Harper didn’t have to run on a culture war

How the values debate could be hurting the Conservatives and helping the Liberals

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper attends a campaign event at William F. White International in Etobicoke, Ont., Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/CP)

Stephen Harper attends a campaign event at William F. White International in Etobicoke. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/CP)

“Crib death.”

Those chilling words hung in the air as a small group of Conservatives gazed up at the grizzled campaign veteran, Doug Finley. This was just a small nomination race back in the late 1990s, but Finley—eventually Sen. Finley—was honing a strategy he would go on to use as campaign director for the Conservative party and as one of the chief architects of Stephen Harper’s rise to power.

“Crib death,” Finley repeated, his thick Scottish brogue lending a mossy layer of gravitas to the phrase.

Finley’s morbid point was to illustrate how they planned to destroy their opponent before the race even began. Frame the opposition early, then suffocate them—metaphorically, of course. According to a Conservative who was in the room, this has always been the core strategy of Conservative campaigns. “We beat them before they even know they’re in a fight.”

Campaigns are all about the quick and the dead. For a decade, the Conservatives have been quick, the others politically dead. It’s not for the squeamish. Finley died in 2013, but the legacy of his work lives in every campaign.

Michael Ignatieff: “Just visiting.” Dead. Stéphane Dion: “Not a leader.” Dead. Justin Trudeau: “Not ready.” Well . . . hang on a moment. That one doesn’t seem to be working as well. With days left to go, Trudeau is very much . . . not dead. What’s changed?

The answer is Stephen Harper himself. Instead of defining his opponents, he’s defined himself, and he might not be able to escape his own trap. Harper has gone from the outsider, the man who would clean up Ottawa—yes, that Stephen Harper really was the face of long overdue change—to the man who fears change. Who fears everything.

Fear of barbaric acts. Fear of powerful pot. Fear of deficits, even though Harper used deficits so strategically to stimulate the economy during the Great Recession. It’s remarkable: He’s actually running hard against some of his most lauded and effective economic policies. That’s a tough rebrand.

But it’s fear of the niqab that has been most defining, and most destructive, especially from a party that has done more than any other to reach out to immigrant communities. Conservatives are rightly proud of the work Jason Kenney has done with so-called “ethnic” voters. It has been crucial to their victories in areas such as the 905 around Toronto.

But when the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, Calgary imam Syed Soharwardy—a man who has worked closely with the RCMP to combat Islamist radicalism and who has been threatened by ISIS—says he believes Harper has actively targeted Muslims for political gain, you have to stop and listen. “It’s hate-mongering,” Soharwardy said, describing the niqab debate. Rabia Khedr, the spokesperson for the Federation of Muslim Women, told me she feels “unwanted” in her own country. These comments cannot be ignored. It’s one thing to have genuine policy disagreements. Good, we need that. It’s another to have serious people believing their ethnic group is being targeted for political gain.

Fear-mongering is par for the campaign course—all parties engage in it—but the culture war over the niqab has whipsawed the conversation from policies over to values. I’ve heard all the defences of the position: It’s popular in Quebec; most Canadians agree with it. But is that the point? Populism may be about strategy, but isn’t governing about responsibility?

I’m not sure the values debate even makes strategic sense for the Conservatives. It certainly isn’t where they started. Early in the campaign, a senior Conservative outlined the party’s original plan: lots of detailed, hard-core policy debates about substantial issues to show how much more competent Harper is than Trudeau. That didn’t work. Trudeau fought Harper to a draw on issues of substance, exceeding the low expectations the Conservatives set. Enter the values debate.

The trouble for Harper is, Trudeau has always wanted this campaign to be about values, trust and change. If Trudeau had his choice of weapons in a fight against Harper, he’d take charisma over calculators every day. By making the election about values, Harper has defined himself in the negative, opening the door for Trudeau to talk about what Conservatives dismiss as all that “hopey, changey” stuff.

Harper is fundamentally an incremental radical. Slowly, over a decade, he’s bled the capacity of the central government to interfere in the daily lives of the citizens and, in so doing, he’s remade the country in a more conservative hue. It’s been a winning formula, as Paul Wells wrote brilliantly in his last book. Harper has a record of substance to run on. He has a real philosophy of government. He didn’t have to resort to a culture war.

Of course, it’s lurked in the background. Harper’s success has always been fuelled by a narrative of victimization: that the West is put down by Laurentian elites, that the media are fundamentally against his mission. How ingrained is it? Just last week, a senior minister I spoke with blamed a pollster for releasing data showing the Conservatives in the lead. “They wheel out a push poll to tell non-CPC voters to unite/work harder.” Really? Talk about not taking being able to take a compliment. It sounded as though they’re almost . . . afraid to win.

Sometimes the stories we tell define others. But sometimes those stories—especially the nasty ones—start to define us. And that could be Stephen Harper’s biggest fear of all.


Harper didn’t have to run on a culture war

  1. I find it interesting that a senior minister is basically admitting the CPC know the majority of Canadians want to unite the vote against them. It is telling that s/he complains the media are not playing along with their plan to make Canadians believe the CPC will not benefit from split vote.

    So basically, “we are trying to trick Canadians, and the media are using dirty tricks to prevent us from doing so”.

  2. ” Slowly, over a decade, he’s bled the capacity of the central government to interfere in the daily lives of the citizens…”

    He’s enhanced the government’s capacity to interfere in the daily lives of citizens.
    What he’s bled is the government’s capacity to help it’s citizen’s and communities.

  3. Harper has always run a background culture war during his political career. It’s fronted by always choking off information that conflicts with marketing his political brand.
    This long election gave everyone time to parse the Harper message, and the conclusion seems to be it’s not aligned with our Canadian values.

  4. Polls are still close, as our electoral system is NOT based on the percentage points but the number of seats. Harper ridings are very well distributed and noting that conservatives are always underestimated a few points, polls are much closers than they appear. Here are updated swing ridings including mega data of all polls today: (hapernomore.weebly.com) let’s work together to elect progressives :)

  5. Poor Evan, still practicing that biased journalism and still can’t draw a crowd – here or on the radio. Why not give it up and stay in the art biz. Oh wait……

    • You sound kind of bitter. Things not going your way?
      Take those grumpies to the curb and await the coming dawn
      Tomorrow will be a better day

  6. Harper is so desperate that he is relying on The ‘Australian rottweiler’ Lynton Crosby to mislead and divide us.

    Crosby is not serving the best interests of Canadians. He is the modern electoral PR hitman for parties in dire straits. He is hired to stir the pot of resentment and undermine hopes for change. His very existence suggests that democracies are shadows of their actual function, operating on traditional platforms of populism when required.

    His aggressive style includes negative campaigning, so-called “wedge politics” tactics that have rallied voters fearful of immigration, crime, terrorism and controversial social issues that split voter opinion in their favour.

    Thankfully the majority of Canadians are not buying the fear and will be throwing out this farce of a government come election day.

    • Crosby has jumped ship, actually.

  7. It’s very difficult for a politician to conceal their true values and motivating factors for long periods.

    If your decisions are made primarily from a place of resentment, fear and a perceived need for retribution, this is going to show through. As it has for Harper. I’m not sure I buy that Harper has changed as much as his public persona has changed. If anything, Harper becoming increasingly emboldened by a decade in power paired with a sudden desperation at the risk of losing it, has allowed the tightly scripted PR layers to get stripped back and reveal the man inside.
    And watching him now fan the flames of bigotry, trying to sell these mind-numbingly absurd and crude caricatures of his opponents, and desperately grasping on to even Rob Ford as one last hope for support, reveals a sleaze and unprincipledness that simply doesn’t come from a place of hope, integrity or thoughtfulness.

  8. Harper’s actually bringing the country closer together – in our collective need to get rid of him!

  9. The majority of Canadians are united in the view that Harper hasn’t represented us well for a long time.

  10. Stephen Harper hasn’t been up against a guy as functional as Trudeau before. There’s something implacable about Trudeau. He doesn’t care what Harper thinks about him. He’s a pretty balanced guy and it’s a relief to see that in political life. Plus Harper’s time is up. It reminds me of that guy (Roy Cohn?) who started the fall of McCarthy when he said “Have you no shame, sir?” (Something like that.) It broke the spell McCarthy had over people, just saying what hadn’t been said in public. And then McCarthy was finished. With Trudeau, his power is just demonstrating that Harper can’t destroy everyone who runs against him.So Harper can only talk about fear now. All hat, no cattle.

  11. Still waiting, waiting, waiting for the draft text of the TPP and for my MP Diane Finley to make ANY all candidate debates in my riding…..I guess she doesn’t want to meet with ‘the little people’ she just expects them to elect her.

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