Fighting the enemy indirectly: Mulcair, Harper, Redford, Smith and the oil sands
May 16, 2012 1 Comment
Canada’s Official Opposition Leader, Thomas Mulcair, predictably, took up the banner of attacking Alberta’s oil sands and claiming they were crippling Canada’s manufacturing sector by inflicting Dutch Disease on Canada’s economy. I will leave the economic debate to the economics. Instead, I want to discuss how politicians fight their opponents indirectly. While this is not technically the same as attacking a straw man, it is similar because, though a politician claims they are challenging one thing, in reality, they are actually challenging another.
While western Canadian leaders decry Mulcair’s anti-oil sands comments as ‘divisive politics’, can anyone really blame him? The NDP only won three seats in the Prairies, so it only make sense, strategically, that he would court vote-rich Ontario where many ridings in manufacturing centres are held not by the NDP, but by the Conservatives. What better way to win them over then by blaming their hardships on the oil sands and the pro-oil sands Conservatives? Note that Mulcair’s criticism focuses on the pain of the eastern manufacturing industry and not the environmental issues that regularly plague the energy sector. This shows the NDP is confident the post-materialist left is solidly within their camp and does not need to be chummed with environmentalist rhetoric, allowing them to focus on a pro-industry, pro-manufacturing, pro-labour message. Why attack the Conservatives when most Ontarians supported them and when they take credit–rightfully or wrongfully–for keeping Canada in relatively good shape, vis-a-vis the rest of the western world, during the recession? Far better to attack the Conservative’s credibility indirectly by portraying the west as a bogeyman, and then painting the Conservatives as being guilty-by-association.
Premiers must stick up for their province when they come under fire, so, of course, Christy Clark, Alison Redford, and Brad Wall mounted a counter-offensive against Mulcair. Alberta Opposition Leader Danielle Smith also waded into the fray. However, Smith’s target was not really Mulcair, but Redford, whom she alleged was not doing enough “to be a champion for the development of the resource.” (Smith was more vocal on the Rob Breakenridge Show, but audio from her interview is not yet up on the web site.) Smith is more concerned about Mulcair’s comments insofar as she can accuse Redford of being an ineffective defender of Alberta. Redford, being the very intelligent leader she is, will likely ignore Smith so as not give the Wildrose any more attention than necessary. However, if forced to comment, Redford will likely accuse Smith of sowing the seeds of division within Alberta instead of presenting a united front against the enemy in the east. Similarly, I would not be surprised if Smith would speculate that the reason Redford is not being more vocal is because Redford owes her victory in part due to NDP supporters.
As an aside, while I do not usually comment on BC or Saskatchewan politics, both Clark and Wall face NDP opponents in their respective provinces, which makes is a convenient side-benefit of fighting the NDP federally.
Such is the reality of politics–that it is often easier to attack an enemy indirectly than to face them head on. (The military analogue would be to invade France by attacking Belguim first in order to avoid the Maginot Line.) Mulcair attacks Harper by attacking the west. Smith attacks Reford by attacking Mulcair. Even the Alberta Liberals have accused the PCs of not standing up to the feds enough in an attempt to build up support in Alberta, which just goes to show that everybody does it.
While politicians appeal to the principle of unity, consensus is impossible, and a party really only needs 50 percent plus one in order to seize or maintain power. Thus, how they push their policy agenda requires strategic decisions about which segments of society to court and which ones to antagonize. If discord is inevitable, necessity dictates that political actors will seek to sow its seeds in a way that suits their favour.