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Stephen Harper takes part in a photo opportunity in his office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 24, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Stephen Harper takes part in a photo opportunity in his office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 24, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Jeffrey Simpson

Conservatives are pedalling furiously but going nowhere Add to ...

In 1979, Joe Clark led the Progressive Conservative Party to power with 36 per cent of the popular vote. Today, and for most of the past five years, Stephen Harper's Conservatives have hovered around 36 per cent of the popular vote. So, in more than three decades, the organized national conservative political formations - the PCs, Reform, Canadian Alliance and Mr. Harper's Conservatives - have not made major political gains.

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The exception - and a big one, of course - was Brian Mulroney's government, which essentially bolted Quebec support onto traditional PC votes elsewhere to command two huge majorities. That Quebec support has largely evaporated, despite Mr. Harper's best efforts - leaving today's Conservatives roughly where the PCs were three decades ago: short of a majority government, but striving mightily to get there.

This failure of the Conservative Party to go much beyond where the Clark Tories were is a fascinating tale because what we might loosely call the country's conservative forces have never been better organized, financed or motivated. And yet, for all their strength, they appear not to have changed Canada, or at least Canadian politics.

We shall see, come the election, whether the Conservatives can finally get their majority. But to this point in their five-year quest for one, it would appear that, despite all the efforts of the conservative forces, Canada is still not a majority conservative country.

The organizational gains that the conservative forces have made are impressive. Decades ago, of course, they had faithful newspapers such as the Toronto Telegram and the Ottawa Journal. Today, they have the National Post, the Sun media chain and many of the Postmedia papers flogging conservative ideas, to say nothing of AM Radio, Maclean's magazine and various TV commentators.

The conservative forces have large elements of evangelical Christian groups on board and, courtesy of the Harper government's Israeli policy, the Jewish community. They still have the small and large business communities for the most part, although the influence of corporate contributions to political parties has died, a death that has actually hurt the Liberals more than the Conservatives.

The conservatives forces have think tanks that didn't exist three decades ago propounding their ideas. They have a raft of authors who churn out argumentative books espousing conservative ideas. They have the Manning Centre teaching young conservative-minded people how to involve themselves politically.

Most important, whereas 30 years ago, there were powerful voices contesting the unbridled supremacy of the free market - think of the old NDP, the Walter Gordon Liberals, the Canadian nationalists, those who favoured an "industrial policy" and "managed trade" - these voices have been largely silenced before the altar of the market worship.

Conservative accomplishments such as Canada-U.S. free trade, deregulation and privatization are now taken for granted, in the sense that no political party proposes to reverse them. In this manner, conservative forces have intellectually routed their former adversaries. What was debatable before is considered a given today - an intellectual definition of victory.

Today's Conservative Party raises far more money than its opponents and uses it to lethal effect, as those attack ads directed at Liberal Party leaders have shown. It has tried to broaden its appeal to "ethnic" groups whose members used to vote overwhelmingly Liberal. These efforts have already had some success, and more might come in this election.

Conservatives have learned - some might say they now relish - the black arts of shameless politics, what with attack ads, using government money to promote the government's agenda, making announcements all over the place, and spin-doctoring every waking hour. Conservatives have a political machine that is better focused, more coherent and more ruthless than anything their adversaries possess, or perhaps than Canadian politics has ever seen.

The Conservatives have tried everything these past five years to influence public opinion in its favour, buoyed by the many conservative forces in civil society that have never been stronger. And yet, the country, taken as a whole, is not more politically Conservative than it was. And therein lies the conundrum and presumably the frustration for today's conservatives.

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