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Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands to vote against the Liberal no-confidence motion in the House of Commons on Oct. 1, 2009. (CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands to vote against the Liberal no-confidence motion in the House of Commons on Oct. 1, 2009. (CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters)

Michael Bliss

Has Harper found his tipping point? Add to ...

In this autumn of our usual discontent with politics and politicians, we do not seem to be noticing that the balance between Canada's major parties is at or very near a historic tipping point. Stephen Harper's Conservatives have seized the central ground of the political spectrum and are poised to become the country's natural governing party. The Liberal Party is floundering in uncertainty and disunity, unsure of what it stands for and badly led. We appear to be on the verge of the great historic shift in party fortunes that Conservatives have hoped for, but have regularly failed to achieve, for more than a century.

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It's a truism that Prime Minister Harper has abandoned his Reform Party dogmatism and is trying to govern Canada from the centre. In one area after another - stimulus spending, foreign policy, support for the arts, economic development, co-operative federalism, as well as naked pork-barrelling and shameless self-promotion, the Conservatives are implementing policies that might have been drawn from the Jean Chrétien-Paul Martin songbook. Particularly on economic policy and their response to the recession, the Conservatives hold the political centre so thoroughly that Liberals have no idea whether to attack the government from the right (for spending too much) or from the left (for spending too little). The government's policies are broadly acceptable to Canadians, it continues to inch upward in the polls, and it would very likely eke out a majority in a general election today.

The Official Opposition seems to have lost its way. No one has the foggiest idea of what Canada's Liberals stand for, save for a return to Pearsonian diplomacy and Team Canada missions. Having so badly bungled such policy issues as the carbon tax in last year's election, the party is literally afraid to advocate new initiatives. Having committed an act of transcendent political lunacy in agreeing last winter to a coalition with the NDP, with separatist support, the Liberals have left themselves far more vulnerable to the "hidden agenda" card than Mr. Harper's Conservatives have ever been.

Most strikingly, having seen how ill-suited an intellectual/academic, even with significant cabinet experience, can be to the job of political leadership, Liberal grandees then handed the leadership to an intellectual/academic without any cabinet or any other kind of managerial experience. We are seeing the consequences of this in the very negative assessments of Mr. Ignatieff's leadership, by Liberals as well as outsiders, and now in the opening of potentially volcanic fissures in the façade of Liberal unity. Under Mr. Harper, the Conservatives have learned the discipline of power. Under Michael Ignatieff, the Liberals are dissolving into the dreary disorder of the powerless.

Sooner or later, the contempt that many in our chattering classes still seem to feel for the Conservatives in general and Mr. Harper in particular is going to begin to give way to the realization that he is on the verge of becoming the next Mackenzie King. Neither colourful nor lovable, Mr. Harper is emerging as a master strategist. He learns from his mistakes and is growing on Canadians as Prime Minister. King was widely dismissed as an unattractive lightweight in 1921, when he became the leader of a minority government. For the next five years, he held his party and government together, navigated through a series of political crises and, in 1926, emerged with a majority, launching him (still colourless and unloved) as the dominant figure on our political stage for the next quarter of a century. His brilliant, witty, learned opponent, Arthur Meighen, was consigned to the dustbin of history, where he wrote memoirs insisting that he had always been right.

Three previous Conservative prime ministers have failed to achieve the success that is almost in Mr. Harper's grasp. Sir Robert Borden's Conservative government was ground up in the muck of Great War battlefields and conscription. The most charitable interpretations of John Diefenbaker's squandering of his majority involve hard times - a very long recession - and the dilemmas of Cold War politics; another view is that he self-immolated in paranoia and ineptitude. In the late 1980s, Brian Mulroney's attempt to forge a permanent Conservative majority floundered over Meech Lake and Canadians' resentment at transparent pork-barrelling, sleaze and his government's overriding image of phoniness. So far, there is no evidence that Mr. Harper will fall into similar pits - although it would not hurt for Conservatives to remind themselves these days how easily power and spending corrupt.

Perhaps the cruellest problem the Liberals face is the fading of Quebec as the crucial national battleground. Whether or not the Liberals get their Quebec act together, the Conservatives are on the verge of being able to form a majority government even without effective Quebec representation, a prospect that will be more evident in future years after parliamentary redistribution.

The dim prospects for the opposition parties suggest that we will not have an election for at least another year, possibly much longer. Given their weakness, national opinion and the constant readiness of the Conservatives' electoral organization, Mr. Harper's government can get on with the job almost as though it had a majority. Unless something quite unexpected occurs, the Conservatives' virtual majority will become a real one whenever the next election is held and a new template will be in place for the foreseeable political future.

Michael Bliss is a historian and author of Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Chrétien.

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