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Lawrence Martin

Liberals can hope, but Harper is the granite man Add to ...

Herb Dhaliwal, co-chair for the federal Liberal campaign in British Columbia, is seated across the table in a Vancouver restaurant.

“Ah, Herb, did you see the latest poll?”

“No, what is it?”

“You guys are at 24 per cent. Practically a record low.”

Long pause. “Well, but how many people are really paying attention? Do you know how many people focus on politics between election campaigns? Only 15 per cent.”

Much will change, the cabinet minister from Jean Chrétien’s days predicts, once a campaign begins. Michael Ignatieff isn’t connecting now. “But it will be different when the voters tune in. I think we can win a minority.”

Is he serious?

Canadians won’t buy Stephen Harper’s politics, Mr. Dhaliwal says. Billions on fighter jets and new jails and tax breaks for the rich. It’s about values, he explains, and it’s about democracy. The Liberal platform will feature measures that will replace Mr. Harper’s bully democracy, he says, with a real democracy.

It is put to him that Canadians don’t seem to mind bully boy all that much. Look at his last batch of personal attacks ads. Many agreed that coming after the tragedy in Tucson, Ariz., and the calls for civility in politics, the ads were decidedly low-grade and showed the Prime Minister’s true nature. But to look at the polls is to see that they certainly haven’t hurt him. As in the past, the guttersnipe tactics appear to be working.

Shouldn’t the Liberals therefore be thinking of backing away from their plan to vote down the budget and risk forcing an election?

No way. “The party can’t be seen,” Mr. Dhaliwal explains, “to be continuing to prop up the government, not on something as big as the budget.”

He’s probably correct. The Grits really have little choice but to vote the budget down and risk the big fight now. This minority government has lasted 2½ years. Supporting the Tories longer after making noises to the contrary would be seen as an act of cowardice by the party and its leader.

Nor can the Liberals rely on the New Democrats supporting the budget to prevent the election call. The inside word is that the Dippers won’t dip unless their budgetary demands are met. The Conservatives are not about to bow that much. While they suspect their lead isn’t as big as the recent poll suggests, they are solidly out front.

The circumstances mean a spring election is almost a sure bet. The notion that Mr. Harper will try to avoid going to the polls until his numbers signal a majority victory is unfounded. The Prime Minister is in full command of his party. There is no heir apparent. He need only win another fair-sized minority to stay in power another two or three years, continuing the march he began five years ago.

His recently proposed perimeter accord with the United States fits nicely into the Tory ballot question, which will be economic security. Those who oppose the accord out of concerns about surrendering sovereignty face a tough sell. They come across as old hat.

The proposed accord, as Brian Mulroney suggests, gives Mr. Harper something he didn’t have before. A big idea. A vision for the country. The idea may not be to everyone’s liking but given the fractured political dynamic, the Prime Minister needs only appeal to slightly more than one-third of voters to score another victory.

The consistency of Mr. Harper’s support is extraordinary. The numbers never ratchet up for long. Canadians still get nervous whenever it appears he is approaching a majority. But more importantly in terms of winning is that the numbers never drop below 33 per cent. The Harper base cannot be dinted. It’s more than Teflon. He is the granite man.

So how, Mr. Dhaliwal is asked, could things possibly change enough in an election campaign to make his Liberals a winner?

“The NDP vote,” he says. “The NDP vote has to come to us.”

 

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