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Harper's Running Out of Fear Fuel

Now that Bill C-51's a sudden liability, expect PM's people to stoke the scary.

Steve Sullivan 4 Jun 2015iPolitics

Steve Sullivan has been advocating for crime victims for almost 20 years, having served as the former president of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime and as the first federal ombudsman for victims of crime. He has testified before parliamentary committees on victims' rights, justice reform and public safety issues and has conducted training for provincial and federal victim services. He is currently the executive director of Ottawa Victim Services and a part-time professor at Algonquin College. His views are his own and do not represent any agency with which he is associated.

Things are not going Stephen Harper's way. People aren't as scared as they used to be -- and fear is the fuel that keeps his government going.

Peter MacKay is just the latest high-profile Conservative to bolt before the election. Mike Duffy is back in the news; senators, PMO staffers and Nigel Wright himself are all on deck to testify. The economy is not getting better. It may be getting worse.

Politics is all about unforeseen events, of course, and while Harper might have anticipated the lingering sickliness of the economy and the growing restlessness of his caucus, he couldn't have predicted how quickly a political asset like terrorism could turn into a liability.

It's remarkable to recall how, only months ago, many members of the pundit class were calling the security issue Harper's ace in the hole -- a policy area where he had a clear position and a solid advantage over the New Democrats and Liberals. But the timing worked against him: Terrorism gave him a polling bump that lasted just long enough for too many people to learn just enough about C-51 to loathe it.

Now, and quite suddenly, the bill is a political problem. This week we saw something astounding: a group of right-leaning critics of the bill -- including National Firearms Association president Sheldon Clare and National Post comment editor Jesse Kline -- calling the information-sharing provisions in C-51 "the long gun registry on steroids" and warning of a split in the Conservative party's own voter base.

"Bill C-51 represents everything that principled conservatives have been fighting against for the past decade," reads a letter signed by the critics and posted on the website StopC51. "It is appalling that a Conservative government would even consider voting for such legislation, much less crafting it and pushing it into law."

The letter goes on to excoriate C-51's provisions for "secret trials" and online censorship, to accuse Harper of rank hypocrisy for pushing C-51 after having damned the long-gun registry and the long-form census as unacceptable intrusions into Canadians' privacy, and to state the bill violates basic small-c conservative principles by extending the reach of Canada's security services into an extralegal grey zone. It warns that C-51 risks depressing the Conservative core vote and allowing the New Democrats or Liberals to come up the middle.

"On balance, there is no need for C-51," it reads, "and it is politically foolish to bring in such legislation that can only result in a massive political defeat."

Stoke the fear!

Still, it's no easy thing for a government to change its message when the bill is all but passed, the attack ads have been bought and paid for and cabinet ministers have been given their talking points. The Harper government's strength is its ability to stick to a script. It's also a weakness.

So if fear is cooling off, Harper's hand-puppets will do what they can to stoke it. Testifying before the Senate national security committee last week, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney struggled valiantly to ramp up the anxiety level. (Every time there's an arrest or a charge even remotely linked to terrorism, Blaney's office usually has a ‘we-told-you-so' media release out within an hour.)

At committee, he cited the arrest of 10 Montreal teenagers believed to have been heading for Turkey and Syria to join terrorist groups. When John Nuttall and Amanda Korody -- that B.C. couple whose only connection to jihadi terrorists seemed to be an undercover RCMP officer pretending to be one -- were convicted this week, Blaney again assured us that ISIS has a knife to the nation's throat and only C-51 can save us.

Either he missed the irony or he was ignoring it: Nobody is claiming terrorism isn't a problem -- and the police appear to be doing their jobs just fine without C-51. For Harper, the terrorism threat only works politically if it's vague and easy to exaggerate. Specific cases that end in conviction don't help him; they only undermine the argument that the bill is necessary.

"ISIL is spreading terror and committing genocide across the Middle East, and Canada is doing its part to combat these forces of evil," reads a statement on the Conservative party's crime policy website. "Our highly-skilled fighter pilots, working with coalition partners, are reducing ISIL's ability to terrorize the region... For his part, Justin Trudeau... made inappropriate jokes about Canada's military, and is dangerously ignorant of the gravity of the situation."

Tory tactics 101: Take a high-profile issue, exaggerate the risk, mock your opponents (especially the ones named Trudeau), then offer the "solution." But such a strategy offers diminishing returns the longer you keep beating the same drum. C-51's political usefulness seems to be at an end; its political drawbacks are only now becoming obvious.

Need a real threat?

One of those drawbacks is the risk of being seen as ridiculous. Two people were killed in this country by terrorists last year -- assuming we define "terrorist" as loosely as possible. Prior to those deaths you'd have to go all the way back to Air India for an example of a major, successful home-soil terrorist attack.

Meanwhile, a woman is killed by an abusive partner in this country every week. Three Canadians are killed by impaired drivers every day.

Blaney told the Senate committee Canada needs C-51 to fight the "growing threat." But what part of the threat is "growing?" How do we know it's growing? If Blaney truly believes the phenomenon of Canadians going abroad as terrorists is somehow a novel and immediate threat to our safety, how do we square that with his own 2014 report on terrorism? That's the report which said, in part, that "the phenomenon of individuals leaving their countries of residence to engage in foreign conflicts is not new. Canada and many other countries have experienced this for decades."

With or without Bill C-51, we will never be completely safe from a terrorist attack -- just like we can never be completely safe from serial killers. We face a greater risk of being killed while driving to the bank to cash the cheques Harper is going to be sending us than we do of being killed by terrorists.

As far as 2015 is concerned, the terrorism issue appears to have run out of rope. The way things are going, Harper might need to re-write Canada's election law to retroactively disqualify anyone running against him.  [Tyee]

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