One way to assess Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s television pitch tonight will be to compare it with the last performance of its sort, Paul Martin’s April 1, 2005 TV address.
Like Harper now, Martin was pleading then for popular support over what was essentially a parliamentary problem. His minority Liberal government, bloodied by the sponsorship scandal, was in danger of being felled by an opposition that smelled its chance.
Three elements stand out, and Harper might choose to offer his own version of them:
1. Plead for time. Martin asked to be allowed to survive until Justice John Gomery completed his report into the sponsorship scandal, and promised to call election within 30 days of its publication. Harper might try a variation: let me deliver my promised Jan. 27 budget, and if you still don’t like me, defeat my government then. It sounds good to emphasize that you aren’t asking for an open-ended right to govern.
2. Show a little contrition. On the sponsorship affair, Martin said Liberals “had to be held responsible, and that includes me.” He apologized for not being more vigilant. If Harper had it in him (I don’t think he does), he might help his cause by admitting he shouldn’t have provoked the opposition in his economic update. Promising to be more conciliatory in future would be a nice touch, too. (Highly unlikely.)
3. Throw it to the people. “They warn we will pay a price in the next election,” Martin said. “And perhaps we will, but I trust your judgment.” Solid lines. Harper should do something like this. His trump card is that he can boldly declare his willingness to face the electorate; his opponents would rather not, just yet. That gives him a powerful rhetorical advantage. Canada is a democracy, after all.
In the end, Martin’s TV appearance didn’t save him; holding Independent MP Chuck Cadman’s vote and getting Belinda Stronach to cross the floor did, for a few months. Still, Martin’s bid for public support wasn’t bad, and it’s the closest thing we have to a template for this evening.