The Conservative strategists around Stephen Harper like to think in terms of “sword issues” and “shield issues.” A sword issue is one Conservatives can use to gain votes: tough-on-crime policies, tax cuts, the home-renovation tax credit. “Shield issues” are the ones the Conservatives will lose votes on, unless they are clever about protecting themselves.
The environment is the shield issue par excellence: Harper isn’t going to win big with environmentalists. (This is the part of the column where we tell you something you already knew.) But he’s told a succession of environment ministers (Rona Ambrose, John Baird, Jim Prentice) to furrow their brows at the appropriate moments, so the gap between Liberals and Conservatives doesn’t open so wide that votes start to disappear into it. Same with arts funding. Cuts to arts programs cost the Conservatives hard-won momentum in Quebec in 2008. So Harper named a new heritage minister, James Moore, and has given him plenty of latitude to make peace with people in the arts and show business.
Later this autumn, Harper will make his first trips to China and India. This sure looks like a shield. Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal leader, is forever talking about China and India, as did Stéphane Dion and Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien before him. “Stephen Harper hasn’t been to India,” Ignatieff told the Toronto Board of Trade in September. “And he refused his only invitation to China. Our market share in both countries has fallen since he took office. We’ve run our first trade deficits in 30 years. We can’t afford to keep losing ground.”
It’s a central tenet of Harper’s political strategy that if the other guy is talking about something, you should take away his bragging rights. So it came as no surprise when the Prime Minister’s Office announced Harper’s first trip to India for Nov. 16 to 18, to be followed by a China trip from Dec. 2 to 6. Now the polarity of bragging rights is reversed: it’s Harper who will be able to point out that Ignatieff hasn’t been to India since he entered Canadian politics in 2006—and that it was Ignatieff who cancelled, in September, his only invitation to China.
But the gap between the Liberals and the Conservatives doesn’t end with that rather trivial difference. And the longer you look at what the Conservatives are doing with regard to China—and, to a much greater extent, with India—the more the two countries start to look like Conservative swords.
China, of course, is a difficult file for the Conservatives. It is the last important bastion of global Communism, and a lot of senior Conservatives, including Trade Minister Stockwell Day and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, are no fans of the Beijing regime. Harper and Kenney met the Dalai Lama in 2007, the kind of gesture Beijing always notices and never likes. David Emerson, the Vancouver Liberal-turned-Conservative cabinet minister, seemed like a lonely voice in favour of sustained engagement with China, and he didn’t even run again in 2008.
And yet, by mid-century, according to some estimates, China will have passed the United States as the world’s largest economy, and there’s no way even a stubborn Prime Minister can ignore that kind of performance for long. So Harper is finally getting on a plane—and his office was careful to add that his visit will have followed “18 ministerial-level visits to China since 2006.” More than with any other country, relations with China benefit from continuous engagement. If China is worth visiting, Harper’s personal reluctance to do the visiting for nearly four years has hurt the bilateral relationship. He is clearly eager to minimize, and begin reversing, the damage.
India is another matter: English-speaking, Commonwealth member, chaotic and imperfect, but a thriving democracy—what’s not to like? Harper’s trip, the PMO notes, follows 11 ministerial-level trips since 2006. And during last year’s election campaign, he announced plans to open a trade office in the Indian province of Gujarat to go with offices in Hyderabad and Calcutta.
The Liberals essentially blacklisted Gujarat after Hindu-Muslim violence in 2002 killed 1,000 people there. But the Gujarati community in Toronto has tripled in size in a decade, to 145,000 people. It’s one of the fastest-growing South Asian communities in the country. And at the end of September, Stock Day travelled to Ahmedabad to open the Canadian trade office for Gujarat.
This kind of sustained effort and attention will be noticed in ridings like Brampton-Springdale, where Liberal incumbent Ruby Dhalla beat Conservative challenger Parm Gill by only 773 votes last October. Dhalla’s share of the riding vote represented a six-point drop from her 2006 score. Gill outpolled the 2006 Conservative candidate by nine points. Any further swing would finish Dhalla off.
This has been the pattern of Conservative and Liberal behaviour on so many issues for the past five years: the Liberals chastise their opponents for failing to understand the way the world works, while the Conservatives quietly outmanoeuvre the Liberals. What’s past is no guarantee of the future, of course. Ignatieff could stop merely lecturing Harper and instead launch an outreach program to ethnic communities that would parallel, or even outpace, the Conservatives. Of course he could beat the Conservatives on some other issue. Or he could keep assuming Liberal virtue outshines Conservative virtue while the evidence supporting that assumption continues to erode. So many options.