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Paul Wells: How the Refugee Crisis Went from Burden to Boon for Stephen Harper

Paul Wells: How the Refugee Crisis Went from Burden to Boon for Stephen Harper

Welcome to phase four of this endless campaign: the war years. After the brief and formless confusion of the early days, the revelations from the Duffy trial, and the rain of lousy economic news, it is security and terrorism that have become the focus of the campaign’s latest epoch.

“Let me just be clear,” Stephen Harper said in Victoriaville, Que. on Friday. “The threat to this country today is not CSIS. It is ISIS. And that’s something we understand that the other guys don’t seem to understand.”

“The other guys” are, of course, the Conservative leader’s main opponents, Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau. And on the 14th anniversary of 9/11, as at most recent stops in this campaign, Harper was preoccupied by their fecklessness on the general issue of Islamist terrorism and violence.

“Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau are so obsessed by a bizarre idea of political correctness that they don’t want to call jihadist terrorism by its name,” he said.

Harper reverted to a theme that has become one of his standard refrains since the photos of tiny, lifeless Alan Kurdi made worldwide headlines a week earlier. It is not enough to welcome refugees, he said. Canada must join its allies in using military force to stop ISIS from driving millions of refugees out of Syria and Iraq.

That’s not war-mongering, he said. “It’s the opposition parties, for ideological and irresponsible reasons, who oppose actions that are necessary and absolutely strongly supported by the public.”

Note that final subordinate clause, featuring the words “absolutely strongly supported.” Some are born lucky, while others have an escape hatch thrust upon them. Only 10 days earlier, Harper was foundering, having been tossed unceremoniously from the Duffy trial frying pan into the fire of economic turmoil, a skidding loonie, deep-diving crude prices and an officially diagnosed recession. Then the Syrian refugee crisis, which, if we’re being honest, has been going on since before Harper was last re-elected in 2011, became grimily telegenic as waves of refugees swept northward across Europe.

Mulcair and Trudeau hurried to call for swift increases in the acceptance of Syrian refugees. Harper, in British Columbia, seemed deaf to such calls, insisting instead on the rightness of a military adventure in Iraq and Syria that only his party supports. What the heck? Ottawa-based pundits asked. Was Harper tin-eared, genuinely callous, or simply bent on spiralling into electoral oblivion?

Then a funny thing happened. The Conservatives started rising in the polls. In their daily tracking poll, Nanos showed Harper’s party snapping up five points in two days, based on rises of 14 points over the same short period in the prairies and 11 in British Columbia. Ekos, polling weekly, found a less spectacular jump in the same direction.

How did it happen? Harper understands polarizing questions better than most; he knows that if one party owns one side of a divisive question, and a bunch of other parties split the other side, it may be very good politics to be alone. Ekos found that when forced to choose between a military intervention and humanitarian aid, 37 per cent of Canadians would pick the military mission, while 55 per cent would pick aid. For a Conservative party that was flirting with support in the not-all-that-high 20s, 37 per cent looks really good. All the more so because, in reality, Harper supports both sides of Ekos’s forced choice, whereas Trudeau and Mulcair are splitting one side.

Things that are still far from clear:

How much wind this issue can put in the Conservatives’ sails. A lot of Canadians aren’t particularly fussed about the Syrian refugee crisis either way, or to the extent they have opinions, they throw those opinions in with all the other issues and debates that drive their votes. Even an issue as emotionally charged as this one will probably drive votes only on the margin.

How long Syrian refugees and the conflicting impulses of security and humanitarianism will continue to be salient in this election debate. The dominant issues really have been coming and going with dizzying speed in this campaign, and one of the Conservatives’ problems until now has been their inability to make any narrative stick for more than a few days.

For now, though, the Conservatives seem to have braked a long slow slide in their support. And it was on an issue that looked, at first, like a Harper weakness. There was almost certainly less calculation in this than gut: Harper’s remarks on refugees and ISIS merely reflected his convictions. For the first time in a while, his gut and his electoral interests managed to coincide.

Paul Wells/Maclean’s/September, 2015