He won. Now what?

After the challenges of the economy and Quebec, is there room for Harper to grow?
Aaron Wherry and John Geddes

At his best, Stephen Harper is a confident actor in scenes of his own construction. The steady technocrat taking control of the Canadian Alliance. The conciliator bringing together the Conservative party. The authoritarian forcing discipline on an inexperienced government. The dignified parliamentarian recognizing the Québécois nation, negotiating the Afghanistan compromise and overseeing the residential schools apology. The family man promising to protect your children from economic struggle, criminal gangs, flavoured tobacco and, scariest of all, Stéphane Dion.

“What Harper has proven to be is the right character for the drama,” says Tim Powers, the Conservative strategist. “And he’s played different roles and played them well.”

Consequently, he struggled most in this fall’s election when he was forced to improvise. When the market went into seizure, and the situation demanded he commiserate with the public, he opted instead for defiance, telling Canadians to stop worrying and buy more stock. And when relatively minor dabbling in arts funding made him seem the stereotypically bloodless Republican (especially in Quebec), he chose not to assuage such characterization, but reinforce it with sneering comments about the elites and their taxpayer-subsidized galas.

In those relatively small moments the actor so celebrated for his discipline seemed to lose the plot and, in the process, his happy ending of a majority government. And, as he begins his second term, those moments foretell two of the roles he must now master—capable steward of the national economy and sensible friend to all Canadians (especially in Quebec). Maclean’s is exploring the challenges now facing each of the major parties: for the Tories, these include the economy, Quebec and the pursuit of a majority government. All of which come back to Harper and the issue he chose to run on, leadership.

The first challenge is grand and pivotal—“The central issue, and perhaps the defining issue, of his prime ministership will be the economy,” Powers says—but one that requires almost contradictory logic. “I think that probably the right policy course is the one that’s probably the most difficult for a politician, and that’s not to do much,” says Don Drummond, the TD Canada Trust economist. “I don’t think there’s a lot he can do. It’s a $1.5-trillion economy. So if you wanted to move the economy by one percent you’ve got to plunk down $15 billion. Suppose you did $5 billion, which would be more of a manageable number, you’re talking about moving the economy by one-third of a per cent. So if I took the Bank of Canada’s forecast they just released, 0.6 per cent growth for 2009. For $5 billion you could move that to 0.9 per cent. Whoop-dee-doo.”

It is a matter then of expectation and perception, something Harper seemingly came to realize before the election even concluded. After declaring Canadians were not worried about their homes or jobs and suggesting the stock market chaos presented “buying opportunities,” Harper began referencing his mother and children to explain his own worries. Within a week, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was offering a complete reversal: “People are worried about the global economy and its effects in Canada. They’re also worried about their job security, they’re worried about their homes. I share their concerns.”

In electoral victory, the Prime Minister has moved even quicker. As late as voting day, Harper was promising a Conservative government would “never” put government finances into deficit. Then Drummond released a report projecting federal deficits in each of the next four years and suddenly Harper wasn’t so sure. Just three days after accepting his second mandate, the Prime Minister, while promising to balance the books this year, would not repeat his previously definitive stance. “I don’t think we’re in a position yet to know all the information in that regard,” he said of a budget for 2009-2010. “It would be premature to speculate on that.”

“I didn’t think about it at the time,” Drummond says, “but in retrospect, my putting out a note saying they were heading into a $10-billion deficit probably did him a favour. The worst thing for a politician is to surprise people with bad news. It’s all about conditioning.”

Flaherty has announced some measures to reinforce the financial system—buying mortgages through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and guaranteeing some bank loans—but the wider reality remains unswayed. The 10 days after Harper’s election included news of a 26-year low for declared consumer confidence, a pessimistic growth forecast from the Bank of Canada, and a $1.7-billion deficit in August for the federal government. And if all that preludes a recession, there is a rather stark political reality: of the six recessions Canada has suffered since 1960, each has corresponded with the incumbent government being punished at the next vote (reduced from a majority to a minority government, or voted out of office entirely).

Powers is quick to argue the Conservative governments that struggled in such circumstances—led by the likes of Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney—had to contend with much stronger Liberal parties than the one now looking for its fourth leader this decade. But then economic turmoil also acts as a referendum on leadership—a matter of communication and appearance as much as action or policy. “I mean, Trudeau was a horrific economic manager, but his success was in communicating the right things at the right time. And doing it in a manner which was believable. Mulroney too was a good communicator, but nobody believed him,” Powers says. “Chrétien had a challenge with syntax, but as a communicator was skilled. Because his entire package of communication—body language, mannerisms, mangled words—gave people comfort.”

For Harper, the challenge will be learning to better communicate his claim on leadership. “I think he recognizes that, while he didn’t win a majority, the support he did get, he got because people do buy that he has good leadership abilities,” Powers says. “Would they like him to exercise his leadership in a different way? Well, they’re asking for some adjustments, but they do want the core to remain the same.”

The core was supposed to be more than enough to carry Quebec. Conventional wisdom in the early stages of this fall’s campaign held that Harper would win a passel of new seats there. Unfortunately for Harper, it turned out that Quebec voters see government support for artists and entertainers not as a frill, but as a benchmark for Ottawa’s sensitivity to their identity. And unlike many voters in the rest of Canada, Quebecers were reluctant to see 14-year-olds sentenced like adult felons. Still, more was happening than tone-deafness on Harper’s part to Quebec sensitivities on these niche issues. “I think the small mistakes revealed problems that are more deeply rooted,” says Antonia Maioni, director of McGill University’s Institute for the Study of Canada. Faced with negative media reaction and artists rallying against them, the Conservatives’ ground troops went missing in action. Many were not really federal Tories, but loosely allied activists from the provincial Action démocratique du Quebec, or even from the provincial Liberals. “The Conservatives relied on the kindness of strangers,” Maioni says. “When the tide began to turn, those kind of people became fair-weather friends.”

That turn seems to have proved instructive. “What we’re trying to do in Quebec, which is very different than what Conservative movements have tried to do in the past, is that we don’t want to rely on another political party’s organization, be it the provincial Liberals or the ADQ,” said a party strategist. “So it may take a little longer. But at the end of the day, this approach will ensure that the Conservative movement in Quebec has a certain longevity.”

But Harper’s ability to reach out to francophone Quebec is now blunted. Influential Montreal journalist André Pratte wrote after the campaign that Quebecers had “seen the Reform side of Stephen Harper anew.” But the Prime Minister, nothing if not relentless, went back to work almost immediately after the election, opening the Francophonie Summit in Quebec City with a pledge of new money for the international the French-language network TV5, and declaring himself an “heir” to Samuel de Champlain.

Harper’s Quebec disappointment suggests he needs to do more. First, he needs to build up a truly Tory organization on the ground, riding by riding—no easy undertaking. Second, he must find Quebec advisers astute enough to scan the next Tory election’s platform for items that might backfire in Quebec. And an even more fundamental challange might be emerging. Much of the Prime Minister’s purported appeal in Quebec rests on his move in 2006 to have the House vote to recognize that the “Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.” Now, Mario Dumont, the ADQ leader, once seen as Harper’s natural ally on the Quebec provincial scene, is demanding that nation status be entrenched in the Constitution.

Opening up formal constitutional talks, though, is a dangerous tack Harper is unlikely to try. That raises the prospect that in the next Quebec election, widely expected to be sprung by Premier Jean Charest for early December, Dumont will tell Quebec voters, over and over, that Harper gave them only symbolic recognition, not any real power or greater autonomy. Maioni argues the Québécois-are-a-nation motion always carried this risk. “Sooner or later,” she says, “the whole nation thing was going to ricochet.”

Harper could try to react by offering some sort of new powers to Quebec, and perhaps all the provinces. But that, too, would be a high-risk move. “The big challenge is to square the circle of winning Quebec without alienating the rest of Canada,” Maioni says. And after his listless performance in the French TV debate during the federal campaign, new doubts have been raised about Harper’s ability to aggressively sell new positions in his second language. And next time, he could be up against a fluently bilingual Liberal leader—Michael Ignatieff or Bob Rae—who doesn’t carry the awkward baggage Stéphane Dion did as a long-time staunch champion of Ottawa’s power in his home province.

Yet the disappointing Quebec outcome, and the prospect of more problems brewing in the province, don’t necessarily mean the Conservatives must give up dreaming of a majority. The old assumption was that a Tory majority must wed a western base with wide support among soft-nationalist francophone voters in Quebec—the formula that scored for both John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney. Despite the Bloc’s surprisingly strong 50-seat showing, however, the Conservatives’ 143 MPs put Harper only a dozen shy of majority. And the trends suggest those 12 more ridings might well be within reach elsewhere in Canada.

The key factor is growing Conservative support in the sort of immigrant-heavy ridings where Calgary MP Jason Kenney has spearheaded a methodical courting of support in recent years. “Anything that anybody would say about the work of Jason Kenney and the importance of his work,” said the Conservative strategist, “would be an understatement.”

Party number-crunchers have various ways of gauging strength in those targeted ethnic communities—ranging from Chinese, to Sikh, to Jewish voters. But one way is to parse the results in the 22 ridings in which more than half of the population was born outside Canada. Most of these immigrant-majority ridings are in or near Vancouver or Toronto. In 2004, the Liberals held all of them except Burnaby-New Westminister, a B.C. riding won by the NDP. But in this fall’s election, the Liberals lost five of the 22, with the New Democrats taking Burnaby-New Westminster again and adding Vancouver Kingsway, while the Conservatives picked off the B.C. seat of Richmond and two Toronto suburban ridings, Thornhill and Mississauga-Erindale.

Ceding just five of 22 on their worst election night since 1867 might not look so bad for the Liberals. Dig a bit deeper, though, and the results look considerably more promising for the Tories. Between the 2004 and 2008 elections, the Liberal vote share declined in all but one of those 22 seats, the Toronto suburban riding of Scarborough-Rouge River, where the party’s vote notched up a single percentage point. On average the Liberal vote share eroded about 9.5 per cent, and the Conservative popular vote improved by 8.5 per cent.

The Liberals continue to enjoy sizable leads in many of these constituencies with big immigrant and visible-minority populations. But the swing over three elections in Richmond, where Conservative Alice Wong knocked off long-time Liberal incumbent Raymond Chan, suggests even huge margins aren’t unassailable. The Tories stood 10 points behind the Liberals in Richmond on election night 2004, fully 19 points ahead in 2008. No wonder urban and suburban constituencies that formerly looked foreign to the Harper Conservatives, with their rural, small-town and small-city base, no longer seem out of reach. “Regardless of the region of the country,” says the strategist, “the main objective is for the Conservative movement to start growing roots in parts of the country where it traditionally didn’t have any.”

This is long-term thinking in a culture that usually demands short-term satisfaction. Prime ministers from Robert Borden to William Lyon Mackenzie King, Lester B. Pearson to Pierre Trudeau, held on long enough to win in their fourth, or even fifth, elections as leader. They all triumphed after suffering serious setbacks and defeats, and it’s been nearly 30 years since a Conservative or Liberal leader contested more than three elections.

Patience, though, is possibly the one unifying quality of all Stephen Harper’s characters—a focused, almost stubborn, commitment to long-term, even far-off, goals. In that, he surely sees the 2008 election as just another step towards the ultimate objective of a sustainable political force capable of regularly winning majority governments for a Conservative prime minister. If that is to become a reality, Harper must figure out who he needs to be. And play the roles with enough skill to convince those not already persuaded by his previous turns.

IN NEXT WEEK’S MACLEAN’S: The challenges facing the NDP