Harper's game

The Conservative argument is always the same: if Canadians throw off Harper's protective embrace, everything we cherish will be ruined

“Friends, remember. The global recovery is fragile,” Stephen Harper told a room full of Conservatives in St. John’s. It wasn’t a big room but it was reasonably well-packed; the friendly audience had the Prime Minister surrounded on every side.

“Yes, Canada is doing relatively well,” Harper said. “But a sea of troubles is lapping at our shores.”

Reporters who’d been travelling with the Conservative leader longer than I had rolled their eyes. “Still lapping,” the guy from the CBC said cheerfully.

“Have you heard about the sea of troubles yet?” the lady from the Canadian Press had asked me that morning in Moncton. Apparently it’s a fixture of the Harper stump speech, although I had managed to miss it so far.

Here was my chance to catch up. Harper described the contours of the trouble sea to his latest audience: “Disaster in the pacific, chaos in the Middle East, debt problems in Europe, and all kinds of challenges — some very serious challenges — south of our border. Canada — this country — is the closest thing the world has to an island of stability and security. And we’ve got to keep it that way.”

So far Harper had been reading from a teleprompter, or perhaps by now reciting from memory, his voice brisk but flat. Now he spoke with real emotion. “What would the world think, were we as a country to suddenly head off in some high-tax economic direction, led by a reckless coalition without a coherent program or even basic national principles?”

This is the Harper pitch for 2011. He varies it at each stop. Sometimes he leaves the sea of troubles out. But it’s always the same argument. Life is not perfect in Canada but it’s getting better. Peril lies all around. If Canadians throw off the protective embrace of Harper’s Conservatives… well… well then the Visigoths will descend, won’t they? And by the time they are done with us, everything Canadians cherish will lie in ruin.

By its nature it is not a cheery message. Earlier in the week, west of Montreal, Harper told another crowd, briskly but flatly, how much he likes to catch up with people on the road and spread the news about his government. “But this is not where I should be,” he added. “All members of Parliament should be in Ottawa working on the economy. We should be working to protect our economic advantage. To keep working on our economic recovery. And to keep working on keeping your taxes down.”

Noses to the grindstone, ladies and gents! Except when parliament is prorogued. Why were the opposition flouting such evident wisdom? “Mr. Ignatieff doesn’t think he needs to win an election. Just hold us to a minority and they will move with lightning speed to recreate and impose their reckless coalition on Canadians. They did it before. They’ll do it again — and next time, if they get a chance, they’ll make sure nobody can stop them.

“Friends, imagine Mr. Ignatieff thinking he can form a government even if he loses the election. That’s not right, that’s not democracy and that’s not our Canada.”

I’ve laid on these long excerpts from Harper’s stump speech because shorter quotes don’t begin to convey how unrelenting Harper’s campaign-trail harangue is. The coalition business is not an odd detour in his speeches. It’s often their only theme. And he is sometimes stark in posing the choice. “There won’t be a Conservative minority government after this election,” he told supporters in St. John’s.

“There will either be Mr. Ignatieff, put in power by the NDP and the Bloc Québécois, or there will be what Canada needs … a strong stable majority Conservative government.”

Some of my colleagues have made a huge fuss over Harper’s refusal to take more than four questions from travelling reporters at each stop. This annoys me too. But in some ways it distracts the other ways the 2011 Harper is different from earlier editions. His tone is dark, his body language weary, his appeals to brighter emotions rote or non-existent. He runs the emotional gamut from bored to angry. “Of course,” his detractors will say. But he truly has has not always been this way on the road.

Early in the 2008 election I wrote about a Harper rally in a barn in Saskatchewan, not because it stood out, really, but because it typified the tone of his first campaign week that year. The barn was newly built, the crowd at dusk hushed and attentive. Harper was positively lyrical.

“Now let me just end with this, my friends. It has been an unbelievable experience, the experience of a lifetime, to be your Prime Minister,” he said on that night two and a half years ago. “You get to travel across the country, to see the true breadth of our country. You get to meet people in every corner and from every background in this great country. And you get to travel the world. And you get to see other people and the situations they live in, and the difference and the advantages that we have here.

“When I come to Saskatchewan, even on a beautiful day like this, I never cease to be amazed. To look out and to think — especially as that cold wind whistles across the prairie in the wintertime — to think how tough the people who came here had it. To break the land and to build everything that we have today. How tough it must have been for the Aboriginal people before that, to live in that environment.

“But I also never forget this: there are very few places in the world where you can look out as far as the eye can see and see land that is rich, land you can grow things on, land you can build your families on, land that is full of potential. That’s what people see in this country when they come from every corner of the earth. They see opportunity as limitless as the horizon of Saskatchewan. That’s what we’re building here.”

At Rideau Hall that year he thanked Canadians for letting him be PM. In Quebec City he thanked Quebecers for putting up with his French. In his ads he wore sweater vests, hung out on HGTV, talked about the importance of family. In Toronto he had breakfast with reporters, or at least he had water while we had breakfast, and took questions for an hour. In interviews he told reporters he preferred to be private but his staff wanted him to open up and share about his family.

All of that is gone now.

So when I started writing this long blog post on Friday night as we flew back to Ottawa from Prince Edward Island, I was setting out to explain why Harper’s darker nature is making him lose this campaign.

Now I’m not so sure.

First, the question I posed last Thursday at the end of my Ignatieff piece still stands: do people actually discard the opinions they have held for years, just because a campaign has begun? Harper was trusted by a sizeable plurality of voters before March 26. Ignatieff’s performance on that score was weaker. Those trends will carry some momentum, so that if each man tosses accusations at the other, Harper’s claims will have greater traction.

Well, what is Harper’s main claim about Ignatieff? It is that Ignatieff’s first signature on a petition to the Governor General supporting a coalition government will not be his last.

And behold, here’s the Ipsos Reid poll that led Global newscasts and Postmedia newspaper coverage heading into the weekend: “Most Canadians would support Liberal-NDP coalition, rather than Harper majority: Poll”

Oh-ho. The tone of the stories, and the conclusion of much of the Twitter chatter about this poll, was that Harper had been hoist by his own petard. He’s threatening a coalition most Canadians want!

Let’s see about that. The obvious question to ask is, “How big is the majority for a coalition?” The less obvious question is, “Do supporters of a coalition support anything at all coherent?” The answers aren’t great for anyone who isn’t Stephen Harper.

Ipsos asked its coalition question a few different ways. When asked whether they support or oppose “the opposition parties forming a coalition government to take over from Stephen Harper and the Conservatives,” it was 48% “support” and 52% “oppose.” That’s an odd majority. When Ipsos offers a binary choice — would they “prefer” to see “Liberals, NDP and BQ forming a coalition” or would they “prefer Stephen Harper and the Conservatives winning a majority government,” the results are 50-50.

Take the Bloc out: do the numbers improve? Yes, and finally they match the headline: “Suppose the coalition is the Liberals and the NDP getting together,” the next question asks. (For that to be possible without Bloc support, incidentally, the two parties would need 42 more seats between them than they had at dissolution.) Now support for the coalition rises to 54%, while support for the Conservatives falls to 46%.

Well. Phrased in the friendliest possible way, the coalition option rallies only 54% of the electorate, leaving 46% for the Conservatives. If people could be made to vote according to their preferences on this one question — a big ‘if;’ they’ll certainly include plenty of other considerations on voting day — it would be fantastic news for the Conservatives. Neither Pierre Trudeau nor Jean Chrétien ever won 46% of the popular vote in any of their elections.

So much for the “majority” for the coalition. Now: how coherent are coalition supporters? Not overly. Ipsos asked respondents which party leader would make the best prime minister if there were a coalition. Fifty-nine per cent want Jack Layton. A little more than a quarter support Michael Ignatieff, the only tenable real-world choice. Support for Layton as coalition PM rises to 70% in the Atlantic. In Quebec, almost one-third of respondents want Gilles Duceppe to lead the coalition.

By now, a lot of readers will be so angry at me they could spit. Why do I go on and on about a coalition since Ignatieff has made it clear he won’t enter into one? What does any of this have to do with the campaign?

Only this. First, as you might have predicted, when Harper says there’ll be an opposition coalition and Ignatieff doesn’t, more respondents believe Harper: 62% to 38%, according to Ipsos. This is fair. Stéphane Dion rejected a coalition until he tried to form one. Ignatieff publicly supported that coalition until it became untenable. Harper’s 1997 interview and 2004 letter to the Governor General are less categorical.

Next, if you’re in the stop-talking-about-coalitions, there’s-not-going-to-be-a-damned-coalition camp, you should at least be clear about a few things.

That means that if the Conservatives win more seats than the Liberals on May 2, Harper will continue as prime minister. And the next couple of years will look a lot like the last five. Probably, to console yourself, you can tell yourself the Conservatives will turf Harper after a third minority. Good luck with that.

I started out, on Friday, believing Harper’s constant, inelegant obsession with the opposition showed a lack of discipline. Now I suspect it’s strategy.

About half of Canadians like Harper. More than half believe him when he says the opposition is plotting. When that’s the question, about half of Canadians say it makes them want to support the Conservatives. The other half, who think this is all bollocks, has no one party and no coherent project to rally around. There’s a chunk of the electorate who like the Conservatives more than other parties but who have been nervous at the thought of a Conservative majority. Rather than take that fear away, Harper is touring the country giving them a bigger fear that trumps it.

This guy’s going to be hard to stop.

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