Why Stephen Harper will go in 2014

The numbers are against him, James Cowan says: ’So too is time’
James Cowan
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to party faithful at the Conservative convention in Calgary Friday, Nov. 1, 2013.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Jeff McIntosh/CP

James Cowan writes for Canadian Business. More of his columns here:

When trying to predict the future, it’s helpful to first check the archives. Reading old news is a reminder of how often prognosticators are wrong and how quickly public opinion can shift. Take, for example, Stephen Harper. In the past few months, there has been a constant flow of stories speculating that the Prime Minister will step down before the next federal election in October 2015. And despite Harper’s emphatic denial, this makes eminent sense given his steep and long slide in popularity. But it becomes even more reasonable when you consider what didn’t change in 2013.

Just over a year ago, Ipsos Reid pollster Darrell Bricker declared the Prime Minister was looking “solid, solid, solid.” The Conservatives had avoided accumulating the “barnacles and cuts and bruises” often associated with a long-governing party and stood a strong chance of getting re-elected. This sentiment was reflected elsewhere; a Nanos research survey showed 48% of Canadians felt the country was headed in the right direction and a healthy majority believed Harper’s government was doing an average job, at least. Twelve months later, public opinion has shifted. Nanos polling now shows that 55% of Canadians believe the country is headed in the wrong direction and 56% said federal government was doing a “poor” or “very poor” job. Similarly, an Ipsos Reid poll showed 60% of respondents didn’t think the government was working, a reflection of a “Tory brand” that was starting to get “a little tattered,” according to Mr. Bricker.

But polls are just snapshots, right? Harper has more than a year-and-a-half to put the Senate scandal, so often blamed for his woes, behind him. But here’s the thing: Even back in 2012—when Mike Duffy was a household name as a former broadcaster and Harper was looking solid, solid, solid—57% of Canadians still thought he should quit before the next election. A year later, that number had crept up slightly to 59%. Canadians have changed their mind about his government and the direction of the country, but their long-term career advice for the Prime Minister remained consistent.

Also remaining consistent—some might say frozen—is Harper’s economic policy. A year ago, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was said to be preparing a “stay-the-course” budget; the message this year is identical. The government continues to push for a fourth national wireless carrier, while refusing to make changes to foreign investment rules that might make Wind Mobile into a viable contender. They’ve demanded an answer from U.S. President on the Keystone XL pipeline, while stalling on environmental concessions that might have made it easier for Barack Obama to say “Yes.”

The Conservatives could get away with this as long as the Canadian economy fared better than the rest of the world, with relatively low unemployment, relatively high wages and no sign of the housing market crash that doomsayers’ predicted. When the rest of the world is falling apart, the act of just holding things together became laudable. With a recovery now visible in the United States and elsewhere, Canadians will start asking—what has the Harper government done to position the economy for future growth? Save for the significant achievement of signing a free trade deal with the European Union, there isn’t much. Which leaves the Conservatives with little ammunition to defend themselves when bad economic news—like the loss of nearly 46,000 jobs in December—presents itself.

Reading back to the beginning of 2013, it seemed unthinkable that Stephen Harper would step down before the next election. But the numbers—the polls, the employment reports—seem against him. So too is time. To have a leader in place for the next election, the Conservatives can’t wait until 2015 to see how Harper’s fortunes hold out. No matter how much he denies it, this is the year that Harper will go.