Andrew MacDougall is a London-based columnist and commentator. He was a director of communications to Stephen Harper.
How powerful are Justin Trudeau’s “sunny ways”? Not even the dark cloud of paying Omar Khadr a $10.5-million settlement, it seems, can obscure them.
A clear majority of Canadians might oppose the payout to the former Guantanamo Bay inmate, but a second poll released in the wake of the government’s decision confirms they haven’t yet transposed their opposition to support for the Tories, with the Liberals retaining all of their healthy lead over the anti-Khadr Conservative opposition.
The most straightforward way to read the recent polling is that while most Canadians opposed the Khadr settlement, they don’t feel strongly enough about it to change their party support. That’s a problem—and there are lessons to be learned for an opposition party with a new leader, as it slowly gears up for an election two years down the road.
MORE: MacDougall on how Khadr remains a prisoner of partisan politics
One is that heading to America to press a perceived political advantage, as Peter Kent and Michelle Rempel have done in recent weeks, may turn off Canadians. Some of the people who find the settlement distasteful might also share the same opinion of Canadian lawmakers who go down to the United States to shout about how much it stinks. Those American-media sorties weren’t only designed to flag Omar Khadr to Donald Trump or the Republican Party’s attention; they were also meant to catch the eye of another group of people who watch Fox News or read the Wall Street Journal in significant numbers—Canadian conservatives. It also illustrated something else: the Conservatives’ apparent inability to see beyond the base. Lord knows Justin Trudeau’s supporters aren’t watching Fox News, nor are they likely to care if Fox News pooh-poohs their man.
FROM THE CONSERVATIVES: The ‘grievous injustice’ of the Khadr settlement
Instead of focusing on the more nuanced questions about the settlement—about the precise timing, the particular amount, or the impact of Tabitha Speer’s court proceeding on deliberations—the Conservatives are shouting out their usual simple refrain of “terrorist” at full volume.
But if there’s any case that confounds such a simple exaltation, Khadr is it. Yes, Khadr did commit heinous acts, but he was 15 (or younger) at the time, and only in Afghanistan because his father was an unrepentant jihadi. Yes, Khadr was present for the death of U.S. medic Christopher Speer, but nobody can say for certain he threw the fatal grenade. Yes, Khadr did confess to his crimes, but he says he did it to escape the hellhole that is Guantanamo Bay.
By pounding Khadr with everything they have, the Tories are once again back to preaching to their converted, rather than trying to present a more measured face to those who might be with them on Khadr if it weren’t for the massive—and rather nasty—sledgehammer being swung about.
Whether Conservatives like it or not, they are perceived as the nasty party. They must always be mindful that the people they need to persuade to once again form government aren’t likely to be persuaded by anger or incivility. Especially against a smiling, earnest opponent like Trudeau. Harpooning the Prime Minister on Khadr isn’t going to change the outcome.
The Liberals didn’t drop the Khadr decision into the Tories’ lap hoping to prompt an overreaction. But once the issue did go live, the Liberals knew an overly aggressive Conservative response would be the best possible outcome, even if it’s not great. The lesson here is to be wary of political catnip.
FROM THE LIBERALS: Why we had to settle with Khadr
Another lesson? Don’t assume single-issue opposition to a government decision will move over to the broader issue of party choice.
This kind of assumption is what turns an issue like a niqab ban—where, again, polling indicated that most people were on the Conservatives’ side—into a proxy for how the party might act on other files if it were in government. When a party presses an issue beyond reason, voters start to wonder what’s really at stake. And while they’re not likely to ever be terrorists, most Canadians want to know their government will be there for them should they be caught up in legal mischief in a foreign land.
The Tory impulse to keep a bad news story for the government in circulation using these means also demonstrates how hard it is to know when to walk away from a communications win.
Had the Conservatives moderated and diversified their lines after the initial round of coverage, when Trudeau was fumbling for an explanation and the anger of Canadians was at its peak, the government might still be on the back foot. By banging on about Khadr in what is, for many, the usual Conservative way, the Liberals now get to hide behind process, as they are doing by criticizing the Conservatives for bringing domestic politics to foreign shores. The media is now also piling on over this perceived indiscretion. And none of it is moving the needle as far as what really counts: Conservative Party support.
Patience is a virtue. There are still two years until the next election. And the Khadr response shows the merits of a strategy that aims to take Trudeau down by inflicting a thousand cuts—rather than lashing out for the jugular.