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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

In his quest for a majority, the PM has fallen off the best path Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is further from winning a majority government than when first elected with a minority 4½ years ago.

Mr. Harper has tried almost everything to bump up his party's fortunes to majority territory, but nothing seems to have worked.

In 2006, his first electoral triumph, the Conservatives took 36.3 per cent of the popular vote; in 2008, they won 37.6 per cent. This summer, most polls have them slumping in the 30 to 33 per cent range.

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Now, polls are the most overcovered part of politics. They rise and fall with time, so that the only interesting part about them is the long-term trend, not the monthly numbers. That being the case, Mr. Harper's long-term numbers are at best flat, and at worst slightly down.

The only way to climb into majority territory and stay there is to practise what we might call "Big Tent" Conservatism, which might attract enough wobblies and undecided and moderate voters, to say nothing of Liberals, New Democrat and Bloc supporters, to augment the core Conservative vote, which is solid.

But that's not the kind of Conservative Party Mr. Harper has built, or wants. His objection to the Progressive Conservatives of Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark was precisely that their "big tent" politics lacked ideological edge and sharp policy focus. That's why, too, he left the early Reform Party, believing it was too populist and lacking the ideological clarity he thought a right-of-centre party needed.

The party he assembled was essentially made up of three groups: the mushy Conservatives of Peter Mackay, the old Reformers, largely from Western Canada, and Mike Harris's Ontario Conservatives.

Although the old Reformers under Preston Manning tried "big tent" politics - that's why Mr. Manning turned the Reform Party into the Canadian Alliance - the broadening never really worked. And Mr. Harris's Conservatives were sharply ideological when they governed Ontario, never really interested in the big tent.

During Mr. Harper's first term, he tried "big tent" politics by appealing repeatedly and directly to Quebec nationalism. He acquiesced in almost every demand made by Quebec Premier Jean Charest and offered a few inducements of his own. This approach appeared ripped from Mr. Mulroney's playbook, which married Quebec nationalists to the Conservative Party. But Mr. Mulroney was a Quebecker who understood his province as Mr. Harper did not. Similarly, Mr. Mulroney did not have to contend with the Bloc Québécois, which moved into the post-Meech Lake vacuum as a quasi-protest, quasi-secessionist party and has since been Quebec's favoured party in federal elections.

Once Mr. Harper's "big tent" effort blew up in his face in 2008, he quit tickling Quebec's underbelly, in part because his caucus and membership outside the province had never much liked his appeal to Quebec nationalism but went along, assuming it would bring electoral results. Today, Conservative support in Quebec is so low the party might lose most of its seats there.

His party continues to pile up support in Alberta and rural Western Canada, which pushes up the party's share of the national popular vote but doesn't deliver additional seats. That geographic core Conservative vote is rock-solid, but it isn't big enough for more than the base of a majority.

On some issues - economic management, for one - Mr. Harper does appear to practise "big tent" politics. He hasn't slashed and burned government programs; indeed, government spending rose much faster than inflation in the 2½ years before the recession. During the recession, he increased spending greatly to help combat a weak economy. He has literally papered the country with signs and announcements touting his Economic Action Plan, reminiscent of what the Trudeau Liberals did in the severe 1981-82 recession.

To take another file, many of his appointments (Senate excluded) have been excellent, the latest being that of David Johnston as the next governor-general. On social policy, the government hasn't done much, except the family allowance cheques falsely called a child-care policy. But they haven't done dastardly things either. The reform of the refugee-determination policy was a good balance between procedural fairness and much-needed new efficiencies. It's only too bad the changes aren't in place to handle the latest ships full of (likely bogus) Tamil claimants.

But against these "big tent" approaches must be placed the Prime Minister's ideological reflexes, as witnessed in the census fiasco, the thuggishness revealed in prorogation, the fierce desire to control information, the incessant partisanship, the disdain for facts that contradict party dogma, and the apparently irresistible need to appeal to the party's core voters - even at the expense of turning off less committed voters, the winning over of whom would be the abiding objective of "big tent" conservatism and the best path to a majority government.

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