Ground shifts in Ottawa

It’s been just two weeks since Justin Trudeau was handed the Liberal crown, but his ascension to the party’s wobbly throne has tossed the country into a mini-election campaign.

It’s been just two weeks since Justin Trudeau was handed the Liberal crown, but his ascension to the party’s wobbly throne has tossed the country into a mini-election campaign.

The governing Conservatives, of course, never stop campaigning, whether they have a minority or majority.

But the frenetic pace of politicking here in the past couple of weeks has allowed for a close examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the three main political parties and their leaders.

The Conservatives have again reminded us they are the unparalleled practitioners of the dark arts of politics, but their over-the-top assault on Trudeau — a man they like to denigrate as the leader of the third party — has served to heap more attention on a man who needs no help attracting attention.

The latest evidence that Conservatives play politics with all the élan of an NHL goon squad is the decision to have taxpayers foot the bill for attack ads against Trudeau placed in their mailboxes.

They have used both the Boston Marathon bombings and the Canadian terror arrests as wedge issues, using Liberal comments about both as fundraising pleas.

Liberals and New Democrats have also used this archaic mailing privilege to heap scorn on their opponents and force their way into voters’ homes. Conservatives just do it more aggressively.

But two radically different news events in the past weeks have also showcased Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s strengths.

The foiled VIA Rail terror plot as the Commons was debating an anti-terrorism bill plays to the prime minister’s advantage as the hardline law-and-order PM, a man who will choose tough justice over root causes and who can boast that he keeps Canadians safe.

“This is not a time to commit sociology,” Harper said.

“I don’t think we want to convey any view to the Canadian public other than our utter condemnation of this kind of violence, contemplation of this violence and our utter determination through our laws and through our activities to do everything we can to prevent it and counter it.’’

A softer side to Harper was also on display in recent days in his seemingly heartfelt response to the suicide of Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons, saying the tragedy had “sickened” him, then paying tribute to the strength of her family, with whom he met this week.

He has been clear that the 17-year-old was a victim of a “crime,” not bullying, which he said has the connotation “of kids misbehaving.”

For the vast majority of Canadians who are not immersed in the clutter and minutiae of day-to-day Ottawa, this combination of tough leader fighting terrorists and concerned father sickened by the tragic death of a teen is a combination that wins votes.

Trudeau, treated like the real leader of the opposition by the Conservatives, has taken a refreshing high road in the face of government attacks.

But where the high road leads is an unknown.

He has so far shown the need for more message discipline; he has been merely workmanlike in his brief time as leader in the Commons; and he will eventually lose some lustre as policy is added to a persona that is so far laden with idealism.

His upbeat ad to counter the mocking Conservative attack ad is effective and powerful in its simplicity, but the Conservative war chest will ensure that the attacks reach many more Canadians than the upbeat counter message.

Still, he is shiny and new. He has brought something fresh and almost indefinable to the staid political scene.

He should grow into this job.

The real change over the past couple of weeks is the status of the official Opposition New Democrats. NDP strategists will tell you they are playing the “long game,’’ and are not going to get twisted in knots about polls two years before an election.

But there has to be concern in the Orange Bunker over Leader Thomas Mulcair’s profile and image, more than a year into the job. Mulcair inherited the mantle from Sunny Jack, but now looks to his left in the Commons to see Sunny Justin.

Mulcair’s effectiveness in the House does not seem to translate into success outside the Ottawa bubble.

The NDP must find a way to get back in the game or risk the Canadian political alignment falling back into its age-old pattern, leaving it perceived again as the third party, regardless of the size of its caucus.

Two weeks has brought change. Will it last two more years?

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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