Federal election 2015

Stephen Harper returns home. But is Calgary still where the heart is?

Stephen Harper is back in Calgary, preparing for the leaders’ debate—and taking nothing for granted

(Ryan Remiorz/CP)

(Ryan Remiorz/CP)

It’s hard not to blame Stephen Harper for having exhausted himself, and everyone else in Canadian politics, by Day 44 of this election campaign. It’s his prerogative and fault that it stretches 34 days longer. With a leaders debate scheduled for Thursday in his hometown of Calgary, Harper flew in on Tuesday and will take a recuperative midterm break: no events scheduled for Wednesday, an event in town on Friday morning, and three uninterrupted nights in a familiar bed.

The Conservative leader launched this respite with something familiar to any other major city: a big rally in some airy, industrial park warehouse with his candidates and thunderstick-wagging supporters. Calgary was never a stop in his four past leader’s mid-campaign tours; it’s never been worth the time, logistics or energy to try to lock down the already locked-down seats of Calgary and southern Alberta. Other than his hubristic 2004 “victory” convoy down Alberta’s spinal highway to Cowtown, there are traditionally only two occasions for a Harper political speech in Calgary: on election night, and for his annual Stampede barbecue in July.

    Some of this once-safe region’s seats could well go Liberal or perhaps NDP. That prospect gets Harper speaking in Calgary before rented helium canisters inflate election-night balloons. But if spending a few nights at home helps restore Harper after several rocky weeks, uncorking in front of what he called Conservatives’ largest crowd yet would help him sleep easier.

    Ahead of Tuesday’s rally at candidate Michelle Rempel’s sign-assembling warehouse, I reviewed the speech Harper gave to his Stampede-garbed friends and supporters, nearly 78 days ago. Many elements from that address have changed little: boasts about balancing the budget, roughly equal-time punching at NDP and Liberals, and a nearly word-for-word affirmation of support for Israel, despite international opinion against it. The Stampede speech also contained his admittedly confident prediction: “They will choose, I have to say it, our strong, stable, national, majority Conservative government!” It sounded ambitious, based on where polls stood in early July, and laughable at this point. On Tuesday, he went for something less confident and more combative. “We’re going to need every vote, every seat; send all of these hard-working, talented men and women to Ottawa to represent this great province in the House of Commons on Oct. 19!” Harper said, voice straining into a growl at the sentence’s end. It was a message he’d never before had to deliver in Calgary. Only a handful of Alberta seats may turn; a handful of seats could determine which party wins Canada. He needs to rally here, because complacency in Calgary risks downfall.

    This was Harper unjacketed, dress-shirt sleeves rolled up. He’d dressed down similarly at the previous two evenings’ rallies in British Columbia, a hard-at-work image to match new signs supporters wave behind him: “Protect our economy.” These after-supper events aren’t speeches; they’re a “call to action.” In front of his Alberta base, this more pugilistic Harper amended his script about Canada being “buffeted” by the global economy: “This province has more than been buffeted, it is being hit hard by the falling energy prices,” he said. (Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau also made Calgary stops within 24 hours of Harper’s, but neither stressed Alberta’s struggling economy.)

    Harper punctuated many sentences with a throaty rasp. At one point, his elbows bent inward and hands stretched and flexed outward, as though he was either praying for rain or bracing to be struck down by a lightning storm: “That’s why, friends, now more than ever, you need a federal government that is on the side of lower taxes, a federal government that is on the side of the energy sector, a federal government that is on the side of balanced budgets, a federal government that is on Alberta’s side, a federal government that is on your side. And there is only one national party that is on your side. It is the Conservative Party of Canada!” Had he started to list ridings at this point, he’d risk a Howard Dean scream.

    Harper went on, about Alberta’s new NDP majority government, which he’ll have to work with through 2019 if he’s still Prime Minister come mid-October: “Friends, that message I just gave you about only the Conservative government being on your side: Never forget it. Some people got fooled in the provincial election. They are not going to fool us again.” It was a big applause line among his Calgary friendlies, but could bring relations with Premier Rachel Notley up to the toxic level it’s at with Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne.

    Later in his unusually long 33-minute speech, Harper asserted that Notley’s NDP came in amid job losses in the energy sector, then “managed to create more job losses” through corporate and personal tax hikes, as though oil prices hadn’t found a new floor in August. “Friends, an NDP government at both levels will destroy the economy of this province for a very long time. That’s why we must work hard to make sure that does not happen to our great country,” he continued. And the economics grad’s take on Liberal history: Elder Trudeau racked up deficits and debt in the 1970s and, decades later, had to rescue Canada with taxes and the sort of deep program cuts the Harper decade has never seen.

    In the embrace of his hometown crowd, ahead of a three-night rest at his Calgary residence, Harper warned Alberta that either alternative to his vision is a smoldering, jobless wasteland. The tone was a few steps away from former Alberta premier Jim Prentice’s pre-burial argument that “Alberta is not an NDP province.”

    Harper isn’t yet on his political deathbed, but he’s even farther from majority. The election is five weeks away: Whatever comes, Harper’s approaching it with balled fists.

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