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.