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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons Thursday May 9, 2013 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons Thursday May 9, 2013 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Bruce Anderson: Harper can refresh the Tories by using some common sense Add to ...

Remember the “Common Sense Revolution?” It was the slogan that carried Mike Harris to power in Ontario in 1995.

There are plenty of interpretations as to why it worked. I think voters weren’t embracing a right-wing ideology as much as rather rejecting a government they thought had drifted too far off centre. Mr. Harris didn’t run a “mission conservative” campaign. He campaigned against radicalism. The very words Common Sense Revolution implied a revolution that shouldn’t be necessary and wouldn’t be painful.

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Ironically, the threat facing the federal Conservatives almost 20 years later has a familiar feel to it. If the Conservatives are unseated in the next election, it might just be because others sound more sensible.

In 2006, Stephen Harper won with a simple message: we respect voters and will be more accountable to them.

As the PM considers how to refresh his government, he will want to take a hard look at how far the government has wandered away from this message and into dangerous territory. On too many days, there have been too many clunkers:

  • The Auditor-General says $3-billion in funding for anti-terrorism measures can’t be accounted for. Treasury Board President Tony Clement says it wasn’t lost or wasted, we just can’t tell you where it went.
  • The Conservatives are found to be using public funds to mail pamphlets mocking Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau? The defence: “everybody does it.” Even some Conservative MPs stepped back in discomfort.
  • Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre extols the accomplishments of Conservative Peter Penashue, resigned his seat over violations of campaign finance rules. An apology would have been a better strategy. Judging by the results, Mr. Poilievre probably did more harm than good. And now Conservative HQ says the by-election result was a referendum on Justin Trudeau, and he lost?
  • Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan says Conservative Senator Mike Duffy showed “leadership” in repaying money that auditors said he improperly claimed. Even voters who might give Mr. Duffy the benefit of some doubt likely stop short of thinking he has earned praise. Comments like this don’t help the Conservative cause, they hurt it.
  • The government says it’s “obvious” that Canadians need to be exposed to millions of dollars in TV ads touting the Conservative Economic Action Plan. My instinct is that every time a non-aligned voter sees these ads in the weeks ahead, chances are it will make them think that the government has lost its way. The next $20-million might well drive more votes to the other parties.

Changing Cabinet personalities will be a useful step for the Conservatives, but only if accompanied by a change in the way in which the government presents itself, in how it makes its case to voters.

The Conservatives have plenty of MPs who are thoughtful and respectful of others. It would be good strategy to give them more ice time: after all, civility is a big part of Canadian DNA. If there’s a joke told at our expense, it usually has something to do with how polite we are.

The backbenchers being touted for possible promotion include some who seem tempted to emulate the Van Loan/Poilievre style and others who have built a reputation for more tempered partisanship. Who the Prime Minister promotes and how he coaches them will say a lot about whether he believes a shift in style and tone is needed.

To regroup, setting aside policy for the moment, the Conservatives must shed the hyperbole, show that they haven’t lost touch with reality, and embrace the fact that they will need to win hearts and minds, not bank too heavily on inferior opponents or a threatening global economy.

Bruce Anderson is one of Canada’s leading pollsters and communications strategists. He is a member of the CBC’s popular At Issue Panel, a regular Globe blogger, and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising.

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