Canada to spend up to $16B for F35 flighter jets -- Liberals to get in a tizzy

I still consider myself a Liberal, but the moral is weakening. We haven't had a leader for a while who has figured out how to do well at his job. All he needs to do is to win. Win a debate; win at competing photo ops; win on principle ... just win something. Winning a lot of things wins you an election.

Our Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is spending $9B to replace our fleet of F18 fighters, which will not be usable in ten years. The decision was made by cabinet without a competitive bid process.

Predictably, the Liberals smell a chance for a win. In a difficult economy with a soaring debt, how could the government throw billions of taxpayer dollars at such a thing; I mean, do we even face attack by air? Whom do we typically attack by air? Aren't we more of a search-and-rescue nation, than Top Guns?

Well, this is exactly why Mr. Harper will come out ahead on this issue. Perhaps he's even baiting Mr. Ignatieff, whose brilliance at studying human rights and history has not translated to triangulation and political sword fights. Here's why Harper and his Defence Minister, Peter MacKay, will win:

  • We are at war, The Afghanistan mission has galvanized support for the armed forces and, though we are nothing like the Americans, there is a sense of providing soldiers with the right equipment to do their job well. The fact that this war is scheduled to end for us far before these planes would be delivered is not too relevant; the war is based on a threat that is not ending.
  • Our military was not well funded for many years. In particular, some of the rescue of Canada's fiscal solvency in 1995 came at the expense of the military's budget. Canadians recognize that we have a poorly funded military; they accepted that during our transition from an imperial/colonial power supporting mother Britain to a liberal nation of peace-keepers. But pendulums swing back and this one is now.
  • Given our military's central place in our history, stretching from Vimy Ridge to Normandy, Desert Storm and Bosnia, the public will support a leader who takes actions to strengthen the Forces.
  • Canadians are broadly supportive of Harper's aggressive defence of our arctic sovereignty. That clearly takes more than snowmobiles and rifles; yes, it takes a strong Navy with icebreakers, but world class fighter jets making periodic passes over remote sovereign regions is arguably the height of patriotism. Opposing that is the visceral image of limpness. 
  • The Liberals would have done roughly the same thing; perhaps they would have had the illusion of multiple tenders, or perhaps they would have postponed the announcement to coincide with the release of a deficit reduction statistic, but I think people recognize that a Liberal government is unlikely to end the fighter capability of our Air Force. 
  • If the Liberals did meddle in such a need (not necessarily a strategic defence need, but a requirement for maintaining an air attack capability), it would repeat the foolish 1993 kept campaign promise to cancel the replacement of an outdated helicopter force. Our helicopters became a joke following that; but they didn't make a Tom Cruise movie about SAR helicopters; to have a fighter jets that break when they try to fight would be tragic.
  • As I wrote recently, voters like strong leaders. Unfortunately, this principle has been abused by at least one draft-dodging U.S. President who landed on an Aircraft Carrier within sight of San Francisco during a war. However, Harper has never come across as a war monger, and woe is the politician who favours a weakened military.

The Prime Minister who does not get his ass kicked

I was at a University of Toronto panel discussion on 9/11 the day Dalton Camp died. Evan Solomon, the moderator, spoke of his legacy. His friends will remember him for many things, but the sieve of history will likely note next to his name the aphorism: elections are not won, but lost.

It's a short, powerful message. Implicit, for me anyway, is that modern democracies are not relevant to the people who own them; the candidate seeking to govern us, and who comes to our door to discuss why and how, is an annoyance lumped in with electricity contract salespeople. Political leaders, who in Canada usually rise through the narrow career of legislator to become nearly de-facto heads of state, find themselves in power most often through the voters' rejection of their opponent, not through any superlative qualities of their own. Voters, at least in Canada, rarely select the superstar; they reject the leader who becomes a looser.

But it's my view that, particularly for generations that followed those who witnessed the mass adoption of television in the 1950's, politicians are judged as much on how good they are at politics as how good they are, or would be, at governing. In other words, voters form opinions first based on who would best do what they want, and second -- focusing on character -- on who is best equipped to not get his or her ass kicked.

Jean Chretien openly talks about how his anti-separatism Clarity legislation was proposed in the winter, because -- to paraphrase -- it is very hard to protest in Montreal in the winter. In a sense, he was doing the ass-kicking to people trying to destroy his country. We loved it.

Paul Martin, on the other hand, approached governing with a sense of fairness -- he himself called the inquiry into the Chretien era sponsorship spending and the inquiry ended his career. He was fair, but I think voters don't care. As the head of all of us we didn't want somebody who would kneel down before others. He got his ass kicked as the head of our country and the country rejected him.

Brian Mulroney swept to power by sweeping out almost two decades of Liberal rule. He conquered Canada and Canada loved him. In my view, his undoing was less related to the legislative successes of the GST and NAFTA than to the series of Ministerial resignations (fairness) and the defeat of Meech Lake (getting his ass kicked at the finish line). When Brian Mulroney could no longer hold his arms high is the winner of bout after bout, his career was done. Charlottetown was the knockout blow.

Despite the passion voters had for Barack Obama, he was largely elected on the rejection of the Bush legacy, piqued in the credit crisis. To succeed, he needs to continue to kick ass -- and he did not on health care. Had he lost that legislative skirmish his stature as a head of state would have been severely impaired; it's worth noting that none of this has anything to do with health care policy, which is both hardened socialism and a wet napkin, depending on who you ask.

In present times, Stephen Harper has demonstrated time and again that he is a better pugilist than his opponents. He scores punch after punch against Paul Martin, Stephane Dion and -- surprisingly -- Michael Ignatieff. Yes, Canadians care about policy. But they are smart enough to care about subtext as well, and Harper's subtext is that he -- the man we most see as the current head of not just our legislature but the 144 year-old thing called Canada  -- is a very good boxer.

Many Canadians despise him. But in my view they secretly prefer the guy who kicks ass to the guy whose ass is kicked.