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Lawrence Martin (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Lawrence Martin

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Lawrence Martin

Harper’s Conservatives are on cruise control Add to ...

Canada is supposed to be a difficult country to govern. But you wouldn’t know it viewing the ease with which today’s incumbents run the place.

The Conservatives are on cruise control. No oversized controversies or crises confront them. They drive the agenda, putting others on the defensive. On the big files – the economy and unity – the status is stable. In the polls, they remain where they’ve usually been – in the mid-30s, which is good enough. For the coming fall session of Parliament, the opposition parties have little to go on – a lot of legitimate grievances but no issue of great galvanizing potential.

In politics, success is often dependent not so much on what you do but on what happens independently of what you do. The breaks of the game. For the Conservatives, the stars continue to align, the Quebec election being the most recent example.

Unlike many previous governments, these Tories have been blessed to serve at a time when Quebec has been unthreatening. The anticipated majority victory for the Parti Québécois would have changed that, but it didn’t materialize. The PQ’s minority status means that the smooth unity ride for the feds is likely to continue. Stephen Harper need not pay much attention to demands from incoming premier Pauline Marois; the cold shoulder will do. It will play well politically in the rest of Canada, where sympathy for Quebec nationalism runs low.

His Conservatives took just five seats in Quebec in the last election but won a majority anyway. Rather than present a problem, his party’s non-presence, strange as it sounds, can work to his advantage. He can leave Quebec to the other parties to fight over. The NDP has its base in the province, and the Liberals are likely to soon have a leader, Justin Trudeau or Marc Garneau, from that province and will be trying to rebuild their once great fortress there. Mr. Harper can sit back and watch as they beat themselves up over real estate he doesn’t need.

The advent of the young Mr. Trudeau could work in the Conservatives’ favour as well. Ideally, they want their opponents on the progressive side to divide up their support as equally as possible. Given the legendary name, the MP from Papineau could well steal some of the NDP’s thunder on the left. His presence could engender the type of vote-splitting the Conservatives crave.

On the economy, as on unity, the tides continue to run in the Tories’ favour. Their years in office have coincided with a great commodities boom that has kept the economy afloat. Their big measure was to introduce – at opposition gunpoint – a stimulus program that most countries were doing. The Conservatives’ incumbency has also coincided with hard times for economies in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. This has served to make Canada’s performance look good by comparison, a point the Tories never fail to capitalize on.

Canada has 1.4 million people unemployed. Manufacturing’s share of the economy has fallen from 18 per cent a decade ago to 11 per cent today. In global competitiveness, the country has tumbled from ninth place a few years ago to 14th today. On productivity, the numbers are weak. But these and other grim developments are masked by the plight of other countries.

While opposition parties have a lot of fodder, including allegations of electoral fraud, they’ve been unable to make the case for a progressive alternative with the same effectiveness that Bill Clinton did at the Democratic convention last week.

All the while, the Conservatives continue to implement their agenda on law and order, on prioritizing resource exploitation over the environment, on turning Canada into the hard-liner of the Western world on foreign policy and on a range of other initiatives that few would have thought could fly in this country.

They’ve been doing it for more than six years. If it’s supposed to get tougher with time, no one has told Mr. Harper. The business of politics is too perilous to predict; shock waves can hit at any time. But the way things are today, little stands in his way.

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