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Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Bruce Anderson

Stephen Harper should show more humility Add to ...

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National’s “At Issue” panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising.

Maybe it was World Cup fever that induced Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a recent Calgary speech to declare that the “best government in the world” tournament was over and the Harper government had won.

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It had to be something. It didn’t seem like a product of careful consideration. Because even if you did truly think that this is the best of all the governments in the world, unilaterally declaring it is neither charming nor great politics. There’s little chance that Canadians, who prize humility and despise arrogance, will enjoy hearing how lucky they are to have the best government in the world.

Obviously, there are many ways to evaluate performance. One mark of greatness is the ability to, when tired from years of effort and the burdens of office, find an “extra gear.” Fighting a fourth election with the same level of effort and energy you put into your first is not easy.

Success in that circumstance requires the right attitude, shaped by a tone that starts at the top.

After years in office, governments (of any stripe) can splinter into different attitudinal clusters. Some members of cabinet, weary of the inevitable, perpetual criticism, retreat into a bubble, oblivious to externalities. They focus on doing their jobs, moving their files ahead, one day at a time.

Some become obsessed with the notion that they are targets of a conspiracy of malcontents, troublemakers and self-interested rogues. They ignore any criticism, assuming it is always wrong and a product of bad faith or ill will, or both.

Some take a more productive approach, and are able and willing to acknowledge that they’ve not always got everything right and should try to constantly improve.

Talk to folks in and around the current government and you can see all three types. In the months ahead, it will be the Prime Minister who sets the tone for everyone in his cabinet, caucus and party.

If I were advising this prime minister, I would urge him to avoid the kind of speech he delivered to the faithful in his Calgary riding last weekend.

I understand he was at home, and it was a Conservative audience. But it will be party members that need to hear and carry his message forward into the next election. If they knock on a neighbour’s door, and repeat his theme, it won’t usually go all that well.

Today, according to our latest Abacus Data poll, 35 per cent approve of the performance of the Harper government. That’s not a terrible number, by historical standards, but it’s not much of a platform for saying that yours is the best government in the world. As political strategy and rhetoric go…well, I just don’t think this is finding that extra gear.

Mr. Harper has succeeded when seen as a person who exemplifies hard work and no nonsense. When he seems undistracted by partisanship and focused on doing what he thinks is best for Canada. He drains support when he comes off as dismissive of other points of view and strenuously partisan.

Adjusting tone is nowhere near as hard as balancing budgets, negotiating free trade deals, or choosing the right fighter planes. The right tone costs no money; the only investment needed is discipline. Getting the tone wrong, on the other hand, puts an entire policy agenda at risk.

The conservative movement found success through hard work, fidelity to certain ideals and a healthy dose of humility. Painting a contrast with arrogant administrations past was an essential building block for the Reform, Alliance, and finally the new Conservative Party of Canada.

Today, the Prime Minister’s most prominent challenger, Justin Trudeau, has branded his campaign as one of hope and hard work – messages that were central to Conservative success in 2006. Can the Conservatives really cede this ground, choosing instead to proclaim themselves the best government in the world?

Summers away from the Question Period bear pit can be useful for quiet reflection about political positioning. For his own sake, and that of his party, the PM may want to toss out the script he used in Calgary and set a different tone for the fall.

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