The situation for the Conservative Party may not seem as difficult, at first, as I have made the other parties’ situations out to be. They are the Government; they have a reasonable likelihood of continuing to be so. Even if we were to go into an election, they stand a reasonable chance at being returned to office (although not, perhaps, with a majority: Bloc fortunes at the moment seem solid enough to deny many marginal seats that might go Conservative in Québec, and Ontario, according to the polls (especially the Greater Toronto region) remains Liberal country. Without the extremely detailed polls taken by parties that allow seat-by-seat estimations, it is foolish to take any of the national polls — not even Nik Nanos’ work with its superior public track record through the last few tilts at the ballot box — as a seat count indicator. Still, the overall national numbers, and their regional breakdowns, don’t seem to support much of a shift in the seat count from the 2006 results.
Why Should the Conservatives Grow?
And why should growth for the Government have occurred, anyway? Canadians, mostly, don’t spend a lot of time on politics unless an election is on (and about half of us not even then!). For many of those who do vote, voting is a matter of habit: the elector has marked his or her ballot for the same party time after time. Growth in support, then, is more difficult than it looks.
But there are a few things Canadians don’t seem to put up with gladly. One is acting, in office, as though we are all stupid. The other is the sense of “no tomorrows”. Let me explain.
The Finance Minister’s recent blasts at Ontario and its government, for instance, are indicative of the strategy of making people feel stupid. It is, after all, only last fall that Ontarians trooped to their provincial polling places and re-elected the McGuinty Government, and quite solidly, too. There are good reasons to question the wisdom of that judgement — but the fact is that that was the judgement of the voters. (They may have made it for several reasons: John Tory’s failed campaign [plus lingering memories of the stench and decay left in the wake of the Harris and Eves Governments, not all of whose initiatives were good for the province and not all of whose legacy was on a firm footing]; Howard Hampton being at least one election past his best-before date with the electors; and a judgement, on the part of Ontario voters, that Conservative Government in Ottawa is likely to last and a desire to counter-balance it with an opposing Liberal Government in Queen’s Park [a traditional voting pattern in Ontario, supporting years of Liberals in Ottawa during the PC forty-two year dynasty — the Diefenbaker years and the Clark interregnum being less than 20% of the total — and the choice to vote Liberal and NDP when facing the Mulroney PCs in Ottawa, and the “Common Sense Revolution” PCs in Ontario when facing Chrétien’s Liberals nationally].)
Whatever the reason, Ontario kept McGuinty in power: rabid, foam-at-the-mouth criticism on an on-going basis insults their intelligence. Is it any wonder there is still no headway being made in that province for the Conservative Party of Canada?
This sort of attack-dog approach has been a constant thread in the Harper régime, whether in public speeches or in the House. Not everything requires high dudgeon and indignation as its first, last and only recourse. Canadians expect a little more maturity from their Ministers and Government members — certainly more than they have been shown to date.
To his credit, in the House, the Prime Minister often comes across as more statesmanlike (certainly by comparison, and often genuinely so). One needn’t always like the message being given, but recognise at least that calm and even tones are a welcome reversal to debate form in an institution now reduced to petty tantrum, schoolyard bullying, the taunt of the day and other childish behaviour. So, too, the Prime Minister on those occasions where he speaks in public: less bluster by far than his opponents, more description and reasoning with the electorate.
Stephen Harper, of course, much like his opponent across the aisle, is well-known not to be a good “mass” people-person. He, too, is a character best served up in small settings, or on the radio: television is not his forte, and neither is the mass meeting, especially with an inability to control the outcome. This is standard introvert behaviour.
Harper has given in to the desire to protect himself from the fray, however, too much — and it is not a trait that is admired. There are reasons to have done so. As we have seen in the past two years, there are elements in the mass media who have prejudged the Harper Government and found it lacking for the mere crime of existing: from CBC reporters feeding questions to MPs to CTV’s general slant on the news, few days have gone by without a subtext of “ohmigod, what idiots Canadians were!”. The MSM, too, plays the contempt card in the face of the voter, more often than not. But, just as a Conservative in Toronto knows better than to expect The Toronto Star to suddenly turn generally supportive of his or her thoughts about things, the effect is often to neutralise the bias. This is why Conservative support has also remained stuck: not going up (because of the sense that the Government really is a one-man show brought about by the way Ministers are used as pit bull terriers and the obvious stand-off that exists between the Prime Minister and the normal interactions with the public and press that the role demands in the twenty-first century mobocratic “political consumer” economy) but not going down because of the obvious and blatant attempts to dismiss, smear, demean and deny the voter recognition for their choices, no matter how much it might disturb the salons of editors, columnists and newsreaders.
Until the Prime Minister opens up his Government, however, he will remain in this box. There were — and possibly are still (we are not privy to Conservative caucus meetings) — reasons to avoid public disruptions that cloud and confuse the on-going task of melding one party from the many strains that make up Conservatives in Canada. Mixing quasi-libertarians, social conservatives, traditional progressive conservatives and those who are tired of Central Canadian preoccupations and dominance of all issues into one coherent body that will stand up for each other rather than tear each other apart is a difficult task, and years of Liberal Government meant forming a Cabinet that needed (in many cases) guidance.
Still, two years on, some of the talent ought to be emerging, and not to attack, but to put forward policy and set the stage for future actions by the Government. This is important: Canadians do wonder if Harper would survive a leadership review by the party were another minority returned — and know he would face one if a coalition of opposing forces controlled the House even if the Conservatives returned with the largest number of seats (such a move would only take political calculation on the part of the Liberals and NDP, plus any Greens that might gain election). It is almost inevitable that continued minority governments will lead to at least informal but solid coalitions emerging. We’re not stupid, and expect it, and so we want to know what the Conservative team looks like, since a Conservative vote is not only for today’s government and leader, but for tomorrow’s potential one as well.
Until and unless Harper can “let go enough”, he and his Government remain stuck where they are, not quite able to command the result they have earned from the past two years’ governance, yet still able to block the emergence of their opponents — which means continued childishness and petulance, threat and submission, etc. Showing adult behaviour when facing little children would go a long way. Does the Prime Minister have it in him to trust the Canadian voter to make an adult decision?
If he does, and he changes his style and the style of his Government accordingly, he should find his long-sought majority.