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Vancouver Sun, Thursday, June 23, 2005

Harper, Martin both need some judgment, not a makeover

by Barbara Yaffe

When talking about Stephen Harper's deficiencies as Conservative leader – which lately has been all the rage – it's useful to remember two things.

First, Harper's problem is far more fundamental than one of image; it pertains more to his poor political judgment.

Second, Paul Martin is every bit, if not more, in need of a makeover when it comes to his judgment.

Dealing first with Harper, who even in Conservative-minded B.C. has a lukewarm 38-per-cent approval rating – behind the two other national leaders – his image is quite okay. He doesn't need new eyeglasses or a different hairstyle.

Former Reform party leader Preston Manning, bookish and nerdy, needed a makeover. So did an excessively slick Stockwell Day, former Canadian Alliance leader.

Harper doesn't. He's just a standoffish guy, which won't change regardless of how many strawberry socials he attends this summer. And yes, he attended one in Ottawa Friday, as a prelude to a summer of BBQs and corn roasts, a facile agenda aimed at making him appear more engaging.

Canadians tried flamboyant and approachable (Brian Mulroney) and rejected it. For many Canadians, brilliant and charismatic (Pierre Elliott Trudeau) didn't go down well, either. Even avuncular and folksy (Jean Chretien) soon became unbearable.

When it comes to leaders, substance inevitably trumps style every time. How much did we care that Trudeau seemed sexy when the deficit ballooned and he introduced wage and price controls? Harper has done poorly in the leadership department because the truth is he lacks political antennae.

Were he more astute he'd have surrounded himself with staffers who could compensate for his shortcomings rather than reinforce them.

Press handler Carolyn Stewart-Olsen and top adviser Tom Flanagan both keep him cloistered and reinforce his seriousness and conservatism. Harper has difficult relations with the media.

He has waited too long to announce Conservative party policies.

He defended MP Gurmant Grewal and his absurd tape recordings instead of immediately disassociating himself from the whole affair.

But his most worrying mistake was failing to make welcome in his caucus two strategically important women – Deb Grey and Belinda Stronach, both of whom could have helped broaden the party's appeal. He allowed Conservatives at their March convention to nix a resolution calling for a youth wing which, again, could only have helped the party expand its base.

Instead of projecting an alternative vision of hope in response to Liberal pronouncements, Harper projects contempt.

He also shows a mean-spiritedness in refusing to allow former Progressive Conservative leadership candidate David Orchard anywhere near the party, or refund $70,000 the PCs have owed Orchard since his leadership bid.

Finally, Harper failed to foresee problems and erect a barrier between himself and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe – whom he has publicly called a straightshooter – as the two cozied up to plot the demise of the Liberal government through a mid-May confidence vote.

These mistakes don't reflect an image problem and won't be addressed by having deputy leader Peter MacKay play football with him on Parliament Hill.

But it's also important to remember that to focus exclusively on Harper's shortcomings is to overlook those of his rival, the prime minister.

Paul Martin is a colossal disappointment as leader, far better cast as a No. 2 man.

He has shown himself to be a self-absorbed political opportunist, giving in at every turn to those who can help perpetuate his power, regardless of the challenges it poses to the national ledger.

He's as guilty of patronage as his predecessors, giving numerous party hacks plum jobs. Martin is no longer believable in what he promises, having neglected to fulfil a commitment to address, as his first order of business, the democratic deficit and change the culture in Ottawa.

He has been labelled a ditherer, delaying decisions he doesn't feel comfortable making.

Polls are showing Canadians are indecisive, darting back and forth between Liberals and Conservatives. It's surely because neither leader impresses. Harper and Martin make the NDP's Jack Layton and even Duceppe look good.

This country is suffering a genuine crisis of political leadership.

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