18 March 2005

The Leader Opps

Strange things happen on the flight to and from Labrador.

That's where I was yesterday and on both the flight to Goose and the one back I couldn't help but think about Craig Westcott's column from the Wednesday Express and the Tory cheerleading from Thursday's Post.

Craig took time to praise Roger Grime's as an effective leader of the opposition. Craig's main criterion? That Roger irks Danny. Yes, Danny turns beet red answering questions from Roger.

Craig rightly points to Roger's string of successes as a cabinet minister after 1989. He also compares Grimes to 19th century British prime minister William Gladstone. The Brit Liberal managed to serve as PM four times despite being regarded by the Queen, for example, as a bit of a bore.

The problem for me was that I finished Craig's column unconvinced that driving up your opponent's high blood pressure is a viable political strategy. It just doesn't seem practical to get back to power by inducing a stroke in The Other Guy(s) ; that is, unless you can hook them on fags, force-feed em Pepsi and fee and chee and get them to spend their days on the couch watching the soaps.

Nope. I just shook my head at the idea, wondering if Craig got the idea from the CIA's nutty attempts to off Castro in the 1960s. Poisoned cigars. Beard termites. Extra starch in his fatigues to give him the itches which lead to scratching which give a real nasty, nasty infection that won't go away because the embargo won't let those commie Cubans buy American wonder ointments and powders. Setting up a radio station to broadcast the words "neener neener neener" over and over again on a frequency that can only be received by custom-made radios to be dropped by Cuban ex-patriots from American made balloons drifting across the Caribbean.

There had to be another answer to the Liberal puzzle. Why exactly are they getting slaughtered in the polls?

Leap over to Stephen Harper and you can see the similarities between the two Opposition leaders.

One of the Posties hit on the answer.

Define yourself or be defined.


Politics is based on choices.

Political communication therefore is heavily dependent on one bunch of people pointing out the differences between themselves and The Other Bunch.

The main challenge for Roger Grimes has been defining himself and his policies in the public mind. It's a problem that goes back to his time as Premier. How is he different from Brian or Danny?

Does that mean Roger is lame? Far from it. Craig rightly points out that Grimes is one of the most experienced political leaders around. He has handled some incredibly tough political issues with amazing success. People who have known Grimes for a long time are struck by his ability to grasp an issue and dissect it, by the ease with which he can relate to CEOs or EI recipients on their own terms.

But, for some reason, Grimes as Liberal leader has come to be defined by some mistaken popular ideas or by the politically inspired characterizations of Danny Williams when he was Leader of the Opposition (Leader Opp in pol-speak). Voisey's Bay was not another give-away.

Politicians must define themselves or face the risk of being defined by others. Grimes seems to have fallen into that second option and come off much the worse for it. Grimes last showing in the CRA poll is actually very odd. The Telly this week carried results of some CRA polls done for the provincial government last fall that show the provincial government actually didn't have very high approval ratings for its performance in a bunch of areas.

These are all points where Grimes should have been picking up and holding onto stronger support.

To be fair, it is really a mistake for me to lay this solely on Roger's shoulders. Yes, as leader the buck stops on his desk, but this lack of definition seems to beset the entire caucus.

And to really make the relevant point from my post asking why there is an Opposition here at all: if you look at Nova Scotia, the Opposition Liberals are very aggressive in presenting an alternative point of view. They are keen to dig away at the government like jackals, not some small blood-sucking insect. (Craig likened Roger to a tick burrowing under Danny's fur)

Look at the Opposition Tories here before 2003 and you will see the same pattern as the Nova Scotia Libs.

Both Stephen Harper and Roger Grimes should be making better headway in their work. That they don't seems to result from some problem with defining themselves and their parties and then hammering that home with the electorate.

As I finish this off, Roger Grimes is on Open Line making strong points and demonstrating that he has a firm grasp on the details of the issue around Abitibi and its mills in the province. He is making points - good points in clear language. And yes, Craig, when the House is open, Grimes is a high flyer. There are some other star individual performers when it comes to poking at some specific issues.

Think about it this way. Computers produce pictures from things call pixels. These are individual little spots of varying colours that when you step back and look at them reveal an image. Roger Grimes and the Liberals can be really good at producing pixels and bunches of pixels (specific issues and details) especially when the House is open, but when you step back, the picture doesn't have a coherent definition. It doesn't last in between House sessions.

The big difference between Harper and Grimes is that Roger Grimes does not have to deal with the fundamental differences of opinion and values within the party that beset the federal Conservatives.

If Roger was doing such a totally bad job as Leader Opp, the knives would already be out. He has the time and the room to define himself and his party and run a strong campaign in the next election.

He just has to do it.