How the refugee crisis went from burden to boon for Stephen Harper -

How the refugee crisis went from burden to boon for Stephen Harper

What initially seemed a miscalculation on Syrian refugees may work out to Conservatives’ advantage. Paul Wells explains why.

Surrounded by racks of food, Conservative leader Stephen Harper speaks about the Syrian refugee crisis during a campaign event in Surrey, B.C., Thursday September 3, 2015.. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Surrounded by racks of food, Conservative leader Stephen Harper speaks about the Syrian refugee crisis during a campaign event in Surrey, B.C., Thursday September 3, 2015.. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Welcome to phase four of this endless campaign: the war years. After the brief and formless confusion of the early days, the revelations from the Duffy trial, and the rain of lousy economic news, it is security and terrorism that have become the focus of the campaign’s latest epoch.

“Let me just be clear,” Stephen Harper said in Victoriaville, Que. on Friday. “The threat to this country today is not CSIS. It is ISIS. And that’s something we understand that the other guys don’t seem to understand.”

“The other guys” are, of course, the Conservative leader’s main opponents, Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau. And on the 14th anniversary of 9/11, as at most recent stops in this campaign, Harper was preoccupied by their fecklessness on the general issue of Islamist terrorism and violence.

“Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau are so obsessed by a bizarre idea of political correctness that they don’t want to call jihadist terrorism by its name,” he said.

Harper reverted to a theme that has become one of his standard refrains since the photos of tiny, lifeless Alan Kurdi made worldwide headlines a week earlier. It is not enough to welcome refugees, he said. Canada must join its allies in using military force to stop ISIS from driving millions of refugees out of Syria and Iraq.

That’s not war-mongering, he said. “It’s the opposition parties, for ideological and irresponsible reasons, who oppose actions that are necessary and absolutely strongly supported by the public.”

Note that final subordinate clause, featuring the words “absolutely strongly supported.” Some are born lucky, while others have an escape hatch thrust upon them. Only 10 days earlier, Harper was foundering, having been tossed unceremoniously from the Duffy trial frying pan into the fire of economic turmoil, a skidding loonie, deep-diving crude prices and an officially diagnosed recession. Then the Syrian refugee crisis, which, if we’re being honest, has been going on since before Harper was last re-elected in 2011, became grimily telegenic as waves of refugees swept northward across Europe.

Related: Our primer on Syrian refugees

Mulcair and Trudeau hurried to call for swift increases in the acceptance of Syrian refugees. Harper, in British Columbia, seemed deaf to such calls, insisting instead on the rightness of a military adventure in Iraq and Syria that only his party supports. What the heck? Ottawa-based pundits asked. Was Harper tin-eared, genuinely callous, or simply bent on spiralling into electoral oblivion?

Then a funny thing happened. The Conservatives started rising in the polls. In their daily tracking poll, Nanos showed Harper’s party snapping up five points in two days, based on rises of 14 points over the same short period in the prairies and 11 in British Columbia. Ekos, polling weekly, found a less spectacular jump in the same direction.

How did it happen? Harper understands polarizing questions better than most; he knows that if one party owns one side of a divisive question, and a bunch of other parties split the other side, it may be very good politics to be alone. Ekos found that when forced to choose between a military intervention and humanitarian aid, 37 per cent of Canadians would pick the military mission, while 55 per cent would pick aid. For a Conservative party that was flirting with support in the not-all-that-high 20s, 37 per cent looks really good. All the more so because, in reality, Harper supports both sides of Ekos’s forced choice, whereas Trudeau and Mulcair are splitting one side.

Things that are still far from clear:

How much wind this issue can put in the Conservatives’ sails. A lot of Canadians aren’t particularly fussed about the Syrian refugee crisis either way, or to the extent they have opinions, they throw those opinions in with all the other issues and debates that drive their votes. Even an issue as emotionally charged as this one will probably drive votes only on the margin.

How long Syrian refugees and the conflicting impulses of security and humanitarianism will continue to be salient in this election debate. The dominant issues really have been coming and going with dizzying speed in this campaign, and one of the Conservatives’ problems until now has been their inability to make any narrative stick for more than a few days.

For now, though, the Conservatives seem to have braked a long slow slide in their support. And it was on an issue that looked, at first, like a Harper weakness. There was almost certainly less calculation in this than gut: Harper’s remarks on refugees and ISIS merely reflected his convictions. For the first time in a while, his gut and his electoral interests managed to coincide.

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How the refugee crisis went from burden to boon for Stephen Harper

  1. Rather than a willingness to be involved in the military campaign against ISIS, is it not possible the current CPC bump in the polls is the result of a perception that Harper takes the security concerns associated with accepting refugees more seriously than Mulcair and Trudeau?

    • Doubt it. More like Trudeau putting his foot in his mouth repeatedly, and Mulcair starting to run into mid-campaign reality, as both Harper and Trudeau put more effort into ridiculing his promises and his lack of basic arithmetic skills. His corporate tax increase will pull in possibly $2-4 billion per year extra, if that, and he’s promising to “restore” $36b to provincial healthcare funding that was never taken away from the provinces in the first place. Even Trudeau is not dumb enough to believe those ads being run by public service unions. Not to mention Mulcair’s plans to create an expensive new national daycare program for which he expects the provinces to kick in half the money. NDP have peaked, and far too early for their own good.

  2. This is just the 65% of Canadian who don’t like Harper’s policies on security and humanitarian aid versus the 35% that is the Conservative base. Nothing new to see here.

  3. What a load of BS! Spin doctoring at its best or maybe worst. There is no “boon” for the Conservatives here unless he means as in “boondoggle”. This has been a disaster for Harper and it will grow bigger everyday. Harper has no heart, everybody knows it now.

    • There is a plan to pick k the kids, moms etc first. . Thad Thudpecker , do you really want to increase our Muslim population by the figures the Libs and NDP are throwing around.


    Paul, I’m sure there’s some jobs in Oz you could qualify for.

    • They allow you on the Internet this time of night?

  5. Thank you for your article Mr. Wells. I recognize, from your declaration several years ago you have/had a preference for the Liberal Party of Canada/Ontario policies. However you do try to not take a biased position and usually succeed.

    This article confirms my long standing understanding Prime Minister Harper is a man with a plan and supports the direction of that plan with Integrity and much Hard Work. This offends many of the disappointed people in the journalism arena with the ever deteriorating code of ethical reporting.

    The scramble to maintain employment must be very difficult in the decline of opportunity as the change in communicating rides rough shod over idealistic individuals. Their dreams and ideals slide away. But you have managed to stay on course. Thank you again. Cheers;

  6. Paul,

    What do you think the jump in the polls would be if anyone in the Canadian media bothered to cover some of the stories about what the “refugees” from Syria and the surrounding areas have been doing once they arrive and settle in various European countries?

    If Canadian women look at the statistics for rape in Sweden, they would be absolutely shocked to discover that many of the young men from these areas seem to think that raping a non-Muslim girl is a mark of glory. In fact, in Sweden, 95% of the rapes seem to be from the people we have “saved” from their own war torn countries. Apparently, they think brining ISIS tactics with them is fine as long as the Government of the country they have invaded is paying them welfare.

    Oh, and imagine the reaction of Canadians were to discover that a recently arrived “refugee” decided that the first thing he should do upon arrival is NOT to find a job…..but to kidnap and rape a 7 year old German girl while she was in the park with her mom.

    Yes, pictures of 3 year olds drowned on the beach is a tragedy, but so is what many of these “refugees” do once they arrive.

    Harper has it right. Make sure you screen out those who would never fit in to the Canadian society. Protect those who live here, don’t import criminals or misogynists to attack Canadian women.

    Lastly, ISIS itself has been bragging that they have inserted about 3000 of their fighters amongst the wave of “refugees”. But don’t worry, whatever they do, the Canadian media won’t report on these stories, as it goes against their narrative. After all, what is the big deal about the possible attacks on Canadian women as long as they can see the back end of Harper right?

  7. If comments from “The Base” here and elsewhere (mainly The Globe) are any indication, Wells is right on the money. The Base doesn’t want no more foreigners, especially from that part of the world. As he has pointed out many times, Harper does what Harper has always done, just more of it. In this case, we get a fig leaf of platitudes and maybe a couple more million dollars in aid to soothe a few swing voters (shield) and more talk about the evils of ISIS to keep the base happy (sword).

    Most fascinating thing in the comments – CPC supporters praising Wells for his clear-eyed assessment of the situation (coupled with the no more foreigners sentiment noted above) and Lib/NDP supporters damning him as a Tory hack.

    Honestly, Wells’ assessment makes sense. I want this government out as much as anyone, but never underestimate Harper’s ability to wedge politic his way out of a tight spot. If he gets a wedge, he will use it, regardless of how much scorched earth is left behind.

  8. Good column – I suspected something like this would happen and would point out another thing Mr. Wells doesn’t mention: the refugee crisis and tragic photo of the drowned child pushed all things Duffy off the news. Harper looked awful responding to journalists’ questions on it day after day and I think it was testing the loyalty of the core vote. Duffy = Gary Condit ..

    • Hey, remember all those no-go zones in France I told you about? Well here’s the proof: A police commissioner says there are places in Germany that police go toin personnel carriers !