How Stephen Harper will survive in 2011

He prorogued parliament and gutted the census but his party is still seen as reliable

How Stephen Harper will survive in 2011

Blair Gable/Reuters

On New Year’s Eve, his last day as Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, Guy Giorno wrote a farewell memo to Conservative government staffers and launched a Twitter account. Ottawa started poring over his 140-character Twitter bursts and ignored the memo. Let’s read the memo.

“After exactly two-and-one-half wonderful years,” Giorno wrote, it was time to leave Harper’s side. He reminded his colleagues of the government’s successes. Only one item on his list was about policy: “A sweeping, affirmative Economic Action Plan to protect the economy.” The result? “Our economy is outperforming the economies of many countries of the world.”

The rest of Giorno’s list was about partisan political achievements. “We won a general election, only the eighth time in 40 elections that a governing party has increased both its seat count and its share of the popular vote. We eliminated the so-called gender gap”—the Liberals’ former advantage among female voters—“and made inroads into communities that have not voted Conservative for decades . . . Today, our standing in the polls is stronger and higher than when I first arrived.”

Of course Giorno’s account is self-serving. Which is not the same as saying he has no point. The man who ran the PMO wasn’t interested in much besides the economy. By the time he left, the Conservatives were in decent shape to fight an election. One may explain the other.

Harper heads into the third full calendar year of his second term in a position, not of utter dominance, but of relative strength. He has a good shot at avoiding an election and, if he cannot avoid it, a good shot at winning it. That’s why his little New Year’s cabinet shuffle was not the overhaul bored Ottawa scribes wanted: because he does not need an overhaul.

Now is the time for “continuing proven approaches that work and have brought us safely thus far,” Harper said at Rideau Hall after the shuffle, “and not for economic adventurism.” It was, almost word for word, the message he used to launch the election of 2008. A steady hand on one side, the crazies on the other.

Is this his pre-electoral pitch then? Only if it must be. He would rather it be his avoid-elections pitch. If the opposition wants to force an election, “it’s their decision,” he said. “But this government will be focused on the economy.”

His argument makes enough sense to enough voters to make him a risky target for his opponents. A new poll from an upstart Ottawa polling house, Abacus Data, asked respondents how they felt about the three big national political parties. Abacus found respondents were likelier to agree the Conservative party “keeps its promises” than the Liberals or New Democrats do. They were also likeliest to agree the Conservative party “has a good team of leaders,” “has sensible policies,” and is “professional in its approach.”

The Conservatives do not lead only in feel-good perceptions. Respondents thought the Conservatives, more than Liberals or New Democrats, are “extreme” and “out of touch with ordinary people.” It hardly needs saying that Harper continues to divide the country. But enough of the division benefits the Conservatives to leave Harper in the catbird seat.

Abacus found Canadians have less trouble agreeing about the Liberals. When comparing the three parties, respondents were least likely to agree that Michael Ignatieff’s party “keeps its promises,” “understands the problems facing Canada,” “looks after the interests of people like me,” “defends the interests of people in my province,” “has a good team of leaders,” “stands for clear principles,” “has sensible policies,” or is “professional in its approach.”

But look on the bright side. The Liberals did not finish behind the Conservatives and New Democrats on every measure. Among the three parties, respondents were likeliest to agree it’s the Liberals who are “divided” and “will promise anything to win votes.”

These are the results Ignatieff obtains after a full year with a senior political staff Ottawa reporters like. It follows his long summer bus tour and the uniformly positive reviews that came with it. It comes after Harper prorogued Parliament, gutted the long-form census, turned summit-time Toronto into one big riot and flip-flopped on ending the Afghanistan deployment.

After all that, Canadians give Harper’s party the edge on reliability, pertinence and competence. After the Conservatives, on these same questions, they almost always prefer Jack Layton’s NDP to Ignatieff’s Liberals. Giorno’s farewell note does not mention the census or the G-20 or Afghanistan. Just as well: these issues don’t move votes.

I know Liberals who have lost hope of changing anyone’s mind about Ignatieff before an election campaign. They are optimistic to believe they will change anyone’s mind during a campaign. But optimism is allowed, and anyway that is not the first challenge they face. The first challenge is making an election happen.

Harper has warned for two years that the opposition parties are conspiring for his job. Most days that’s just not true. But the only way they can defeat him this year is to conspire. If they do, the benefit of the doubt will lie, on balance, with the Conservatives. And until they manage to conspire, Michael Ignatieff will keep twisting in the wind.

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