Sunday, August 23, 2015

On separation anxieties

Following up on this post, let's take a look at the first of Bob Hepburn's theorized lines of attack against the NDP - which gets its own separate post since it needs to be analyzed in radically different ways depending on the party who launches it:
Worse, the Conservatives are expected to unleash a furious barrage of attacks on Mulcair’s perceived weak spots, or vulnerabilities. 

These weak spots include:
1) Quebec separation: Many Canadians could never vote for Mulcair because of the NDP’s policy that Quebec could split from Canada with a referendum vote of just 50-per-cent-plus-one. Mulcair insists he is “proud” of this policy and says he would rip up the federal Clarity Act that declares Quebec can start the process to separate only if a “clear majority” of voters in the province voted for secession. NDP supporters dismiss voter concerns over Mulcair’s position as “overblown.”
The most significant bit of wishcasting by Hepburn is the concept that the Cons might be the ones to make this a main campaign issue. But to see why they wouldn't, let's first ask what would happen if they did.

Precedent: None. The Cons' consistent message - exemplified in their choice to preempt Michael Ignatieff's "nation" resolution, and repeated as recently as the most recent leadership debate - is that they'd rather not talk about sovereignty, rather than wanting to promote it as a key issue.

Relationship to Salient Issues: None. The Cons have branded themselves around the economy and security; a sudden turn to campaign on national unity would undermine that message entirely and require starting from scratch.

Credibility: Moderate. Again Harper has gone out of his way not to amass much of a track record one way or the other - but at the very least, this would be a rare issue where the Cons' history in office wouldn't work against them.

Likely Responses: Moderate. We know the NDP's answer from the exchange between Mulcair and Trudeau in the first debate. And while Harper might be able to introduce a few more twists by owning the issue himself, the most likely outcome of a two-way contest would be for Mulcair to fight the issue to a draw nationally by pointing to his own referendum involvement and the NDP's success in wiping out the Bloc.

But of course, there's more than one other party in the race. Which brings us to...

Spillover Effects: Potentially immense - and here's the reason why the Cons wouldn't figure to touch the NDP's Quebec policy as a core issue.

Aside from having all other parties and leaders drop out of the race, it's hard to imagine a single event that would favour the Libs more than for the Cons to use their superior war chest to turn the campaign into a contest with a Trudeau-led Liberal Party over who gets to play Captain Canada. And there's little reason to think the Cons' plan involves handing the Libs a path back to power they wouldn't enjoy otherwise.

In sum, the upside for the Cons in raising sovereignty as an issue would be minimal, while the downside would be massive. But let's look at the alternative scenario where the party which actually stood to benefit from changing the channel had to put its resources into doing so.

How would the test change in evaluating the Libs' option to put sovereignty front and centre?

Precedent: Moderate to strong. This is one of the few areas of the Libs' historic brand which hasn't been thoroughly eroded other than by the passage of time - though that's probably more of a factor than the Libs would want to admit.

Relationship to Salient Issues: None to minimal. Aside from the Bloc, no other party would have any incentive to talk about sovereignty any more than it absolutely has to - which means that if the Libs direct their resources toward the issue, they risk completely missing the factors which actually lead voters to make their decisions.

Credibility: Moderate to strong. To the extent the Libs and Trudeau feign outrage over connections to the sovereigntist movement their hands aren't clean either, but again this remains a relatively strong part of their brand.

Likely Responses: Moderate. The NDP would figure to both challenge Trudeau's own vagueness and defend its own position to the extent necessary, but wouldn't have much reason to match the Libs statement for statement if the rest of the campaign is being fought elsewhere.

Spillover Effects: Strong. Again, the crucial calculation for the Libs will be the opportunity cost of using their limited resources on this rather than other issues.

Even without another party raising the issue, a campaign focused on sovereignty could represent the Libs' best chance to turn the election toward more favourable terrain - particularly if they prefer a high-risk push for immediate power to a multiple-election strategy. But if the NDP can build its campaign around a largely uncontested appeal to promiscuous progressives who mostly want to see Harper gone while the Libs speak past voters on an issue seen as outdated and irrelevant, this could also be the Libs' speediest path to oblivion.

In sum, if we see sovereignty treated as a major issue in the balance of the campaign, it figures to be at the Libs' urging, and presents as much opportunity as it does risk for the NDP. Which isn't to say I'd be surprised to see it happen - only that we shouldn't presume it would reflect a weakness in the NDP's planning.

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