What has changed in Ottawa in two months?

Parliament’s first week back will see a war of narratives as Harper fires up his big guns: the budget and the Throne Speech

What has changed  in Ottawa in two months?

Parliament returns, to a changed political landscape. As late as mid-December, the Conservatives were still leading the Liberals by eight to 10 points. Two months and one prorogation later, the parties are statistically tied.

Yet the Conservative lead had begun to slip even before the disastrous decision to prorogue Parliament. At their mid-October peak, in the aftermath of the Liberals’ equally disastrous attempt to force an election, the Tories stood as much as 15 points in front. Prorogation, indeed, was supposed to arrest that decline.

And while the Conservatives may hope to put the prorogation debacle behind them, the fundamental reasons for their four-month tailspin have not changed. One of these is an improved showing by the Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, for whom prorogation has proved something of a gift: a chance to shuck off the persona of the scheming politician he had adopted, in favour of the high-minded wonk within.

But most of the Conservative decline can be accounted to another man: Richard Colvin. It was the diplomat’s scalding testimony before the Commons’ special committee on Afghanistan, and his earlier memos on the treatment of prisoners Canadian forces had handed over to the Afghan authorities, that first put the government on the defensive. And it has been the government’s responses that have kept it there.

The early attempts to smear Colvin; the selective release of heavily censored versions of Colvin’s memos; the stonewalling of first the Military Police Complaints Commission, then the Commons committee, then finally the Commons itself—all have contributed to an impression of a government that has something to hide, and is prepared to go to quite undemocratic lengths to hide it.

All that the intervening two months have done is to heighten that impression, leaving the same questions unanswered. That the government has looked panicky, erratic, high-handed and devious is self-evident. But it is what remains hidden from view—the unredacted Colvin memos—that is perhaps doing the most damage. For as long as the government refuses to release them, it will feed suspicions that they contain something truly terrible.

So Parliament’s first week back will see the start of a ferocious battle of narratives. The opposition, sensing its advantage, will try to keep the focus on the government’s autocratic excesses, not only in the matter of prorogation but in its continuing refusal to accede to Parliament’s demands to see the Colvin documents. It will propose restrictions on the former, and it may seek to have the government found in contempt for the latter.

The government, for its part, will attempt to set the debate on terms more to its advantage, firing its two biggest debate-setting guns, the Speech from the Throne and the budget, on successive days. It will presumably begin to draw sharper distinctions between the Conservatives’ approach to the economy and the Liberals’, where before it was willing to let these blur. In particular, it will hold the line on tax increases, hoping to frame the next election—whenever it comes—as a choice between cutting spending or raising taxes.

There is danger in this for the opposition. If the Conservatives are able to present themselves as more concerned for bread-and-butter issues that directly touch the public, while at the same time depicting the opposition as obsessed with arcane points of parliamentary procedure, they may hope to escape from the trap they have caught themselves in. The opposition must be careful not to overplay its hand, even if it seems a strong one at the moment.

So far as the the conversation does turn to the economy, the Liberals have left the Conservatives an opening: not so much on taxes, where the official line is still that tax increases are unnecessary, as on the deficit. In what may turn out to be a serious misreading of the public mood, the Liberals have lately let it be known on two occasions that they would be content to leave the deficit where it is, or even to increase it: in the first case, to support job creation, in the second, to pay for a new national daycare program.

This is perplexing. The key to success for Liberals in the Chrétien years lay in seizing the fiscally conservative centre from the Conservatives—an opening that would seem again to present itself, given the Harper Tories’ record spending and reckless deficits. Yet as the Liberals begin at last to talk in substantive terms about policy, they seem instead to be signalling a sharp move to the left.

Still, at least it’s an agenda. Since its inception, the Conservative Party of Canada’s chief goal has been to convince the public that it has no agenda, hidden or otherwise. In this it has been remarkably successful. What it has not done is win the public’s trust, and its behaviour in the Afghan detainees affair leaves it further from that objective than ever. Four years after taking power, it remains mired near 30 per cent in the polls, roughly where it was in the first days of the Canadian Alliance, under Stockwell Day.

Perhaps there’s a lesson in this: the way to build trust is to be worthy of it—tell people what you intend to do, then do it. Perhaps the Throne Speech will show the Tories have got the message. We’ll see.