Just how anxious are we?
Are we fearful that jihadists will infiltrate the masses fleeing Syria and land on our shores?
Are we concerned that allowing women to take the citizenship oath with their face covered will somehow render the fabric of the Canadian family?
Do we lie awake at night believing fiscal deficits will lead us to ruination or that an NDP government federally would somehow replicate the “unmitigated disasters” of their provincial cousins?
There is no doubt Stephen Harper can claim a constituency on each of the above propositions he is putting to voters. If he can begin to move voters on two or more of those elements of doubt he has sown, he can build from his base and start reaching for a minority government on Oct. 19.
All three propositions are highly debatable, but each has a grain of truth that will appeal not only to Conservatives, but possibly the soft Liberals the Conservatives are courting.
Let’s look at each in isolation.
Conservatives deserve credit for moving to streamline the refugee acceptance process in this country, a week after announcing they will match humanitarian aid pledged by Canadians.
Canadians and the opposition parties also deserve credit for pushing Harper off a position that badly misjudged the level of compassion in this country.
Now that they have responded, however, the Conservatives still find it impossible to move off their baseless message that their opponents would forsake security for expediency.
Immigration Minister Chris Alexander quite reasonably says we cannot ignore the risk of jihadi terrorists seeking to exploit the generosity of nations such as Canada.
But Conservatives don’t stop there.
At last week’s economic debate, Harper made this claim: “These guys would have had, in the last two weeks, us throwing open our borders and literally hundreds of thousands of people coming without any kind of security check or documentation.’’
Neither NDP Leader Tom Mulcair nor Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has ever suggested airlifting refugees to this country without security checks. No one ever called for hundreds of thousands. The three parties can differ on numbers and timelines and argue over “political will,” but for Harper to suggest the opposition parties are not concerned about security is flat out fear-mongering.
Similarly, Harper’s decision to seek a stay on a court decision allowing Zunera Ishaq to cover her face during a citizenship ceremony is playing to fears of something different, something vaguely threatening.
When Conservatives argue — as they have intermittently — that their objection to the niqab is rooted in its oppression of women, they can spark a rational debate, but Harper rarely tries to make that case.
Harper is not promising to go as far as some of our European allies. France banned face coverings in public places in 2011 and Belgium was close behind with its own law. The Dutch cabinet passed a partial ban in public places such as schools, hospitals and public transport this year.
But Harper’s argument that an “open, tolerant, pluralistic’’ society demands we reveal our face when seeking to join the Canadian family is disjointed. Surely, an open, tolerant and pluralistic society would tolerate a woman from Pakistan who wishes to join this family being allowed to do so while honouring a custom sacrosanct to her.
This is not necessarily a Conservative “wedge issue,” used for short-term campaign gain.
They have vowed to reintroduce legislation banning the niqab at citizenship ceremonies within 100 days of being re-elected.
Lastly, on the economy, Harper is now vowing to “protect” the fragile economy — protect it from big deficits from Trudeau or those abject failures of NDP governments which Mulcair is sure to replicate.
Mulcair may yet rue the day he fell into the balanced budget trap, but he can make a cogent case for New Democrats balancing the budget. He need only point to previous administrations in Manitoba and Saskatchewan while Harper points to previous and current NDP governments in Ontario and Alberta to raise doubts.
Conversely, anyone can point to previous Conservative provincial governments — or the Harper government — that have run deficits because balancing the books is more often the product of circumstances rather than ideology.
Raising doubts about the unknown is a tempting target for an incumbent desperately trying to hang on one more time.
Fear is the trump card against change. Harper is betting that the unknown is scary, and he will argue that only he can protect us from the bad guys, whether they are coming to our shores or are already here waiting to kill your job or endanger your investments.
But a month out, it is an open question as to whether there is enough fear in the land in 2015 to play to Harper’s agenda.