Ill winds blowing for ship of state

Not much is more certain to blow a government off course than events. First observed by former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, that old axiom is Stephen Harper’s new reality.

Not much is more certain to blow a government off course than events. First observed by former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, that old axiom is Stephen Harper’s new reality.

Days ago, Conservatives had a breeze at their back. Now they’re twisting in winds they can’t control.

First, there were those big, blue, bogus stimulus cheques and then came the swine flu with its viral mix of fear, confusion and queue-jumping.

Now, watchdogs are barking at a too-sunny economic forecast and who-cares crisis readiness.

Each alone would be a problem for any government. Together they threaten the trend Conservatives count on to transform their minority into a future majority.

Given the violence of political pendulum swings, Harper could still grasp his Holy Grail.

Liberals remain in disarray, and 2010, beginning with the Olympics and continuing through a long list of events that flatter prime ministers, is particularly promising.

But it’s also true that the cornerstone of Conservative success is suddenly stressed and in danger of cracking.

Canadians who decided that the ruling party is competent to manage the nation’s affairs now have worrying personal reasons to reconsider that assumption.

Their conclusion always made too light of the weight of evidence.

Along with missing an imminent recession and hiding inevitable deficits, the faux-economist Harper gnawed through an inherited $13 billion surplus with politically charged tax cuts and runaway spending.

Kevin Page, the federal budget officer Conservatives put in place and are now trying to silence, is contradicting the Conservative claim that the return of good times will rescue the country from long-term structural deficits.

If Page is prescient – and his gold standard work to date only inspires confidence – Harper will have to break his word not to raise taxes or cut services to balance Ottawa’s books.

Page isn’t alone in finding fault. A single thread weaves through Auditor General Sheila Fraser’s Tuesday reports on the government’s performance. From preparing for emergencies to guarding against abuse of foreign workers to delivering foreign aid, Conservatives boast a better game than they play.

That criticism is hardly unique: Fraser became a national icon, as well as a local voice of sanity, by showing no fear or favour in her eviscerations. But her latest deconstructions are a direct challenge to the carefully crafted illusion that Conservatives are delivering the better government they promised.

Strip that illusion away and what’s mostly left is a highly secretive, hyper-partisan administration benefiting by favourable comparison to a fractured opposition that has yet to convince voters it could do any better.

A similar dynamic helped Liberals form four successive governments, a string broken only when citizens, taxpayers and voters lost trust in the party’s ethics and competence.

Conservatives haven’t reached that tipping point. Their ability to fashion broad support from narrow interests is unmatched, as is the positive perception of the prime minister’s leadership.

But events that blow governments off course also expose frailties. Winds that once filled Harper’s sails are now in his face, slowing momentum and whipping doubt into dust devils.

Jim Travers writes for The Toronto Star Syndicate.

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