by Brian Lee Crowley

Kim Campbell got in trouble in 1993 for suggesting federal election campaigns were no time to discuss something as difficult and complex as policy. This election has certainly proved her wrong. Stephen Harper in particular has turned his campaign into a policy fiesta, emulating Mike Harris’s first winning election, in which the leader’s tour more or less unveiled a “policy a day.”

But while campaigns are a reasonably good place to discuss policy, that doesn’t mean you can just make them up as you go along. Well, you can, but it usually comes back to haunt you. It also doesn’t mean all policy ideas are equally worthwhile or will resonate with the voters.

Take, as an example, Paul Martin’s attempt in the leaders’ debate on Monday evening to turn the Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ notwithstanding clause into an election issue. Many pundits were struck by the boldness of Martin’s ploy; few of us can recall the last time a leader of a major party used a televised leaders’ debate to put forward a brand new policy.

Politicians usually like to make policy announcements where they control both the audience and the reception their idea will get. That’s why announcements about child care are almost always made with the leader surrounded by tiny tots – not usually known for their tough political questioning, although they can be tenacious when they want a chocolate bar at the supermarket checkout.

In thinking about Martin’s risky strategy, there are two matters worth some reflection. Is his idea a good one? And what is he hoping to achieve?

This is not the place to debate the notwithstanding clause. Readers of my column will know that I think it was an honourable and reasoned compromise that was indispensable to the Charter’s creation in 1982. The clause strikes a characteristically Canadian balance between the role of courts and elected officials in defining our rights and responsibilities.

But it is equally honourable to take the view that rights should be outside the realm of electoral politics and can safely be entrusted to the sole care of unelected judges. So while I don’t agree with his idea, it’s a perfectly valid one and worthy of serious reflection.

There’s the rub. In introducing the idea in the way he has, Mr. Martin cannot help but raise suspicions that his purpose is not a sincere effort to reform the Constitution, but rather to use the Constitution as a political weapon to bash Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.

Now, all’s fair in love and election campaigns, but remember Mr. Martin himself has already promised on at least one occasion to use the clause himself. In the debate on gay marriage, in response to fears the courts might force churches to violate their religious principles to perform gay marriages, Martin promised he would use the clause if necessary to prevent that. This is reasonable, but it also demonstrates that Mr. Martin’s views on the clause and the Charter, far from proceeding from deep conviction, are rather … malleable.

In fact, Mr. Martin’s surprising tactic can really only be properly understood as an attempt to change the subject. The election has so far been clearly dominated by questions of trust and confidence in the Liberal party. If, on election day, the question in voters’ minds is “Do I trust the Liberals enough to give them control of the government again?” the polls suggest the answer will be No.

That means Paul Martin must change the question people are asking themselves. He succeeded at this last time by portraying the Tories as a party that cannot be trusted with political power, not because they are corrupt, but because they will use that power in ways that are extreme and therefore unCanadian.

Some political leaders, as The Economist magazine pointed out the other day, are brilliant at changing the subject. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton did it regularly. George W. Bush is much less adept, and the same was true of Jimmy Carter.

Paul Martin is trying hard to change the subject. He wants people to focus on the question of whether the Tories can be entrusted with power. The subtext now will be that the Liberals offered to get rid of the clause, the Tories refused; ergo, the Tories have a hidden agenda of social conservatism that can only be applied by regular recourse to the override.

A vigorous debate about the notwithstanding clause would be a very good and timely thing, and an election campaign would be a quite appropriate time to start that debate. But Paul Martin’s transparent attempt to change the subject for partisan political advantage is no way to engage such a significant discussion about the nature of Canada and how best to reconcile rights and democracy.

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Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax.