This is extraordinary: a letter from a sitting prime minister to voters on the eve of a by-election. There are no rules on prime ministers’ participation in by-election campaigns, but Stephen Harper has tended to follow Jean Chretien’s practice of staying out. (I’m sure earlier prime ministers followed the same rule of thumb, but Chretien’s where I came into this business and started keeping track.) By-elections are unpredictable; the real-world stakes are low, and the potential for embarrassment disproportionately high. While opposition leaders always campaign in by-elections because opposition leaders are always praying for new momentum, there is nothing to be gained by a prime minister who links himself too closely to the outcome. If his party’s candidate loses, he wears it. Harper has not set foot in any of the ridings that will vote next Monday, but now he has sent a form letter over his signature to voters in Brandon-Souris.
The letter mentions the Liberals exclusively. The NDP, which came in second in 2011 with five times the Liberals’ vote, do not rate a mention in Harper’s letter. One gets the impression the Conservatives are worried about losing a seat that has gone Conservative (or, in Rick Borotsik’s day, Progressive Conservative) for seven elections in a row — a riding where the Liberals came in fourth in 2008 and 2011.
(There is always the possibility that the Conservatives’ research shows they are comfortably ahead in Brandon, and that Harper’s letter was written so that after the victory he’ll get credit. But that seems too clever by half. No, probably the Conservatives sent the letter because their campaign needs some help.)
So what case does Harper make? First, four paragraphs on the economy. Reporters tend to skip that stuff because it’s repetitive and boring to us, but there’s a reason why it goes at the top. If taxes and budget deficits were growing and Canada were last in the G7 for job growth, that would go at the top of Liberal voter-motivation letters.
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Second, nods to Conservative household gods: the elimination of the long-gun registry and the wheat-board monopoly, and a “tough’ stance on crime. But then comes the part that is making some Liberals apoplectic with the odd mix of amusement and nervousness Harper’s most audacious attacks always provoke in his opponents: “Justin Trudeau’s plan to legalize marijuana will make it more accessible to our kids and encourage recreational drug use.”
The argument in that sentence will be familiar to many Brandon-Souris voters who will have received this mailer at home during the campaign.
The Conservative plan to use Trudeau’s numerous comments on marijuana against him is much bigger than Brandon-Souris. On Nov. 7 I was driving from Sarnia to Toronto in a rental car. In three hours I heard a Conservative ad against Trudeau twice on commercial radio. That rate of repetition indicates a very heavy ad buy. The ad featured a mother’s voice worrying that Trudeau’s pot policies would make it easier for “our kids” to get drugs. The Conservatives are identified as the ad’s sponsor at the end.
The Conservatives have not announced these ads. I can find no transcript or online audio archive of their content. [UPDATE: Colleague David Akin at Sun News had better luck. Here's the audio.] But Twitter followers using the hashtag #SawAnAd, which a few of us scribes use to track unannounced party ad purchases, report hearing a lot of this ad across southern Ontario, in the Vancouver area, in Newfoundland and in Brandon.
I find most discussion of the Conservatives’ campaign against Trudeau on the pot issue to be monumentally complacent. Highly educated urban sophisticates have, almost universally, either used marijuana or been out with friends who used it. They are socialized to believe it’s no big deal and are floored when the Conservatives make a big deal about it. On Twitter some have expressed great hilarity at the notion that the Harper Conservatives are campaigning against Trudeau on pot in Vancouver, because as “everybody” knows, “everybody” in Vancouver smokes pot.
But Jodie Emery, who advocates for looser marijuana laws and whose husband Marc is in a U.S. jail on drug charges, gets it. “Vancouver has a big & growing immigrant community from strict anti-drug-use countries, so Harper Cons targeting them,” she wrote to me on Twitter.
What, on FM96 in London and Kool FM in Toronto? Not only. Those were just the stations I was listening to as I drove up from Sarnia. Here’s a Punjabi-language TV ad. You should really listen to the audio even if you’re not fluent in Punjabi:
But surely people are sophisticated, and surely they worry about the pernicious influence of drug prohibition, and all the lines we always hear when the subject of Conservatives, Trudeau and pot come up? I mean, surely nobody’s going to actually fall for this Conservative attack line?
Here’s the latest Nanos Party Power Index from the pollster Nik Nanos. It tracks general attitudes toward political parties by concocting a number that combines vote intention, “best PM” scores, and respondents’ assessments of leaders’ personal qualities. The Liberals have declined, by this admittedly rather fanciful measure, for four weeks in a row. In Ontario the decline has been 10 points in a straight line; in British Columbia, it’s 15 points. Go look at the graphs. Of course mainstream coverage of Trudeau’s comments on China, and of Tom Mulcair’s good work in the House of Commons, plays too, and in much of the country, maybe more. But I believe the pot ads are playing big.
One more thing. A month ago a Conservative political staffer sent me a transcript of Vancouver Quadra Liberal MP Joyce Murray’s appearance on a Cantonese-language Fairchild Radio open-line forum. It took me a few days to verify that it’s an accurate transcript, and I’ve ignored it since then because I’ve been out peddling a book. But Murray gets hammered by callers (who could as easily be partisan plants as on English-language radio, or then again, maybe they aren’t plants) for the Liberals’ stance on marijuana. A few excerpts:
[Host:] Now we have Mrs. Cheung. Hi Mrs. Cheung.
Hi good day to you and the lady. You guys only have two seats, don’t drag the Senate in, because if you count like that, then don’t the Conservatives have eighty-something seats? You can’t do that. Only two seats! Because [the Liberals] are corrupt, so they only have two seats.
What I also want to say is, you don’t put words into the Conservatives’ mouth. I’m not on anyone’s side, I’m not in any party. But don’t put words into their mouths saying they want to legalize marijuana. They stated clearly that marijuana is not to be legalized, just a few days ago. They launched that thing [free market in medical marijuana] because they are going to grow them collectively, because the police have said that it’s really hard to catch people, they are growing [marijuana] everywhere, claiming they are ill and then planting them. [The Tories] say you can’t do that, and from now on they must plant it at a centralized place, and you must get a doctor’s note proving that you really have cancer or are sick or in great pain, then you are allowed to buy it. It’s not that they launched this plan to go for the [legalization] path, don’t make things up. And the taxes they receive aren’t going to be beneficial to the parties that are friendly with them, [the money] is going to be used in the medical realm, they have already said that. The taxes are to be used on health care, to heal the drug addicts. So you make things clear and don’t lie to British Columbians. [Ottawa] made it clear that de-criminalization is not allowed, nor is it going to be legalized. That is only said by that dummy Justin Trudeau from the federal Liberal Party. He even takes drugs. He said many people in his family take marijuana, he said it himself.
I got you, Mrs. Cheung. Thank you very much for your question.
(In English) That was Mrs. Cheung. She said that the Conservatives made it very clear they will not legalize or decriminalize pot. The reason for the privatization of the marijuana production was to make it easier for police to enforce, make it easier to have the tax revenue, and it’s easier to keep security there. But at the end of the day, the Tories are still against the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana. So what’s your take on that?
Well that seems a little conflicting actually, I mean, your caller has just pointed out that the government thinks it’s safer to have government control of this medical marijuana for 30,000 people. The same logic applies to any of the marijuana. I think the questioner and your listeners need to ask themselves – is it better to have the criminal gangs control marijuana and fight over the profits, or is it better to have government control marijuana, tax it, and use [the money] for health care and seniors? Because really those are the choices that we have.
(In Cantonese) So Joyce answers Mrs. Cheung’s question saying that, what Mrs. Cheung said was actually a little conflicting, because how do you grow marijuana without regulating it? She said that now there are 30,000 people who need to use marijuana, and there are many who need it. So now who will be growing the marijuana for them to use? She said the fundamental question people should be asking is, do they want the marijuana to be controlled by gangs and have them fight on the streets for the profits, or have the government regulate it and decide who can or cannot get it, and also receive tax money for the treasury? People should seriously think about that.
Next we have Mr. Lau. Hi, Mr. Lau.
(In Cantonese) Hello. I want to tell this MP that she is really stupid. I’m afraid the host will translate wrongly, so I’ll say that she is very (in English) stupid.
(In Cantonese) Why? Because she can’t even distinguish between the recreational use of marijuana and the medical use of marijuana. The Supreme Court ruled that medical marijuana must be allowed, our government has no way to stop that, so they have to deal with it by centralizing. And this is correct, of course. Justin Trudeau’s was recreational use of marijuana, legalizing the casual use of marijuana for parties. [Murray] can’t even tell the difference between these two things, how could she be an MP? This person is really silly. What she repeated twice still has no logic. How could we elect such a person to be an MP?
(In Cantonese) Okay, thank you, Mr. Lau.
(In English) That was Mr. Lau. He said that we should make it clear between… the differences between recreational use marijuana and medical use marijuana, ’cause he said the Supreme Court has ruled that the medical use of marijuana cannot be prohibited, that’s why the Tories are setting up the privatized marijuana production to give them supply of medical use marijuana. But he said Justin Trudeau, the Liberals’ leader, is proposing a full legalization of recreational use marijuana, so… there must be a difference between the two.
Well, Mr. Lau, I would encourage Mr. Lau to think about the safety of our children and the safety of our streets. So whatever the marijuana is used for, if it’s controlled by gangs, they will be fighting over the profits, and they will be pushing it to young people, and that’s bad for the safety of our streets, and the safety of our citizens and our children. It’s better to have government control it. And that’s exactly what the Conservatives are doing. But let me link this to another key issue, and that’s the economy. The amount of taxation that will go into government’s hands rather than the profits going into the criminal gang’s hands to fight over on our streets with guns, is in the hundreds of millions of dollars in British Columbia alone, in the billions of dollars for going into the Canadian economy. So, currently, we have a Conservative government that has been making deficits ever since… before the recession even started. They have been spending money we do not have in Canada. They’ve increased the national debt by some hundred and sixty billion dollars since they were elected. So they should be thinking about how we can actually get out of debt, which is what the Liberals did under Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien. And marijuana can actually contribute to that, by putting it into the hands of government, and taking it out of the hands of gangs.
But here is my question. Does the purpose of use of marijuana matter here, whether it is medical use, whether it is recreational use, does it matter here?
No, not in terms of the fact that criminals controlling it is bad for kids and it’s bad for the safety of our streets. Because whether it is… the marijuana was intended to go to one of the 30,000 medical users, or to someone to use instead of drinking that bottle of scotch, either way the product was being controlled by the criminal gangs. They were making [inaudible] and that’s why the Conservatives made this change for the medical marijuana, because they knew that the gangs were controlling it, it’s bad for society, it’s bad for our kids, and it’s bad for the safety of our streets either way. So that’s why it needs to be controlled by government, whether it’s recreational or medicinal.
(In Cantonese) So just now Joyce was answering Mr. Lau’s question, saying that in fact, the most important thing is still the society’s safety. No matter what the marijuana is used for, medicine or recreation, as long as it goes into the hands of gangs, there will be danger. She said that, if marijuana is regulated, there will be a large amount of tax income, which can help the federal government leave deficit sooner and reduce national debt. She said that now the Conservatives are having a lot of debt issues. I asked if recreational or medical usages of marijuana is a focus in this discussion of marijuana legalization; and she answered that no matter what, currently marijuana is being controlled by gangs, that’s why the Conservatives want to control medical marijuana. But she said the most fundamental thing is that people should discuss whether marijuana is going to affect the society’s safety. If it will, then people should consider issues of decriminalization and legalization.
We now have Mr. Lui. Mr. Lui, can you make your question simpler?
Yes. Actually I think this MP is not just foolish, she is obstinate. Why? Because this marijuana is just a gateway drug. For drug users this is just a beginning. After marijuana, drug users usually take stronger drugs, like amphetamine, barbital, heroin, cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy), midazolam, and countless others, and there are still more strong synthetic drugs. So, in other words, if your government… if the Liberals are in power and buy up the marijuana market, do you think organized crime won’t go ahead and fight for the heroin, amphetamine, barbital, MDMA, cocaine, etc. markets? Markets for those other drugs are actually the main market. And if the Liberals come into power, would they go and buy up other drugs too? In that case, a Canada under Liberal rule would be no different from countries like Columbia, where the government is the drug lord, and those ruled will mainly be drug users and addicts, and [the country]’s productivity and taxes…. You said [the government] will be able to get tax income, but when [the people] don’t have the energy to produce, to create, to engage in economic productive activities, who would be able to pay tax to the government? If everybody is addicts…. That’s why I think they are not only stupid, but also obstinate.
Thank you Mr. Lui.
(In English) That was Mr. Lui’s question, but it was rather long, so I’ll take a commercial break right now and interpret it during the break, and we’ll get you to answer after the break.
Okay. Thank you.
I believe the Conservative campaign against Justin Trudeau on marijuana legalization is by far the most ambitious partisan exercise they have undertaken since their ad blitz against Michael Ignatieff in the first few months of 2011.