The 38th Parliament has thus far been a difficult one for the Official Opposition and the Conservative leader, Stephen Harper. In contrast to the year before " during which Harper oversaw the merging of two politi- cal parties, his election as leader of the (re)united Conservative Party, and the reduction of the Martin jugger- naut to a minority government " the last six months have not been kind to the Conservative leader.
Indeed, with a handful of summer polls showing the Liberals widening their lead over the Conservatives to as much as 10 points and inching toward majority territory, it is difficult to remember that it was not always thus. In the first six months following the Speech from the Throne in October 2004, the Harper Conservatives were nipping at Martin’s heels and were beginning to look like a govern- ment-in-waiting.
Then came the defection. And the defeat in the House. And the flash of anger. And the hard work of the first six months " as well as the lead in the polls " melted away.
So what happened? How did the Conservatives manage to mount such an effective challenge to the Martin Liberals early in the game, only to be sent back to the lock- er room at halftime with nothing on the scoreboard? Perhaps more significantly, why did they allow their quar- terback to be so thoroughly pummeled that some are now predicting that he cannot see the game through to the end of the fourth quarter?
To be sure, Harper is not the sole author of his predica- ment. After a few stumbles early on, the Liberals have proven more adept at navigating these minority waters than anyone had anticipated. Led by House Leader Tony Valeri, and guided by the expert parliamentary hand of Jerry Yanover, the Liberals were clearly one step ahead of their rivals at every turn.
That said, to explain the squandered opportunity of the last year, the Conservative leader need look no further than to the small cadre of advisers on whom he relies daily, and to the exclusion of all others. In large part, they are the source of their own misfortune. In contrast to the Liberals, who seem to have deliberately reached out to those who knew about the dynamics of minority Parliaments, the Conserva- tives were reluctant to reach out to others, made themselves vulnerable and, in the end, paid a hefty price.
Immediately following the last election, many political pundits and observers (including this one) argued that the key to victory for Harper and the Conservatives lay in broadening the party’s appeal beyond the traditional conservative base and moving to the centre on specific issues to appease voter fear of a so- called hidden agenda. The core issue of the next campaign would be com- petence, not ideology, and the Tories needed to show they had the mettle to govern and the discipline to stay in the mainstream.
In the early days of this minority Parliament, it seemed Harper agreed with the diagnosis. He took steps to redress his disadvantage in la belle province and set out to broaden his pool of advisers beyond the University of Calgary alumni.
Harper also named young and dynamic MPs to his shadow cabinet, explored new ideas to round out his party’s platform and took his message on the road, heading to Atlantic Canada, Ontario and Quebec " acknowledging that more work needed to be done in those regions if he were ever to form a government. The party leadership also took steps to ensure the convention scheduled for Montreal in March would allow the membership to exorcise a few policy demons in time for the rematch with Paul Martin. By early 2005, it looked like Harper’s pledge to lead a moderate, mainstream conserva- tive party would become a reality.
Then, the Gomery commission headed to Montreal to hear the testi- mony of the advertising executives involved in the sponsorship pro- gram. With each explosive headline, the Official Opposition’s commit- ment to the long game weakened. Rather than build a case for a Conservative government riding by riding, policy by policy, the Tories bet the farm that they would suc- ceed in a) bringing down the Martin government on a confidence motion and b) convince the electorate that ”œnot being Liberals” was a sufficient condition to be handed the keys to 24 Sussex.
For a time, it seemed like the plan would work. Supported by Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, Harper laid the procedural landmines throughout the parliamentary calendar right up until the last week of June. In a little over six weeks, the Tories would have several opportunities to bring down the government and were deter- mined to see the strategy through. Buoyed by polls that had them in the lead nationally and in battleground Ontario, and supported by a numerical advantage in the House of Commons, a spring election seemed inevitable.
Something changed, however, on the way to the confidence vote showdown. Paul Martin secured the support of Jack Layton’s NDP to make the numbers game a much closer call. In his televised address, he also turned the tables on the Conservatives and saddled them with the burden of mak- ing the case for an immediate election.
Then came the master stroke. On the morning of May 17, two short days before the vote of confidence in his government, Paul Martin announced the appointment of a new minister of human resources and skills develop- ment and democratic renewal. To the surprise of exactly everyone, the prime minister had convinced Belinda Stronach to cross the floor. The runner-up in the Conservative leadership race " and arguably the most moderate voice on the Opposition front bench " broadcast to the world that their suspicions about Stephen Harper were well founded. If Belinda could- n’t find it in herself to sup- port him, why would anyone else?
By the time the networks went live to the House of Commons the following Thursday to witness the confidence vote, the political uni- verse had been transformed. Everything had changed " that is, everything but Stephen Harper’s strategy.
More than Stronach’s decision, Harper’s reaction proved to be the revealing moment of that skirmish. Harper should have acknowledged that the game had changed the night Paul Martin took to the airwaves to plead for 10 more months in office. And he should have known the game was over when Martin showed up at the National Press Theatre with Belinda Stronach by his side. Instead, he stuck to his guns and wagered his entire political future on the vote of an independent MP.
Harper’s decision is particularly important because it establishes a pat- tern. Just as in the final weeks of the last general election, he showed he was unable to adapt his strategy to new dynamics. As the front-runner in a leadership contest, the discipline to stay on message is critical to the cam- paign’s success. But Harper is now vying for the highest elected office in the land. If there is one certainty in elected office, it is that one cannot map out the full four years of a gov- ernment’s mandate: wars break out, recessions set in, natural disasters strike. In that context, voters want to know that the person they elect as prime minister has the ability to deal with the issues they haven’t foreseen. Adaptability is an essential feature of any successful government, and so far Harper has shown himself incapable or unwilling to deviate from the pre- game strategy.
The Conservative Party’s persist- ence on the issue of same-sex mar- riage, even after a defeat in Parliament, is another case in point. Despite the passing of bill C-38 into law, polls showing that Canadians have moved on, yet with no plan as to how a Conservative government would ”œun- marry” gay couples, senior party offi- cials insist that defending traditional marriage will be part of the Tory cam- paign strategy in the next election.
This rigidity extends to the inter- nal dynamics of the party as well. Blaming Ontario voters for their con- tinued support of the Liberal Party remains a central theme of internal discussions about the party’s fortunes. Blaming the media and communica- tions staff for the fact that the party’s message has not yielded any gains in popular support also features promi- nently in the habits of the leader’s entourage. Senior bureau chiefs, or entire media outlets, are blacklisted. Senior members of staff are driven to resignation. But the core strategy remains intact.
This tendency to blame others and shut out divergent opinions establish- es a second troubling pattern. Despite occasional drives to reach out, Harper’s instinct is to circle the wagons. In fact, it is precisely at those moments, when a broader range of advice would most benefit the Tory leader, that he moves against those who might disagree. At any time, these weaknesses would make it difficult for any party to suc- ceed. But they are more problematic today because of the current state of political parties in general and the Conservative Party in particular.
The Conservatives have always been successful when the many fac- tions within the party found a way to coalesce around a dynamic leader who can articulate a sense of common purpose. These are the necessary con- ditions for a Tory victory. More than the Liberals, for whom the discipline of power is a sufficiently compelling motivation, Tories have always need- ed an idea around which to rally and a leader who reaches beyond the party’s base, as Brian Mulroney did in 1984 and 1988.
The challenge for Tories is made even more difficult by the structural weakness of the party as it is today. In other times, a strong institutional party, with regional opinion leaders who enjoyed some measure of inde- pendence from the central office, would have acted as a powerful counterweight to the national lead- ership. The party apparatus " as dis- tinct from the campaign team, the leader’s office or even national head- quarters " had a real say in the direction of the party, or its position on a specific issue.
Today, in contrast, the leader con- trols all the levers of power within the party. Once the mandatory review vote has been held, the volunteer base has no mechanism to express its opinion on the course set by the leader. By circumstance and by design, the internal processes of the Conservative Party are driv- en by the centre, with little input from the membership. The result is a party structure completely devoid of checks on the leader’s power.
As an aside, it is interesting, and somewhat counter- intuitive, to note that the new Conservative Party inherited the more centralizing features of its constitution, not from the old Progressive Conservative Party but from the Canadian Alliance. After being decimated in 1993, the PC Party underwent a constitutional overhaul that decentralized deci- sion-making in a way not seen in any other Canadian political party before or since. Such decentraliza- tion created its own problems for the PCs, as it required a stronger volunteer and membership base than was available to them at the time, but recreated today with the current strength of the new Conservatives, the old PC structures might well finally produce the strong, independent, national party that had been envisaged by the drafters of the 1995 PC constitution.
Instead, the new Conservatives opted for a more centralized model, which has as a consequence " intend- ed or not " to limit the expression of divergent views on party strategy.
Beyond the events of the last six months, however, there is a broader point to make about Stephen Harper and reaching out. As William Johnson explores in his recent biog- raphy, Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada, Harper is fundamentally a social conservative who has believed for some time that politics in Canada require a fundamental realignment. In many ways, this belief is at the heart of his insistence on staying the course and of his break with Preston Manning and the Reform Party in 1996. As he demonstrated in the fall of 2004 and the summer of 2005, Harper is comfortable reaching out to people geographically. But he has much more difficulty when it comes to reaching out on issues " especial- ly in areas of social policy.
To be fair, a glimmer of hope that Harper understands the challenge before him emerged on the horizon late in August. The new wave of advertising aimed at Ontario does what the party should have been doing all along. Rather than preach to the choir, the TV spots speak to the real concerns of voters who are beyond the Conservative base. They feature the young talent that makes up much of Harper’s front bench. And they ignore the issue of same-sex marriage. Whether they are enough to turn the tide of public opinion remains to be seen, but for those who still think a Tory victory is possible, the ads offer some reassurance that reaching out may still be a possibility. The trouble is the advertising cam- paign runs counter to the well estab- lished media frame around the Conservative leader. With each pass- ing day, changing voters’ views of Harper becomes more difficult.
In any political party, it is the leader’s ultimate responsibility to leave to her or his successor a stronger party institution than the one they themselves inherited. Stephen Harper’s initial success is undeniable, but his ultimate duty to the
Conservative Party is no dif- ferent. Fundamentally, Harper has to decide whether he wants to lead a social conser- vative movement or a broker- age party. If he opts for the former, he must do so with the clear understanding that he will not form a government, but can shape political dis- course in a significant fashion. He must also be open and honest about that choice with the members of his party, and with Canadians.
But if, on the other hand, he thinks the Conservative Party has an obligation to democracy to pres- ent itself as a viable alternative to the Liberal Party, he must recognize the need for the party to broaden its base and make the kind of policy compro- mises inherent in that shift. Then he must decide whether he is the person to lead that process. If he is, he must break with the past and move imme- diately to make that shift a reality. If he is not, he must make room for someone who will.