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Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday June 4, 2013. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday June 4, 2013. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

How Harper can get back in control: loosen up Add to ...

These have been rough weeks for the federal Conservative Party. Tory partisans are wounded and dazed. Opponents have a bounce in their step.

The Prime Minister may have crossed a line with mainstream voters, who now wonder if he is being dishonest with them. Many have been willing to forgive his tendency to hyper-partisanship. It's not clear that they will shrug off the sense that he is at best concealing the truth, at worst pushing a falsehood, on a matter of integrity.

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There’s no reason to believe this is over yet, and further damage may well be inflicted on the Conservative brand. The ultimate consequences are impossible to predict, without knowing all the facts, or indeed whether all the facts will ever become known.

Still, for the Conservatives, some useful lessons can already be drawn from recent events. Any path to a fourth election win will need to be different from that taken before. Here’s a short list of what will not work.

  • Maintaining that the Wright-Duffy affair is about Conservatives as “victims” of a double standard by the media, or odious and rogue behaviour by a couple of individuals. It’s so obvious how badly this goes over, if the PMO only ever issued one more talking point, it should be to ask partisans to cease trying the victim defense.
  • Hurling counter-allegations at opposition members has worked before. But now it just comes off as a rather pathetic attempt to skirt responsibility. Yes, voters may be annoyed to learn if an MP is behind in their taxes, and there’s probably some interest in how NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair should have acted 19 years ago when he spotted sketchy behaviour. But the water cooler talk is about the standard of honesty that Stephen Harper promised: voters want to know what truth is being concealed from them, because it seems like the government wants to conceal something.
  • The “economy can’t afford us to be distracted” defence might work if we lived in Japan, Greece, Spain, or Italy. But for Canadians getting up and going about their business everyday the idea that it’s too taxing to be honest and still do your job will ring hollow.

There’s nothing unusual about governments getting into serious trouble this deep into their time in office. Whether wounds become fatal has something to do with the prosecutorial talents of opposition parties, but just as much to do with the incumbents’ ability to absorb lessons and regroup. What are some things that might help?

  • An attitudinal reboot. Humility may be the horse the Conservatives rode in on, but it has been only infrequently spotted on the track of late. To watch ministers John Baird and James Moore, among the most capable Question Period performers on the Conservative front bench, is to witness them struggle to find a balance between the humility they know is needed, and the sticks-and-elbows-up game the cabinet has been coached to play for years.
  • A line-up overhaul. While the PM may prefer more incremental change, this is probably a moment in his career where taking a risk to make a more powerful statement makes sense. He’s got lots of backbench talent to draw upon, and a good 10 ministers who don’t seem to be skating hard, let alone scoring goals. The PM’s choices will reveal if his cabinet is more about entitlement and inertia, or meritocracy, the oxygen that keeps parties healthy.
  • A looser communications style. While it sounds counter-intuitive, in realigning his cabinet, the PM might want to appoint a few more disruptive communicators, and let them do their thing. Over time, the message of the government has had much of the colour and flavour boiled out of it, so that it’s about as appealing as being served the same meal every day, three times. This government might well draw more interest with a less controlled, more freewheeling and creative approach to selling its agenda.
  • An agenda reset. More trade deals, balanced budgets, law-and-order and lower taxes are all ideas with broad support. But their potential to inspire is pretty much tapped out. Voters who love these ideas will always love them, and hardly anyone is truly against them. Many don’t want to ignore these policy directions, but are yearning for something bigger, more inspiring, to rally around. Is there a way for Mr. Harper to meet this need without compromising his conservative philosophy about the role that government should play?

No matter what the government tries, of course, the Duffy-Wright affair may continue to twist, turn and inflict damage. Conservatives can start to regain more control over their political fortunes by facing the reckoning, answering more tough questions, and absorbing whatever consequences are warranted. The sooner they do, the better would be their chances to recover and pursue a reset of their own design.

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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