From bogeyman to Everyman

December 22nd, 2005
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From the op-ed pages of the Calgary Herald, December 22, 2005:

The 2004 federal election saw Liberals portraying Conservative leader Stephen Harper as scary, angry and (hence) unacceptable to eastern Canadians. Now, the Liberals can’t run on their or Prime Minister Paul Martin’s record, so they’re trying the same trick again. The key hammer last time was health care; this time it may be the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Harper has so far largely confounded Liberal plans through his emphasis on policy. And he’s avoided excessive ideology and overly abstract and theoretical ideas by focusing on average Canadians: the GST cut, choice in child care, help for hockey moms and dads. And there may be more to come.

On one level, Harper’s team has merely played to their leader’s strengths — intelligence and comfort with policy. But the Conservative campaign also demonstrates that, much more so than other leaders, Harper actually is an “average Canadian.” He’s not the son of a federal cabinet minister, nor a product of Quebec’s Desmarais/Power Corp. politician factory. His dad wasn’t a famous actor, but an accountant who provided a modest upbringing for his family. Harper comes by his views honestly, from a family background of thrift and hard work in Ontario and Atlantic Canada.

His persona, formerly aloof and intellectual, may now be translating its ordinariness into an asset. Despite his economist credentials, he’s no “tool of Bay Street.” He’s not reliant on corporate fat-cats paying $5,100 each to meet him. Indeed, his proposed Accountability Act would outlaw such shindigs. Harper’s active support base consists of several hundred thousand Canadians contributing small individual sums.

The Conservatives’ major policies are geared to strengthening the general interest of a broad cross-section of tax-paying Canadians. People who have not seen their take-home pay keep up with inflation or the creeping tax burden. Harper wants to reverse Canada’s long-term erosion of living standards compared to Martin’s favourite punching bag, the U.S.

Harper’s campaign offerings, though new in their details, reflect a remarkable continuity of thought. In a memorandum written nearly 20 years ago, Harper urged the then-Reform Party leader Preston Manning to shift his focus from electorally small demographics, such as resource-producing towns and Prairie farmers to the millions of middle-class, working — and largely urban — Canadians whom, Harper argued, were not represented by any political party.

Manning discounted Harper’s strategy, but his successor, Stockwell Day, an attractive family man, seemed positioned to bring it about — until he was labeled an extremist by the Liberals and like-minded media, and effectively neutralized.

Now, two decades later, Harper is reaching out to this vast Canadian cohort. His efforts appear to be working. Look at the GST cut: Whether you’re a just-landed refugee from Somalia, a hard-working second-generation business owner or a comfortable fifth-generation Canadian whose last name starts with “Mac,” saving money on every purchase holds appeal.

The party’s “socon” wing — socially conservative — is seen as a political albatross, a “scary” thing. But Harper has eschewed polarizing talk about family values, instead offering Canadians user-friendly and non-ideological tools to strengthen families in their own way. Internal polling suggests the Conservative’s key demographics are not those normally described by the news media.

The prime minister’s pronouncements about rights and “the charter” may sound superficially high-minded. But they reduce his role to brokering demands and dividing spoils among ever-expanding minority interests. Harper, by contrast, is offering non-sectarian, ethnically and regionally neutral policies that would benefit millions — whether you vote for him or not.

This thinking is reminiscent of John Diefenbaker, who a half-century ago rejected “hyphenated Canadianism” in favour of advancing individual equality. Harper should remind voters it was Diefenbaker who passed our first Bill of Rights, and that Liberals have no business lecturing Conservatives on that score.

To substantially improve seat count, Conservatives need to elevate their national poll results by about 25 per cent (i.e., 7.5 points on top of 30). Ironically, the Conservative’s Quebec void is not as damaging as the Liberals’ residual popularity in Quebec, which is virtually wasted.
But the best gauge of Harper’s campaign effectiveness is the Liberals’ reaction. They’re behaving as if they think he might beat them. The Liberals were expected to go negative. They’ve started early. Harper must seem very scary — to them.

By any normal standard of civility, Martin has already sunk very low — denouncing a democratic challenger who’s never broken any law, and grew up admiring Pierre Trudeau, as unfit for public life. The tactic is consistent with Liberal strategy in the last several elections. What has changed is that Stephen Harper shows signs of growing beyond the Liberals’ bogeyman into a Canadian Everyman.

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