I here as an MP when my vote doesn't count anymore because the government can ride in here on a white horse and overturn what Parliament did?'
That has stuck in the craws of a lot of our members the wrong way,"
said Mr. Turner.

  • "A lot of us have wanted an election for some time. This convinced a number of my other colleagues, that this is too much. This government's got to be replaced; propping it up any longer is not a good idea."

But some pundits said in media interviews last week that a Toronto Star editorial on Monday, March 10, headlined, "Dion undermined by his reticence," was critical of the Liberal Party's Parliamentary strategy and played a key role in influencing Mr. Dion and his other caucus colleagues to reconsider their Parliamentary strategy.

"The problem with this is that it exposes Dion to criticism from the New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois, who accuse the Liberals of 'propping up' the Harper government. Indeed, Harper himself regularly skewers Dion for not having the courage of his convictions," the editorial said. "And joining the fray last week in a spoof of a Liberal campaign ad ("We're backing down and loving it") was comedian Rick Mercer, whose commentary often defines the nation's Zeitgeist. This mockery, in turn, undermines support for Dion and the Liberals in the opinion polls. So the Liberals' strategy becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: They won't force an election because they fear they will lose it, and delaying an election ensures they won't get the support they need to win it."

The Hill Times

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