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Lawrence Martin
Lawrence Martin

Lawrence Martin

A new chief of staff could herald another Conservative turn Add to ...

Are we headed for another one of the Prime Minister's moderate-man phases?

Throughout Stephen Harper's stewardship, he's had to run a difficult balancing act. He's needed to cater to his base and his own right-wing instincts while trying to broaden the party's appeal in the rest of Canada.

So there's been an alternating dynamic: periods when he comes across as an ideologue, periods when he has more the look of a moderate Tory.

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Lately, it's been the former. Red meat all over the place. Billions on new jails, billions on new fighter aircraft, the census ballyhoo, weird charges against the Russians and so on. Enough to keep the base fed for many a moon.

But, as it often does, the base-feeding has come at a political cost. The two most recent polls see the Liberals and Conservatives tied. If an election were held today, the Grits could well win a minority.

Look, therefore, for a shift in strategy. One clue is the departure of Guy Giorno, the visceral hard-liner and religious conservative who has been serving as Mr. Harper's chief of staff. As a replacement, the Prime Minister is reportedly looking to Bruce Carson, a former Harper adviser who is very much the opposite of Mr. Giorno. Asked about a possible return to Ottawa, Mr. Carson told me: "We will see on that one."

A veteran backroomer, Mr. Carson, in his early 60s, is of no fixed ideological address. He has the demeanour and smooth ways of a crooner, and served comfortably in the shops of former Tory leaders Joe Clark and Jean Charest. One of the reasons Mr. Harper wanted him was because of his ability to reach out to the old Red Tory gang and other moderates. He left, as did a whole bunch of others, including clerk of the Privy Council Kevin Lynch, after Mr. Giorno arrived in mid-2008.

Mr. Giorno's arrival marked a turning point for Mr. Harper's government. Appointing Mr. Carson could well mark another. It would be bad news for the Liberals, who have been given a big opening in the middle of the spectrum by the Conservatives' troglodyte turn.

Mr. Carson is currently serving as executive director of the Canada School of Energy and Environment in Calgary. Energy and environment are two of his specialty areas, as well as native affairs. He returned briefly to Ottawa to help shape the Keynesian budget the Tories brought in at the beginning of 2009. He has a comfortable, trusting relationship with Mr. Harper. While at the PMO, he was frequently able to take some of the ideological emotion out of the debate, or at least cool the temperatures. He also enjoys a close relationship with Environment Minister Jim Prentice, one of Mr. Harper's most powerful ministers.

A Carson appointment could take some of the steam out of what has been building into a culture war between the two major parties. This week, the Liberals appointed David McGuinty, one of their best attack dogs, as House leader to take on the Conservative pit bull, John Baird. Both men are promising to bring back civility to the Commons, but given their temperaments, the betting is that the civility will last the first half hour.

Because neither party has a strong advantage, the thinking is that there will be no federal election this fall. Don't count on it. While the Conservatives have been going through one of their weak stretches, the Liberals are feeling their first bit of momentum in a long time. Michael Ignatieff's personal ratings haven't improved much as a result of his summer bus tour, but given the good press he has been getting, they are likely to get better.

Should the momentum continue, even in modest proportion, the Liberals will be ready to pull the plug in a month or two. But Stephen Harper has proven very adept at digging himself out of holes in the past - the Grits should realize he could very well do it again this time, if they give him the opportunity.

 

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