In March, 1989, with the Progressive Conservative government of prime minister Brian Mulroney safely re-elected, a young right-wing maverick wrote a long memorandum about how to create a stronger, sharper conservative movement.
Stephen Harper was by then a Reformer, having abandoned the PCs, and he offered advice on how to shift the Reform Party from being a populist critic of the status quo to what he called a “modern version of the Thatcher-Reagan phenomenon.”
Mr. Harper said the party had to seek and woo working-class and urban-dwelling Canadians with an approach that emphasized “moderate conservative social values, consistent with the traditional family, the market economy and patriotism.” (The quotes are from Tom Flanagan’s book Waiting for the Wave, as reproduced in Susan Delacourt’s Shopping for Votes, the best political book of 2013.)
Run the reel forward, to Dec. 31, 2013. On the afternoon before New Year’s Eve – an odd time if you think about how few people care about anything political while preparing for that evening – the Prime Minister’s Office issued a long press release listing 75 Harper government accomplishments from the year.
Supporting the list was a prime ministerial statement concluding that the government will “seize every opportunity to secure prosperity and security for Canadians … by creating jobs and opportunities, supporting and protecting Canadian families, and putting Canada first.”
There was that same message, nearly 25 years after that 1989 memo: “market economy” (jobs and the economy), “moderate conservative social values” (supporting and protecting Canadian families) and “patriotism” (putting Canada first.)
Say what you like about Stephen Harper: He has been consistent in his approach to politics and what he hopes to accomplish. Of course, he has zigged and zagged, as all prime ministers must when confronted with complex realities, but he has never removed his eyes from the objectives he envisaged when, as a younger man, he sought a Canadian version of the “Thatcher-Reagan phenomenon.” As leader of a party he more than anyone created, he has won minority governments and one majority, and wants another.
Mr. Harper disliked intensely the old Progressive Conservative Party of Robert Stanfield, Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney for all sorts of reasons, notably what he saw as intellectual mushiness and a desire to be too many things to too many people. To use a phrase from Britain’s Thatcher era, the PCs were the “wets,” as in wet noodles.
The party Mr. Harper sought would be more tightly focused on fewer voters, but they would be intensely loyal, capable of being rallied around those three themes of market, family and patriotism. Even in the pre-New Year’s list of 75 items, his government’s record is broken down into those three categories.
The overarching political question, as 2014 dawns, is whether Mr. Harper’s narrow and disciplined approach has run its course. The negatives in public opinion about the government and its leader are at all-time highs. At the same time the government was doing these 75 things in 2013 – some of them quite significant; others picayune or statements of intention – the government’s popularity slid.
Today, with perhaps 30 per cent (maximum) of the electorate prepared to vote Conservative, the party commands the loyalty of far fewer voters than the old Progressive Conservatives. In 1979, Joe Clark won 36 per cent of the popular vote in defeating prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals (who actually won 40 per cent themselves). Brian Mulroney won 50 per cent in his landslide victory of 1984.
At its very best, in the 2011 election, Mr. Harper’s party won just a marginally higher share of the popular vote than Mr. Clark, and way below the share won by Mr. Mulroney, whose party Mr. Harper so disliked. More ominous for Mr. Harper, the number of Canadians who prefer the Conservatives as their second choice is very, very low. The party’s growth potential is limited.
There is no chance of this government changing either its focus – this was set in Mr. Harper’s mind a long time ago – or the way it does politics, namely governing in permanent campaign mode. It is far too late to change either.