The big gamble

Will Stephen Harper’s majority-or-bust strategy pay off?

The big gambleBy the unofficial rules of Tory campaign etiquette, as set down in recent elections, it should have been a disaster. Caught in an amateur video clip, apparently believing he was speaking only to loyalists behind closed doors in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., a grimly determined Stephen Harper exhorted campaign troops to go out and win him a majority. The Prime Minister seemed to be ignoring lessons he learned the hard way­—about avoiding the M-word, lest he sound power-hungry and scare off swing voters.

In the 2004 campaign, his remark that Conservatives were “edging closer” to majority was enough to drive skittish centrists back into the arms of the Liberals. In 2006, he tried to reassure voters fearful a Tory majority would be a hard-right regime by saying that Liberal-appointed civil servants and judges would hold him in check. By 2008, he was taking a more direct approach: no sooner had he called the election than he predicted a tight race resulting in a nice, safe minority.

After all that, for Harper to be taped talking so unguardedly about a majority suggested a game-changing strategic shift. The alternative theory that he was merely caught out in the Soo by a camera-toting spy—or, if you prefer the current lexicon, a public journalist—doesn’t wash. He sounded categorical rather than careless. “Let me be clear about this,” he said. “We need to win a majority in the next election campaign.” And Harper didn’t frame his remarks as shoot-for-the-moon, best-case-scenario cheerleading—he said a Tory majority was “in reach.”

In fact, his new majority language wasn’t entirely new, just more emphatic. Last fall, after he suspended Parliament to avoid being defeated by a coalition of Liberals and NDP, supported by the Bloc Québécois, Harper told Maclean’s he felt that “if we had an election today somebody will have a majority because it will be either Canada’s Conservative government or the coalition.” Over the past summer, several Tory MPs and cabinet ministers on the barbeque circuit were reported musing about the limitations of minority government and the attractions of a majority. “There is much less tendency within the ranks to run away from the word ‘majority,’ ” confirms Conservative strategist Tim Powers, adding that’s a marked change from recent campaign seasons, when merely whispering it resulted in “your mouth being sewn shut and then firmly duct-taped.”

Harper’s history of meaning what he says in his public utterances strongly suggests there’s nothing accidental or improvised about the frank talk about running for outright control of the House. Pollsters, government insiders, partisan opponents, and experts on Canadian elections all see a combination of factors—some short-term developments, others more deep-seated—driving the new messaging. If it’s the change in rhetoric that draws attention to Harper’s gamble in openly pleading for a majority, a more fundamental shift in strategy appears to underpin the pitch—a bid that could even amount to a permanent change in the Canadian political landscape.

The most obvious factor driving Harper’s majority talk is the worn-thin patience of voters repeatedly called to the polls. A tiresome string of elections has reversed the previously sunny view of minorities. Once widely seen as a way to compel parties to co-operate for the good of the country, they are now regarded as a prescription for endless electioneering that settles nothing. A second clear game-changer was last fall’s coalition experiment between the Liberals and NDP, backed by Bloc Québécois support that was deeply resented outside Quebec.

Taken together, these two developments give Harper his opening to cast a drive for majority in terms that don’t necessarily smack of a crass partisan power grab. It’s not so much that Conservatives deserve unfettered power, it’s that the people should be spared needless elections, and the country needs protecting from “the separatists and socialists.” It’s a plea for stability, not Tory hegemony. His parliamentary adversaries are acutely aware that he might be onto something. “After all these repeated elections, some Canadians are saying, ‘It’s time for a majority government,’ ” says Liberal MP John McCallum. “Whether it’s Liberal or Conservative is another matter.”

Last fall’s dramatic coalition episode in Parliament made it possible for Harper to sharply contrast his sort of stability with the rival version. Not only does a Tory majority offer a respite from a string of short-lived minorities, he contends, it’s the only way middle-of-the-road federalist voters can be sure they won’t end up with a Liberal-led government that affords the NDP and Bloc back-door access to real clout. The potency of this warning is often underestimated inside the Parliament Hill bubble, where the NDP looks far from threatening and even the Bloc is a ho-hum fact of political life. But beyond official Ottawa, the separatists remain deeply loathed outside their Quebec strongholds, and the NDP, according to recent polls, is flirting with electoral disaster.

So the Tories would gain a major edge if they could force Michael Ignatieff to toil throughout a campaign to distance himself from Gilles Duceppe and Jack Layton. In Sault Ste. Marie, Harper said Ignatieff would, if he’s allowed to win, head a coalition “propped up by the socialists and the separatists.” Even though Ignatieff has categorically vowed not to reconstitute last fall’s coalition, Tory pre-campaign literature accuses him of hiding: “his real plan is to reunite the Liberal-Bloc Québécois-NDP coalition.”

Harper’s aim is clearly to taint the centre-straddling Liberal brand by association with those more alarming labels—socialist and separatist. In essence, he’s attempting a role reversal: where he has had to battle the scare factor in the past, he wants to force Ignatieff to defend himself against charges that he’s beholden to extremist elements. But this entails a double gamble for Harper. Firstly, he must keep vilifying the Bloc, which risks further undermining his appeal in much of francophone Quebec, where the sovereigntists are mainstream. Secondly, it means he must attack Layton unstintingly, possibly driving down NDP support, with the strong chance of those votes migrating to the Liberals.

He hasn’t always been nearly so tough on the New Democrats. Back in 2007, when asked about how he hoped to keep his first minority afloat, Harper cordially singled out Layton as the opposition leader he talked with “more regularly than the others.” (Layton disputed that claim.) In last fall’s campaign, during the French-language leaders’ debate, the Prime Minister praised the NDP leader for his work on issues like crafting a government apology for residential First Nations schools. “You’re honest,” Harper said to Layton, “and I do appreciate that.”

But the coalition threat that emerged so soon after those kind words were spoken clearly made New Democrats more dangerous than useful to the Tories. “It’s a party of hard-core left-wing ideologues,” said Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, a key Harper campaigner, in a recent radio interview. “It’s not like a moderate, centre-left party.” So much for Layton as an honest interlocutor.

One reason Harper’s team might be eager to see the NDP marginalized is that some of them have watched it happen before—in provincial politics. The rise of Mike Harris’s Conservatives in Ontario after 1995 coincided with a plunge in the fortunes of the previously competitive NDP. Harris’s chief of staff happened to be Guy Giorno, who now does the same job for Harper. While the provincial Tories have lost the last two Ontario elections to the Liberals, the NDP remains relegated to the sidelines. Power in Ontario, long a three-way affair, has become a two-party game.

Even when Layton offered possible support this week to keep the Tory minority alive, on a key Employment Insurance reform vote, Harper and his aides treated the NDP with a certain disdain. The NDP complained that an email from Layton to Giorno went un­answered. A Conservative official said Harper’s stance is consistent: welcome opposition votes in the House, but don’t engage in talks that might be construed as backroom deal-making.

But the immediate factors driving Harper’s new majority push can’t be the only considerations behind his gamble. The Prime Minister prides himself on being not a short-term tactician, but a long-view strategist. Back when Harper was running for the leadership of the newly reunited Conservative party in 2004, he said his ultimate goal was nothing less than to assemble, for the first time since Sir John A. Macdonald, a Tory base that could consistently win majorities. He aimed to replace the boom-and-bust cycle for Conservatives in Quebec with a reliable machine. “If we’re going to win in Quebec only by renting or borrowing other people’s organizations, we will never, in the longer term, have a Conservative majority,” he said back then. “We have to be able to get our share in Quebec.”

But that bedrock premise of Harper’s original long game has been, if not demolished, then at least put on hold. After a significant 2006 breakthrough in Quebec, the Tories stalled in the province in 2008, and recent polls suggest no gains are likely there in a possible fall 2009 campaign. In fact, holding their current 10 seats will be a huge challenge. It would be difficult to overstate the degree to which taking Quebec out of the majority-building equation upends not only Harper’s plan, but also historical verities in Canadian democracy.

Few know that history better than University of British Columbia political science professor Richard Johnston, director of UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions. “Without fail down to 1993, Quebec was the linchpin of parliamentary majorities,” Johnston says. He points to landmarks like Wilfrid Laurier’s 1896 election win, which established the template for future Liberal dominance, and Brian Mulroney’s breakthrough 1984 Conservative victory.

The emergence of the Bloc in 1993 changed all that. Before the separatist party’s rise, Johnston says Liberals could typically seek to win half of the seats they needed for a House majority in Quebec alone. The Conservatives could reasonably hope Quebec might supply a third of a majority. But the Bloc’s sustained electoral strength puts perhaps 15 per cent of all the seats in the House beyond the realistic reach of federalist parties. “Unless the Bloc goes into a tailspin,” Johnston says, “the maximum that a party with a federalist orientation can extract out of Quebec is the equivalent of at most 10 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons.”

Of course that doesn’t make winning majorities impossible: Jean Chrétien proved it can still be done three elections in a row. His formula for Liberal dominance relied on a new linchpin: Ontario. Harper’s plan when he took over the new Conservative party was to put Quebec back at the centre of a majority-building effort. Now, he has little choice but to try something more like Chrétien’s Ontario-centric approach. His Tories now hold 51 of Ontario’s 106 seats, to the Liberals’ 38 and the NDP’s 17. The latest polls suggest an Ontario bounce for the Conservatives, though not a Chrétien-like sweep, is far from out of the question.

This week, the Ipsos Reid polling firm put Conservative support in the most populous province at 46 per cent, up from 39 per cent in last fall’s election, compared with 36 per cent for the Liberals, up from 34 per cent in the 2008 election. The NDP was down to a dismal 10 per cent from 18 per cent on election day. That’s against a national background of 39 per cent of decided voters for the Tories, well ahead of the Liberals at 30 per cent, with the NDP trailing at a weak 12 per cent. “The more we get talking about an election campaign, the more the Conservative numbers move up,” said John Wright, senior vice-president of Ipsos Reid Public Affairs. “And where they’re moving is in Ontario.”

Wright added that the recent talk of a Conservative majority hasn’t noticeably spooked Ontario voters. “It was brought into the open,” he said, “and watching the numbers move this week and last week, Ontario is getting more comfortable with it. People are fed up with a continuous dance of minority government.”

Still, there’s something unorthodox about the notion that the present trends in party support really benefit the Tories. The key variable is that tepid support for the NDP. Back in the 1990s, the divided right helped mightily in delivering Chrétien his majorities. Since the right reunited, division on the left of the spectrum has benefited Harper. If the NDP sinks, rudimentary number-crunching suggests the Liberals should pick up votes and win closely contested seats. Indeed, UBC’s Johnston argues this is by far the most likely scenario. “If there’s any implosion on the NDP side, it’s not going to be to secure Harper’s majority, it’s going to be to shore up the Liberals,” he says. “So where is Harper going to get the additional support he needs for his majority?”

That’s a powerful observation. It makes the Tories’ recent shift to more hard-hitting attacks on the NDP appear to go against their own interests. However, there is another way of looking at the party dynamics. Instead of accepting the old view of a splintered opposition, Harper now casts them as a single coalition-in-waiting. In other words, voters in English Canada are asked not to think of a spectrum—Conservatives on the right, Liberals in the centre, NDP on the left—but a starkly either-or choice: the status quo centre-right Tories against all the chaotic, left-leaning others. In this world of Conservative dreams, the familiar, easy-to-swallow Liberal moderate-middle formula is diluted and adulterated until it’s unpalatable. “You make it about Tories vs. this coalition cabal,” Powers sums up.

The allure for Conservatives in permanently turning Canadian elections into more of a two-choice affair is obvious to experts in international election history. And Harper’s brain trust is famous for its attention to politics in Australia, Britain and the United States. “The record in our sort of system elsewhere,” Johnston says, “is that when it’s a straight left-right fight, the Tories’ centre-right equivalents—Liberal in Australia, National in New Zealand, Conservative in England—won approximately 65 per cent of the time in the 20th century.” In Canada, of course, the Liberals held power most of the time by far in the last century.

So if Harper persuades Canadians, at least outside Quebec, to start thinking about voting as if they really have only two alternatives, international experience suggests Conservatives will benefit over the long haul. But it requires a transformation in the psychology of Canadian campaigning. And if the party leaps en masse into a new majority-seeking, us-against-all-the-others mindset, the question remains of when is the best time to ask voters to leap along.

This fall must be looking promising for the Tories, with recent polls giving them a solid lead, although at levels below the 40 per cent or better they’d need to capture the 12 more seats they require to form a majority government. Their challenge would be to gain those last few points after the writ is dropped. With Harper’s seasoned team from the past two winning campaigns all but intact, they might reasonably expect to outperform Ignatieff’s crew on their first time out. Running counter to Tory hopes of gaining ground during the race, however, is the consistent track record in elections past of the front-running party at the outset losing ground, or at best clinging to its pre-campaign support.

Another reason Tories might want to postpone an election is if they feel that time and a nascent economic recovery are on their side. Even though the recession of 2009 was punishing to some sectors, especially manufacturing, it didn’t live up to the direst warnings of an impending depression. “Ontario was the worst hit during the recession,” Ipsos Reid’s Wright says, “and it’s just starting to come back. The Conservatives might just want to nurture this a little.” And he points out that Harper scores twice as well as Ignatieff when voters are asked which leader they trust on economic management.

If Conservatives see reason to be patient, Liberals have grounds for wanting to turf Harper as quickly as possible. Engineered for office, not opposition, the Liberal party tends to succeed through success. “Their appeal is their ability to manage the files, particularly on national unity and immigrant incorporation,” Johnston says. “But you have to be in power to manage those files. The longer you’re out, the weaker the management argument becomes—people just haven’t seen you do it.”

Meanwhile, Harper’s lengthening tenure in 24 Sussex Dr. seems to be making him a less divisive figure. This week the polling firm Nanos Research released a survey in which he was rated the most trustworthy leader, at 31 per cent, with Ignatieff and Layton far behind, tied at 14 per cent. “People don’t love Harper but they don’t have the same disdain for him that Liberals think the public possesses,” Powers says. “He has had everything thrown at him and yet there is consistency to his leadership numbers.”

When you’re ahead, consistency sounds good. But merely holding his own is no longer enough for Harper. He has run three national elections now, losing one and then winning two minorities. After watching the Liberals triumph for so long, Tories were content with power in any form, even if, on any given day in the House, they needed at least one opposition party’s support to hold it.

Next time, though, a minority might not be enough to satisfy Conservatives. They’ve had the whiff of majority in their nostrils more than once. In last fall’s election, the widely watched Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy’s model for converting polling results into seat counts projected a Tory majority just two weeks before election day. Another campaign letdown of that sort might not be forgiven. “Some will argue if Harper doesn’t win a majority, he’s done,” said one Tory insider, asking, for obvious reasons, not to be named. “So why be tentative?” If Harper really does have only one more chance, then his new majority-or-bust approach looks like a strategy born of necessity.

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