Stephen Harper's New Intuitive Side

There are two ways to think about election timing. One has to do mostly with polling numbers, the other mainly with political instincts. For years Stephen HARPER looked like a man of icy calculation, very much the sort who would go with the numbers.

Stephen Harper's New Intuitive Side

There are two ways to think about election timing. One has to do mostly with polling numbers, the other mainly with political instincts. For years Stephen HARPER looked like a man of icy calculation, very much the sort who would go with the numbers. If that were still the case, the chances of the Prime Minister triggering an election this spring, even with his lead in the polls and his recent dominance of the federal agenda, would have to be reckoned at no better than 50/50.

But a different view of Harper is coming into focus, one that casts him as less methodical, more intuitive. This new go-for-broke Harper abruptly reverses tack on the environment or daringly tables a motion to redefine the Québécois as a nation within Canada. He can look relaxed, even mischievous, in the House of Commons. Only minutes before tabling that Québécois nation motion last fall, for instance, he jokingly raised a right-angled thumb and index finger to his forehead, directing the junior high "loser" sign at a Liberal MP opposite. But it wasn't a game. That motion passed, and his Quebec agenda advanced. And it's this revised Harper who might just risk it all at the ballot box if it felt right, even if the pollsters didn't see it that way.

Both sides must always have been there. It's just that the calculating strategist was so much more evident when Harper was creating the new CONSERVATIVE PARTY, steering it to the electable centre, and finally devising and executing his clockwork 2006 campaign. For most of that work, he had plenty of time to plan behind the scenes. But in the 14 months he's been in power, he's coped nimbly with the fluid unpredictability of minority government, and shown a mastery of the House. He looks unlikely to be outmanoeuvred into letting his government fall before he sees his coveted majority within reach. Polls suggest he's not there yet, particularly not in all-important Ontario. To succeed, he'll have to keep neutralizing the issues that favour the Liberal brand, and spotlight the five files he's relying on, his key strategists say, to complete the re-casting of the Tories into a party trusted enough to win majorities.

It's a tall order, but he's on a roll. As recently as the closing weeks of 2006, the Liberals enjoyed an edge in the polls, after electing Stéphane DION their new leader. But in the first two months of this year, Harper aggressively reasserted his dominance. He dumped former rising star Rona Ambrose as environment minister, replacing her with partisan scrapper John Baird, and within weeks the Liberals' coveted polling advantage on green issues vanished. A Tory TV ad blitz aimed at defining Dion as a man who can't set priorities - trusting viewers to agree that Harper can - seemed to work. Dion took the frontal assault as a prelude to a writ drop. "They would not do that," he said last week, "if they were not thinking about an election."

Sure, they're thinking about one. But that's a far cry from orchestrating their own minority's downfall. Some core Tory strategists privately predict it won't happen this spring, although all vow they're ready to hit the hustings if it does. The fact is, any one of the Liberals, Bloc Québécois or NDP can keep Harper in power by voting with his Tories in the House. And since none of the opposition parties is faring very well in the polls, the chances on a given day that all three would line up against him on a confidence vote are not strong. "There's no scenario now that unites the opposition parties," says Ipos-Reid pollster Darrell Bricker, "because there's no sense the government can be defeated in an election."

That means Harper would have to table a bill so objectionable to the opposition they would feel impelled to topple him against their own electoral interests. "In that case, he risks looking like he's going for self-interested purposes," says Bricker. "And he's too smart a strategist to let that escape his thinking." The risk of alienating election-weary voters would only be worth it if the numbers lined up powerfully in the Conservatives' favour. So far, they don't. Ipsos-Reid's latest survey, conducted Feb. 28 and March 1, gave the Tories 36 per cent and the Liberals 32 per cent. To win a majority, either party would have to claim 40 per cent or more of the popular vote on election day. Bricker says Harper's election team knows better than to assume they could make up the difference during a campaign. "They've been through two elections in a row now in which the death of the Liberal party has been greatly exaggerated," Bricker says. "In spite of Stéphane Dion, there is residual power in the Liberal brand in places where it matters."

Although it may stick in the craw of the rest of the country, the place where that Liberal brand resilience matters most is Ontario. The province accounts for 106 of the 308 seats in the House. The Tories hold 40 of them now, to the Liberals' 54. To assemble a national majority, Harper would likely need to return 60 or more MPs from Ontario. But even this month, when he's had all the momentum, a breakthrough of that magnitude hasn't materialized. According to the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy, at Wilfrid Laurier University, the most recent Ipsos-Reid and Decima polls taken together translate into a 143-seat minority for Harper, well up from his current 125 seats, but still 11 shy of the magic number needed to control the House. In battleground Ontario, the Laurier Institute's projection shows the Tories climbing, on the strength of those recent polls, to 50 seats if an election were held immediately.

Barry Kay, the political science professor behind the institute's closely watched formula, says the Tories gained those 10 seats by leapfrogging two per cent ahead of the Liberals in Ontario in recent polls, up from five per cent behind them in last year's election. However, Kay adds, the Conservatives would have to soar to fully 10 points ahead of the Liberals in Ontario for Harper to collect the 20 or more new seats in the province that he would probably need to secure House majority. That remains a big challenge, but the Tories appear to have few other regional options to pursue. They already dominate the West, there are few seats up for grabs in the Atlantic provinces, and Quebec looks even less likely than Ontario to move definitively in their direction. In fact, recent polls suggest Dion's Liberals could pick up ridings in his home province at the Bloc Québécois's expense, while the Tories are merely holding their own.

If Ontario is the target turf, the next chance the Conservatives have to make inroads there will come with the budget Finance Minister John Flaherty tables on March 19. It's being designed to work on two levels, each playing off deeply ingrained public perceptions of the main parties. First, take advantage of the traditional Tory brand strength on fiscal management by easing personal taxes. Second, eat into the historic Liberal association with national unity, particularly when it comes to federalist success in Quebec.

With Ottawa's huge surpluses, crafting a tax-cutting package generous enough to catch the attention of middle-class voters, notably in Ontario's populous suburbs, should be simple enough. Turning a budget into a pitch for national unity, or perhaps federal-provincial harmony, will be trickier. First, Flaherty must offer the provinces enough cash to claim to have solved the so-called fiscal imbalance between them and Ottawa. Then, a week later, Quebec Premier Jean Charest must be re-elected, vanquishing the separatist Parti Qébécois, while making properly grateful noises about all the new money Flaherty sent Quebec's way. "People like a united country," says John Reynolds, a former B.C. MP and a top Tory campaign organizer. "If the situation between the federal government and the provinces improves, if Charest does well, it looks good on Harper."

But the budget addresses only two of Harper's top five priorities. Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Jim Prentice, who functions as the Prime Minister's chief operating officer in his role as a powerful cabinet committee chairman, listed three more in an interview with Maclean's: combatting crime, building Canada's global image and armed forces in tandem, and protecting the environment without jeopardizing the economy.

On all these issues, Prentice argues the opposition parties, particularly the Liberals, are "getting out of step not only with our agenda, but with the agenda of Canadians." And with House votes coming up soon on the budget and a new global warming package, he predicted the opposition leaders will find themselves confronting excruciating choices between voting for government policies they have long opposed and risking triggering an election. "It's going to be a very intense month," he said. "At the end of the day, there will be some difficult decisions in front of the parties in Parliament." Like all Harper's ministers and inner-circle strategists, he says the government wants to keep governing but is ready, if need be, to face a ballot-box test. The message that they must be primed to hit the hustings is being hammered home at a major Conservative boot camp for candidates and campaigners in Toronto this week.

Discipline will be a dominant theme at the training sessions. It's Harper's hallmark, and his trusted advisers view maintaining it as essential if their brand-refurbishing efforts are to stay on track. Last fall, when the Liberals looked resurgent on the strength of their wide-open leadership race, Harper's penchant for tight message control often made his camp looked stilted by comparison. But since this year's Tory rebound, his disciplinarian side has regained credibility. Buoyed by polls that put them on top again, his lieutenants have no trouble defending the boss's style. "Does a corporate chief executive let his vice-presidents run around saying all sorts of different things?" says Reynolds. Prentice also describes it as a matter of sound management. "The business of government is complex, and transmitting clear messages about what the government is working on is also complex," he says. "You need to have some discipline."

Harper has reason to continue to fear any rogue Tory remark that might make him, or his party, look too hard-right. He is not fully trusted. Last month, 46 per cent of respondents in an Ipsos-Reid poll said Harper was the best of the party leaders to be prime minister, far ahead of the 25 per cent who chose Dion. Harper also led on other key questions about leadership, including being seen as the leader who more Canadians thought shared their values. Yet on questions about his trustworthiness, he fell short. Asked which leader had a hidden agenda, 44 per cent said Harper, compared to 34 per cent who picked Dion. And Harper was the hands-down choice when respondents were asked which leader was "conceited" and "will say anything to get elected."

Fighting undercurrents of mistrust is an old struggle for Harper. Paul Martin's Liberals exploited them to deny him victory in the stretch run of the 2004 election. Harper's winning response in 2006 was to run a campaign based on a steady stream of mostly small announcements, patiently creating an impression of unthreatening, workmanlike diligence. It's the way he has often governed, too. His administration puts a premium on volume, pressing cabinet ministers to keep up the flow of routine policy announcements. One veteran Tory staffer, who joined Harper's government last year after long experience at the provincial level, described the demand to get stuff done as "urgent and intense." The aim is to bury any lingering public unease under mounds of saleable, or at least inoffensive, policy and process. "Previously, we suffered because we had no story to tell," says the aide. "Well, now we've cranked out so much work that we're confident we can go out there and show we haven't done anything evil."

It's the opposite of the emphasis Martin put on big breakthroughs, like a multi-billion-dollar deal on health care or a sweeping pact for First Nations. Even when Harper is driving toward a major announcement, he diligently lays a foundation of credibility, block by block. In advance of Baird's climate change package, for instance, Harper hit the road this month for series of warm-up environmental news conferences with premiers, from federal funding to extend Toronto's subway and help Ontario phase out coal-fired power plants, to a joint project with Alberta to spearhead a long-awaited plan to capture carbon dioxide by pumping it underground, to a B.C. plan to set up hydrogen fuelling stations between Vancouver and Whistler for clean-burning fuel-cell vehicles. And every good news event is a branding opportunity for Harper, not so much for burnishing the Conservative Party of Canada trademark, but for promoting what he still insists on calling - and the capital letters can be heard when he speaks the words - Canada's New Government.

His reluctance to call his regime, say, Canada's Conservative Government, is revealing. Although Tories are loath to admit that their own party name lacks something, their leader's preferred label leaves little doubt. But if the Liberal brand carries more positive connotations for many Canadians, Conservative strategists are trying to minimize that advantage by pushing issues that play to Liberal strengths to the margins. Last year, conventional wisdom had it that the next election would be fought over either environmental policy or the future of Canada's mission in Afghanistan. On both those issues, the Liberals enjoyed the upper hand. On the Kyoto Protocol, Harper had been an outright global warming skeptic, increasingly out of step with public opinion. On Afghanistan, his hawkish "I don't cut and run" stance linked him with President George W. Bush on Iraq, reinforcing a popular view of Liberals as the custodians of Canada's vaunted traditions of peacekeeping and good works abroad.

What a difference a few months make. Making an abrupt about-face on climate change, Harper acknowledged frankly that his government needed to change its ways to satisfy Canadians' desire for action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Dropping last year's harder-edged talk about fighting the Taliban, the government's new messaging shifted to emphasize stepping up reconstruction and boosting the Afghanistan aid budget. Now, Tory strategists see the Kandahar mission as bundled together with public support for a better-funded military, and a tougher line on anti-terrorism - linkages that play to Harper's strengths and Dion's weaknesses. As for climate change, they predict it will soon slip into the background, the way another perennial Liberal strong suit, defending public health care, already has. "Environment is off the table, health care is off the table," Reynolds says. "People can see these are hard issues to deal with, and the government is doing the best it can."

If those Liberal-friendly files have been neutralized, what's left to fight an election over? If Harper continues to have his way, only issues the Conservatives - or perhaps Canada's New Government - can reasonably hope to dominate. Lower taxes are an inevitable key platform plank. Tories also see law and order as a winner for them, making much of the Liberals' refusal to vote for Tory anti-crime bills in the House. That thrust might be wrapped up with anti-terrorism initiatives, again with emphasis on how Liberals wouldn't back the Tories in a vote to extend extraordinary post-9/11 powers to hold terrorism suspects without charges or compel testimony in investigative hearings. Intriguingly, Conservatives see public safety themes playing well with a category of voters they have had trouble courting: women. "Mothers, young women, want safe streets and communities for their families," says party strategist Tim Powers. "That has very specific appeal for female voters."

Finding a way to win over not only women, but also big city and immigrant voters, are core Harper aims. His ambition to see his Conservatives supplant the Liberals as Canada's natural majority party depends on it. But those are long-term objectives, and minority governments tend to be short-lived. One way or another, Harper's is sure to fall before every poll looks right for him, before every issue is aligned his way. For now, though, he's defining his main rival, dictating the terms of debate, and dominating the House. If the skeptics are right and a spring election isn't in the cards, the next question is whether even a politician with Harper's operational discipline and strategic focus can sustain this momentum into next fall.

Maclean's March 26, 2007