Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tory politics exclusive, not inclusive

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222Today, the care and feeding of "the base" means kicking everyone else out the dance hall's door.

"Narrowcasting" is the term used by American Republicans and Canadian Conservatives to describe how they win elections by tending to the base above all else.

Forget about building an ever-bigger tent. The wider your ideological net, the more watered-down your principles must become. "Narrowcasting," the ceaseless promotion of the "red meat" issues that animate your base -- in the Conservatives' case, issues like guns, prisons and punitive employment insurance rules -- drives your core supporters to work, donate and proselytize their friends.

The Conservative base is older, male, predominantly Anglo-Saxon, upper income, college educated and faith-based. It's strong in Alberta, the West and rural Canada. The NDP base is the opposite. It's economically vulnerable, young, female, secular, university educated and urban. It's strong in B.C. and Quebec.

These demographics explain why the government isn't interested in younger Canadians and why it's the young who've sustained the most collateral damage inflicted by the government's 425-page omnibus budget bill. It unravels Canada's social and environmental safety net and launches a frontal assault on parliamentary government itself.

The massive legislation fairly bristles with initiatives that leave younger Canadians facing starkly bleaker life prospects than their parents.

Canadians 55 years and older -- the Conservative's core vote -- will collect old age security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement at age 65. But Canadians 55 years and under will have to work an additional two years, to age 67, before they qualify for the two programs, even though they contribute to them through their taxes and the parliamentary budget officer and most economists say the two-year delay is unnecessary as the program is actuarially strong.

One of the current government's ancestors is the far-right National Citizens' Coalition. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was its president from 1998 to 2002. One of its primary aims was to install American "right-to-work" laws in Canada, especially in the federal public service. "Right to work" is an Orwellian term designed to mask its objective of ensuring a worker's only right is to work for whatever wage the employer wants to pay.

It's hardly surprising the government has legislated a form of "right to work" in every labour dispute since winning its majority last May.

Canada Post employees were legislated back to work at a wage below what the Crown corporation offered. Air Canada pilots and mechanics and now, Canadian Pacific, with a quarterly profit of $142 million, are facing similar imposed contracts.

Bolstering its assault on collective bargaining, the government, again using the cover of the omnibus budget bill, is repealing the federal Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act, giving no explanation. The act required contractors bidding on federal works to pay "fair wages" and overtime. Not any longer.

The government is cutting off most avenues of appeal or redress from its decisions on employment insurance, refugee claims and disputes over access to the Canada Pension Plan, old age security and Guaranteed Income Supplement.

In future, cabinet ministers, not the auditor general, will monitor federal agencies, effectively turning ministers into their own watchdogs.

Ottawa is abolishing many of Canada's environmental laws and regulations. Everything from protecting fish habitat to Canada's world-renowned Experimental Lakes Program is slated to go. Strict time limits have been imposed on environmental reviews and cabinet has been given the power to override their decisions. Nothing can get in the way of exploiting and exporting the tarsands as quickly as possible.

Unstringing Canada's safety net will not affect the Conservatives' base. But it will affect younger Canadians struggling in an unstable labour market and facing skyrocketing housing costs and student debt.

The Conservatives don't need to worry. Soft issues like equality and social and economic justice don't motivate their base, only their opponents', those younger people they don't want and don't expect to vote. So far, their expectations have proved accurate.

In the former era of big-tent parties and a healthy democracy, all parties competed to attract the largest number of voters across the ideological spectrum. No more. Today's competition is about who best narrowcasts to his base.

"It's a proven model of success for electoral support," says one pollster. "You may not be one of the groups that benefits, but you see people you identify with benefiting."

Whatever this is, it isn't democracy. It's why younger Canadians aren't voting. And why the Conservatives couldn't be happier.

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg

author and political commentator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 30, 2012 A12

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