TORONTO (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, stung by criticism over his government’s slow response to the Syrian refugee crisis, shifted the focus of his re-election campaign to national security on Friday, a move analysts said brings the politics of fear to a deadlocked race.
Seeking a rare fourth term in office, Harper’s pivot just a month before the election positions his Conservative campaign squarely on national security and uncertain risks.
“On Oct. 19, you will have to choose between experience and the unknown, between security and risk,” Harper told a crowd of supporters in Quebec. “Security and experience, that’s what Conservative candidates offer.”
Harper shuffled his campaign staff this week and began repeating the message that his nine-year-old government is best placed to protect Canadians from global threats.
“When Canadians stand together against ISIS, we stand in support of Canadian values and in defense of our way of life,” Harper tweeted on Friday.
Harper’s use of the new tactic comes amid news of the hiring of Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby, who helped British PM David Cameron snatch improbable victory in May, to reshape the party’s message and help him claw back flagging poll support.
A social media campaign has criticized tactics employed by Crosby, who has been accused of playing to racist instincts of Australians and Britons to help conservatives win elections there.
Political analysts said that in Canada and elsewhere anti-immigration messages are a strong motivator among right-leaning voters.
“It’s one of those topics where he has to keep the base in line, so he has to keep talking about jihad and the terrorist threat,” said Scott Staring, a professor at Georgian College.
“He’s had a terrible campaign so far, but he is trying to switch into a different mode right now. The hiring of the Australian campaign manager is part of that.”
Earlier this month, Harper was criticized for lacking compassion after media reported that the migrant family of a Syrian toddler - whose body washed up on Turkish beach and focused global attention on the crisis - was trying to come to Canada, turning the campaign into a referendum over how many refugees Canada should accept.
The centre-left opposition Liberals and New Democrats have railed against Canada’s slow refugee process and pledged to do more to accept additional refugees from the war in Syria. Harper has spoken instead about the importance of the military campaign against ISIS and the need to protect Canadians from the threat of terrorism.
Pollster Frank Graves said on Friday that Harper’s response to the refugee issue has shored up the Conservative base and played to Harper’s strengths among voters worried about unchecked immigration.
“He has gotten some of the lapsed Conservative voters, ambivalent Conservatives, back into the fold,” said Graves, whose latest EKOS poll showed only 12 percent of Conservative voters believe Canada should increase its intake of refugees.
Graves and Staring said it’s the same populist approach that has worked in countries such as Australia, Britain and the United States, and Graves said his polling shows it is now working in Harper’s favor - particularly among older, uneducated men.
“In the advanced Western world we’re seeing a rise in xenophobia, brought on in some part by a stagnant economy, and we’re definitely seeing this sort of pattern expressing itself in the fear-based populism and resistance to immigration ... this is not unique to Canada,” Graves said.
Among Conservative voters, Harper has found support.
“Do we have housing for them? Are they going to assimilate?” Ontario insurance agent Marg Ens, 57, said of the refugees.
“I kind of agree with the Prime Minister. We don’t know who they are. They have no papers. How do we do background checks on these people?” the Collingwood, Ontario, voter told Reuters.
The shift to code-word politics has not been lost on Harper’s opponents, including New Democrat Member of Parliament and foreign policy critic Paul Dewar.
“They’ve framed the refugee issue as a security issue, with a dollop of fear in with that, that if we take these people in, this could be dangerous,” Dewar told Reuters on Friday. “And it’s of course a red herring.”
Liberal candidate Rob Oliphant, whose Toronto riding is among the most ethnically diverse in the country, said the Conservative appeal to fear will drive ethnic voters who are otherwise morally and fiscally conservative back to the Liberal fold.
“There is absolutely no doubt that when Mr Harper is talking about citizenship, and attempting to get his base behind him, he is losing votes in those vulnerable newcomer communities that are worried,” said Oliphant, who lost his seat in 2011 to a Conservative challenger.
Political scientist Staring said Harper’s shift has risks, and he’ll have to walk a fine line to hold his base without alienating moderates.
“He can’t grow his support beyond his base unless he nabs some center-right voters, and he’s not going to get those voters by going too strong with the fear mongering. I think he has to be careful right now.”
With additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Collingwood and Randall Palmer in Ottawa; Editing by Ken Wills