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Harper's dance may be out of step

Winnipeg Free Press, September 23, 2015 (A7)

I interviewed Stephen Harper in the fall of 1991 as part of my doctoral research into the Reform party. Of all the things he said at that time, the comment that has stuck most with me was that it was undesirable for a governing party to garner more than optimum electoral support; beyond that meant it owed too much to too many voters. Owing too much might mean having to make compromises and otherwise constrain the government's decision-making.

Such an approach to politics is based on two principles. The first is that a party must know who its core supporters are and then make strong, direct appeals to them in order to cultivate their support. The second principle is based on the specific characteristics of Canada's political system; that is, our 'first past the post' system of voting that allows for -- as some argue -- a tyranny of minority interests.

Neither of these principles is novel or unknown to previous Canadian leaders. Thanks to modern computers, every party knows the characteristics of its core supporters; in turn, every party, to one degree or another, tacks its policy sails in their direction. Likewise, every party knows that, played "right," there is a chance to bring home victory with less than a plurality of support. Indeed, the last time a party commanded more than 50 per cent in a Canadian federal election was 1984, when Brian Mulroney's Tories exceeded the bar by just 0.3 per cent. Jean Chrétien's Liberal's won three elections with less than 42 per cent support. Majority electoral support for any governing party at either the federal or provincial level is only somewhat less rare than spotting a unicorn.

What distinguishes the Harper Conservatives, however, is the manner in which they have rigidly held to the formula. Philosophically, most parties recognize they owe special dues to their supporters -- as former prime minister Brian Mulroney, remarked, "You dance with the one that brung ya" -- but also know that in a democracy they should also pay attention, if not respect, to the concerns of the wider citizenry. Practically, too, past governing parties -- while aware of the difficulty of getting majority support, either during or between elections -- did not stop from wanting to expand their base. Why not build a larger and more durable base?

Not so, the Harper Conservatives, however. Since first elected in 2006, the Harper government has tethered itself ever more firmly to its base, often seeming to parade its minority support as a badge of honour. In office, it has adamantly pursued policies and, more generally, engaged in rhetoric designed to harden its core vote, only occasionally throwing out (often symbolic) bones designed to attract a few others so as to get them over the top. This strategy proved successful in 2011 when the Conservatives at last garnered their much-coveted majority, taking not quite 40 per cent of the vote. But, like the American Republicans from whom it has borrowed much of its strategy, the long-term consequences for the party are dire. In viewing vast numbers of Canadians as implacable foes, the Conservative party has succeeded in making them thus. Faced with the choice of either voting for the Conservatives or -- to borrow a phrase from the late Frank Zappa -- having their flesh ripped out by weasels, the vast majority of Canadian voters, at least 65 per cent, might choose the latter. No surprise then that the Conservatives are stuck in the polls at 30 per cent.

Of course, the Liberals and the New Democrats are stuck in the same territory, neither having yet quite caught the voters' imagination. But if not exactly liked, neither are these parties heartily disliked. If the polls are to move, it will be in a shift between these parties, not in a sudden swell of support for the Conservatives.

Returning to Mulroney's remark, the Harper Conservatives look out today on a dance floor where only perhaps three out of 10 people want to join them in a two-step, the others gavotting in tentative embraces to determine who will take the lead.

Unless there is a sudden electoral twist, the odds are that Oct. 19 will see the Liberals and New Democrats in possession of the dance floor, the Conservatives being consigned to the sidelines, wallflowers by their own actions.

Trevor W. Harrison is a professor at the University of Lethbridge and director of the Parkland Institute.

Trevor Harrison

Dr. Trevor Harrison is Director of Parkland Institute. He is a Professor of Sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Science at the University of Lethbridge, and Associate Director and Research Affiliate of the Prentice Institute for Global Population and Economy.

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