What’s up next for PM Stephen Harper? A Maclean’s round table

Paul Wells, John Geddes and Aaron Wherry talk politics


As the federal Conservatives head into the summer without the  Calgary convention that was meant to serve as a cornerstone of their political year, Maclean’s convenes its Ottawa bureau ‹ — Paul Wells, Aaron Wherry and John Geddes ‹ — for a discussion of the party’s current situation and prospects. 


If it had happened on schedule, this was shaping up to be the most important Conservative convention since 2005, when the then-new party agreed on the policy direction that would take it to power less than a year later. The Conservatives had conventions in Winnipeg in 2008 and Ottawa in 2011, but those were mostly victory laps after winning elections. The 2011 convention had a strong “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” tone to many of the deliberations and voting outcomes. The Progressive Conservative rump around Peter MacKay had no trouble fighting off an attempt to change the way the party picks its leaders. Nobody wanted to change anything much. Doing things the way they’d been doing them had brought them triumph.

Now so much has changed. Conservatives are nervous; the party is in a funk after some nasty scandals, defections and misfires. Questions like “How should we pick the next leader?” are more salient, because Conservatives are starting to realize it won’t always be a hypothetical question.

And for the first time since 2005, Stephen Harper doesn’t have a recent win to celebrate. This convention was designed, in part, to give him a chance to relaunch. Now he’ll have to do that in other ways. His office is looking for another forum for him to deliver his much-touted speech, because some of it can’t wait until September. And by September, the convention’s peculiar significance may already have faded. Some of the tale of what happens next will already be told by then.


I would tend to agree that this feels like an important moment in the story of Stephen Harper (someone should really write a book about his time in power). And I suppose that groups of people can have one of two responses to a moment of existential crisis: they can either rally together or they can turn on each other.

The latter is certainly a possibility. And history would suggest that all political coalitions eventually fall apart. Brent Rathegeber’s exit, or at least the reasons for his decision to leave, could hint at a great split in the conservative psyche. Further, you can certainly concoct a scenario in which we are witnessing the unraveling of Mr. Harper’s premiership. But then the Conservative mentality lends itself to rallying.

What separates the Conservative from the Liberal (and links the Conservative and the New Democrat) is a belief that he is the underdog: beset on all sides by powerful interests and elites who think they know better than the common man. “New Democrats know that we can’t count on the corporate media elites to help us out,” Thomas Mulcair’s principal secretary told the crowd in Montreal during the April NDP convention. “They are too busy predicting doooom and gloooom for the NDP.” Insert “Conservatives” and “the Conservative party” and you have a message Mr. Harper is fond of delivering.

For as much as Conservatives might not be happy with Mr. Harper’s government, they still surely prefer it to Justin Trudeau, Thomas Mulcair and the Toronto Star. So perhaps Mr. Harper can rally his nervous party around common enemies and whatever ideals haven’t been trampled by what his government has actually done these last few years. An actual agenda for the next two years might help. And he should hope that neither Nigel Wright nor Mike Duffy ever make news again. But in the meantime, Mr. Harper can say that his surname is not “Trudeau.” And maybe that’s enough to make everyone feel better. For a minute or two.


Aaron’s point about the Conservatives’ self-image is key. They like to think of themselves as an insurgency rather than an establishment party. That’s one of the main problems with the Nigel Wright fiasco: a Bay Street millionaire writing a $90,000 cheque to try to solve a political problem did not seem like the act of a scrappy outsider. So beyond the ethical issues, it’s a bitter thing for Conservative true-believers to see their government behaving that way.

And I’m intrigued by Paul’s comparing of the Prime Minister’s challenge with what he faced back in 2005 in Montreal. Back then Harper’s aim was to position the new Conservatives as electably moderate. To grossly simplify what happened in Montreal, his prime task on policy there was largely defensive‹: prevent politically problematic aims (notably on abortion and bilingualism) from being adopted as new party’s official goals. But these days, instead of playing defense, he needs to be proposing policy directions interesting enough to fuel his Conservative government’s drive to a 2015 election.

As well, there’s a performance question from which policy can almost be stripped away. At some point, Harper is going to deliver some version of that big speech. For years, I think his ability to connect with his base‹ — in person, in a packed room‹ — has been underrated. They don’t expect fireworks. They appreciate his effort. Or at least, they did. But then he delivered that awful May 21 speech to his caucus — ‹with the media in the room so the whole country could watch‹ — when he tried to stop the bleeding on the Wright-Duffy fiasco.

And that widely panned outing was his last big speaking moment before… before whatever the next one turns out to be, since it won’t be Calgary. Tories who were paying attention will want to see if he can rebound. Any hint that he’s lapsing again into that morning’s weirdly detached tone‹ — when he utterly failed to resonate with the sense of outrage in the room and at large — ‹is liable to be deeply disappointing.


While we were writing this exchange, a data point appeared that puts some of this crisis atmosphere in context: a new Léger Marketing poll that puts the Conservatives on 29% in national voter support, behind the Trudeau Liberals on 37%. That’s within a point, for each party, of the result in the 2004 election, the last one the Liberals won. Polls are for dogs, but I’m actually struck by how high the Conservative number is. After the worst month I can remember for Harper since the 2008 coalition crisis, he’s still got his base. It looks like the Conservatives are down but far from out. (An Abacus poll a few days later shows something similar: The Liberals have 29% of the decided vote, the Conservatives 27%. Lousy for the governing party, but not doomed.)

But the horse race isn’t everything. As we’ve been reminded by recent events, whoever wins an election needs to govern. It amazes me, the extent to which it’s unclear what Harper wants to do, now, with the only job he’s ever loved. At the beginning of 2012 in Davos he described several “major transformations” he’d undertake to ensure long-term prosperity. Today it reads like a graveyard of lost ambitions. Trade pivot to Asia? Canada-EU trade deal? Policy overhaul to encourage industrial innovation? All gone bye-bye. I can find no mention of China in any speech he has given in 2013, except when he took delivery of the pandas, a stunt I suspect he may now actually regret.


Conversely, it’s amazing to me how little Mr. Trudeau has had to do to get that far ahead of the Conservatives (yes, yes, Michael Ignatieff and Thomas Mulcair once led the Conservatives too, but not by quite as large a gap).

So what do Conservatives plan to do now? It would be interesting to know what the Conservative id would truly wish its party to do with the next two years. Rob Anders recently rhymed off a wish list: eliminate the capital gains tax and the GST, defund the CBC, shut down the Business Development Bank of Canada and Export Development Canada and end regional development agencies. But Mr. Harper is not for bold gestures and even less fond of bold words. That speech in Davos, remember, was followed by assurances that the changes to Old Age Security and the like were not a big deal. He’d much rather keep making small, but important, changes to the way government functions and conservatism is perceived while assuring you that he’s only just minding the shop in a responsible manner.

Does he need to be bold now? I¹m not sure. I think Mr. Mulcair has learned from Mr. Harper’s success in “Don’t worry, we’re not going to do anything too interesting” approach. And Mr. Trudeau doesn’t seem about to propose anything like raising taxes. So maybe now Mr. Harper can be bold. Or maybe he can just stick to what’s worked: slow, steady governance and sharp, vicious attacks on his rivals and their ideas.


I’m also struck by that Léger poll, but what jumps out at me is how poorly the NDP is faring. They’re down three points from March, to a dismal 21 per cent, and Thomas Mulcair is seen as the best PM by just 14 per cent, way back of Harper’s 23 per cent and Trudeau’s 27 per cent. This despite the fact Mulcair garnered such widespread positive reviews and upbeat press for his QP performance after news of Wright’s cheque to Duffy broke.

So what might this tell Tories? Oddly, they might very well wish Mulcair’s prosecutorial QP style was translating into a poll bounce. That would create more of an even split between the NDP and the Liberals. And increasingly I think Conservative strategists must be concentrating on the left-of-centre divvying up of votes. Look at those 905 seats around Toronto, probably the key battleground for 2015. To hold their own in those Œburbs, the Conservatives need three-way contests.

But even if the NDP/Liberal split levels out, Harper needs a lot better than 29 per cent to win. Aaron says the PM’s track record suggests he might stick with a steady, unsurprising style of governing, and hope that’s enough. Not a bad bet. But even if the voting public isn¹t necessarily looking for excitement, doesn’t Harper need a few signal accomplishments, likely on economic files, to show he hasn’t frittered away his majority?

I know some NDP strategists thought he would go into next fall hoping to sell himself as a winning economic manager, by highlighting how he got beef into Europe (an EU trade deal) and oil into the U.S. (a favourable Obama decision on Keystone). What if neither of those things come to pass, though? Or only one of them? I think Harper needs to establish new, achievable goals.


What’s up next for PM Stephen Harper? A Maclean’s round table

  1. With more than 2 years to go to an election, I’m not sure you can draw too many conclusions from a couple of polls

    • Especially with the media doing it’s damnedest to keep fake scandals alive. Once Trudeau’s no longer being hidden in party back rooms, and people start to understand what an empty suit he is, we’ll see that ever predictable drop in the polls for the Liberals, and the party brains will be confounded and unable to figure out what the hell happened. See: Dion, Ignatieff.

      • The fake scandals prove that The Conservative government of today that has Stephen Harper as its leader has much in common as the Liberal government of Chretien from 2000.

      • Wouldn’t call them fake scandals, but I’m skeptical about whether they’re electorally salient.

        Broad policy differences matter more than a few thousand bucks here and there…

  2. “… Conservatives’ self-image is key. They like to think of themselves as an insurgency rather than an establishment party. That’s one of the main problems with the Nigel Wright fiasco: a Bay Street millionaire writing a $90,000 cheque to try to solve a political problem did not seem like the act of a scrappy outsider.”


    I’m always dismayed, but never surprised by the 25-30% support by the base. It just reminds me that facts are only opinions reinforced by truth. The more ancient and less peer-reviewed a text is, the more these so-called conservatives trust it as factual.

    • Yeah, but Justin Trudeau making $277,000 in double dipping won’t go over too well with the voters!

      • Those clumsy attacks are backfiring as we see how the cons really operate.

        Yes, Justin Trudeau had outside income. He made about $70K per year, from 3 or 4 speaking engagements. Most MPs have outside incomes and on the whole, conservatives make more – mostly from their buddies in big business.

        The cons hide it, but it’s not hard to find. Trudeau actually believes in transparency and opened his books. He also had everything approved by the ethics commissioner in advance instead of waiting to get caught like the cons do.

        You won’t see this in attack ads either – Trudeau has not stooped to muck raking. There are plenty of potential targets, but he’s talking about his vision instead of pointing fingers and spending my tax dollars having his staff dig up dirt. While the cons focus on fear, division and hate, Trudeau is telling us we can be better if we work together.

        Trudeau is talking with the adults while the cons sit in the sandbox flinging dirt and calling him names.

        • Francien Verhoeven doesn’t want to play in your sandbox!

  3. It’s the omnibus(t).

  4. Harper, ever the opportunist, will go on the attack. It’s in his nature to find a new bogeyman to frighten the general public with so that he can come to the rescue. If it worked with a fair percentage of the electorate in the past and it’s bound to work again.
    Sheriff Stephen Harper will rid Dodge of all them worthless Liberal and NDP varmints once and for all.

  5. If I had to bet today on 2015 election, I would be confident in betting on another Con majority but I would not know how to bet for Leader of Oppo. Mulcair and Trudeau are tweedledum and tweedledee who will be more attractive to progressives in two years?

    Also, how is Mulcair doing in Que, are the new NDP supporters from 2011 satisfied with Mulcair so far? if NDP supporters in Que are pleased with Mulcair’s performance and Con base satisfied with Harper et al., Trudeau has tough path to power no matter what national polls are saying at the moment.

    It is amazing how non-ideological Harper has governed – right now, Harper has no legacy other than his time in power. Harper has done well for himself, and the Con party is healthy, but there are no significant policies. Maybe Harper decided just getting Cons elected was enough of an accomplishment and his successors will have to establish ideas.

    • That’s a reasonable hypothesis. All we’ve heard for the better part of a decade from “progressives” is that Conservative’s are all evil, all the time. All Harper’s had to do is demonstrate how ridiculously idiotic that assumption is, and suddenly the CPC has won 3 elections in a row. Each time he wins another election, the CPC looks more like the Natural Governing Party of Canada, and the Liberals keep spinning their wheels trying to come up with a single policy that Canadians actually care about.

      • Or maybe it had something to do with “widespread election fraud”?

        I think people are starting to wake up to the fact that this administration is mostly smoke and mirrors. They’ve been caught with their hand in the cookie jar and it’s going to hurt them.

    • If harper clings to a majority, it will be by the skin of those new seats in Alta.

      • Alberta should bear 100% of the blame for Harper being elected. Nobody outside of Alberta supports Harper.

        • 27 blue seats in Alberta, 73 blue seats in Ontario.

          Yes, clearly Alberta elected this government!

          • Conbot.

          • Ontario — specifically, Toronto and its suburbs — gave Harper his majority.

            In the 2011 election, the Conservatives gained 3 seats outside of the 416 and the 905, and 19 seats in the 416 and the 905 area codes.

            If they keep most of those seats, they keep the majority. If they lose them, it’s gone, and Trudeau and Mulcair probably cobble together a coalition government.

            Toronto — and this will drive my Albertan friends crazy — will decide Harper’s fate in 2015. As it did in 2011.

            Because Ontario runs Canada, and Toronto and its suburbs run Ontario. That’s just kind of how it goes.

          • That’s nonsense. The only reason that there are any Conservative MPs from Ontario at all right now is purely as a result of massive electoral fraud, voter suppression and intimidation. Prior to Harper’s goon tactics, Ontario had no history whatsoever of electing conservatives. Ontario is an extremely progressive place. You need to quit reading the propaganda put out by our Conservative-and corporate-dominated mainstream media, and instead seek the truth in places like the tyee, rabble.ca, the Georgia Straight and progressive and activist blogs. The Truth is out there, you just need to seek it.

          • I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that you’re a fellow conservative putting on a show of what a parody of a leftist would sound like. :p

            Carry on, then!

          • Some rural areas have voted conservative in the past, but their base is eroding. My folks, and their friends, have been staunch conservatives for as long as I can remember, but they’re now saying we have to get Harper out of there. To me, that speaks volumes.

            Frankly, I don’t think polls can be trusted anymore – the methodology has not kept pace with societal changes. For one thing, they only use land lines to poll. Land lines are disappearing as people choose to use a cell phone exclusively. The opinions of younger Canadians, under 35 would be a good guess, are not being sampled. Younger folks tend to vote more to the left, so Harper’s numbers could be much lower than the polls show.

        • Why do you even bother to write that sort of rubbish! How old are you? You ever read the news or know what is really going on in the world?

          • All I have to do is listen to the Council of Canadians — they know what’s really going on. Where do you think that “missing” $3.1 billion went, anyway? Think about it. A bunch of Conservative MPs miraculously elected in Ontario, while billions of dollars go missing. Connect the dots. Did you ever consider the possibility that Harper and his PMO goons used that money to commit massive electoral fraud in Ontario? They probably paid people to go to the polls and vote Conservative. The PMO is very devious. You need to wake up to this fact.

          • Keep reading your rabble Harper hate! Have fun!

          • You must recall what happened to one of their own, Joe Clark in Winnipeg. Even German nationals were in on it!

  6. Oh, this is really clever.

    Harpo’s approval number are “Mulroney Like” in the polls.

    Plan “A” was to attack Trudeau over speeches, clear the media front
    pages of Con scandals, run the Convention and then run polls to see if
    there was a bump to Harpo’s personal approval numbers.

    The Weather got angry and knocked out the Convention.

    Now, Plan B is to have SUN Media drip out Minister retirements, starting
    with Herr Toews, then poll to see if the Harpo approval numbers change.

    The next “drip” announcements will be for the “just above back-bencher
    rank” Ministers Nicholson, O’Connor, Ritz and Ablonczy — then re-poll
    to see if Harpo’s numbers change.

    If they don’t, they will announce Mr. Big Minister Flaherty’s
    retirement, due to health reasons, and re-poll see if Harpo’s numbers

    If they don’t, Harper will retire and the convention will be re-scheduled as a leadership convention.

    And Ezra Levant’s “Freedom Cruise” in August (to plan SUN’s/National
    Post’s two year media attack strategy on Trudeau) got toasted by the
    flood as well.

    And Canadians have not been introduced to Dr. Arthur Porter yet (his wife is in a Quebec jail cell).

    Harper by-passed “government security clearances” using Bill Elliot
    (headed the RCMP) to get Porter and Carson inside PCO, then moved Porter
    to CSIS oversight.

    Porter steered McGill U. Hosp contracts to SNC-Lavalin and received kick-backs, and peeked at CSIS secret files on SNC-Lavalin!

    Does Jason Kenney speak French, anyone


  7. “Conservatives are nervous” so says Paul Wells!

    My god, who thinks up this sort of stuff!

    • In this case, Paul Wells.

  8. who cares what the pollls are! I am just having way too much fun being a Tory!!! and am sure harper is too – he may even not want to run again if the polls stay as they are he may decide to give his party 6 months to determine a new leader and then head off for a walk in the snow …. well deserved too and will go down in history as one the greats which will really p off the progressives – but who cares about them – harper has 2 more ryars to keep making appointments – keep passing legisaltion and record making amounts and speed – I want to see more omnibus bills! and a lot of new senators !! all in all life is good and it’s a great time to be a Tory – if you are harper hater – who cares?

    • Harper has done a good job keeping the left split and coming up the middle, but I am pretty sure he is not going to “go down as one of the greats”.

      Being great means doing great things. Nationalizing the constitution and giving us a Charter – that is a great thing. Lowering the GST – not so much.

      • Harper will be considered by historians to be a greater evil than Hitler. You just wait.

      • Harper will be remembered for a very long time. Cancelling the long form census has left an indelible mark on our country’s records. A century from now governments at every level, social scientists and urban planners will be pointing to that gap in the data and saying it was Harper’s fault. I’m christening it Harper’s Hole.

  9. The above discussion ignores some key points. Ironically, it’s the same key points the Liberals ignored in 2004.

    1. All political parties are coalitions of constituencies, and like all coalitions, they eventually fall apart. It happened for Trudeau (Pierre), Mulroney, and Chretien/Martin. It is now happening to Harper. The difference is, it’s happening so much faster for Harper, and this, despite a much weaker opposition than any of his predecessors had to face.

    2. Every government has a shelf life. That’s a good thing. It’s called democracy for a reason. When parties start to fade, blaming their opponents, or worse, the media, is just another form of denial. Sooner or later governments need to be changed, and parties need to go into opposition in order to go through the necessary process of renewal.
    3. In 2004, the Liberals mocked Stephen Harper in the same way Harper is mocking Trudeau today. Criticisms of inexperience and being a light-weight were common then too. We all know what happened. Aaron’s point on how little Trudeau, this supposed inexperienced light-weight, has had to do to get so far ahead should be sobering. Trudeau has 2 years to get more experienced and build himself and his party up. It’s the same time the inexperienced Harper needed to become Prime Minister.

    • Now, you’re talking common sense, but do you really think there is one Harper supporter who can see that! When you speak the “T” word with … becoming Prime Minister, they see red and then they black-out.

  10. “What’s up next for PM Stephen Harper?”
    How about retirement? This country doesn’t feel Canadian with this guy in the PMO.

  11. Hard to imagine that in two years, people will vote for kid Justin just to get rid of PM Harper, who has done relatively well for the country and our saving accounts. I wish Mr Harper a long long life as PM of Canada.