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Prime Minister Stephen Harper discuss plans for his first majority government at a Calgary news conference on May 3, 2011. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper discuss plans for his first majority government at a Calgary news conference on May 3, 2011. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Remaking Stephen Harper <br/>in Canada's image Add to ...

So much for the honeymoon. The morning after the election, a reporter asked Stephen Harper whether he would push forward with a hard-right "radical agenda" now that he had a majority government. The Prime Minister shrugged.

"One thing I've learned in this business is that surprises are generally not well received by the public," he replied. But there's another thing he has learned.

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Mr. Harper has become a successful Prime Minister not by dragging Canada to the right, as so many critics allege. He succeeded because he understood the Canada that is becoming, and shaped his party and policies to fit. He saw the Canada that his opponents couldn't see.

Former Alberta premier Ralph Klein loved to say the secret to political success lies in figuring out where the parade is going, then getting in front of it. The Canadian parade is heading from east to west, from European to Asian, from rural to urban, from expecting more from government to expecting less, from multiparty politics to two-party politics (maybe 2½).

The Conservative Party is now at the vanguard of that parade. Seventy-three of its MPs come from Ontario, even as it shifts from being an eastern party to a western one; Tories won most of the ridings with large numbers of Asian immigrant voters; its base of power is now greater in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Calgary.

And as Mr. Harper and his party moderated and honed their views, they distilled a simple but politically compelling message: The federal government is there to protect your job, to protect your earnings and to keep you safe. It won't do much else because you don't want it to.

This is the message that will guide this majority government. By the end of the decade, this attitude may well be even more entrenched, whether or not Mr. Harper is still Prime Minister. It could take that long to develop a credible alternative government, one that is also western-oriented, attractive to urban immigrants, but populist progressive rather than populist conservative.

If so, then the contest at the national level may be between two broad-based political parties, one of the centre-right and one of the centre-left, each fighting for the votes in between. That has always been the political dynamic that Stephen Harper believed was best for Canada, and for his party. It may end up being his ultimate legacy.

GO WEST

May 2 may go down in history for something more important than the day the Conservatives won a majority. It was the election in which Ontario voters decoupled from Quebec and Atlantic Canada, and joined the West. They voted for a party from the West, led by a Westerner and embracing a Western ethos. This is seismic. "The geopolitical centre of the country has shifted west," said Preston Manning, who as leader of the Reform Party helped to lay the groundwork for that shift. "The Ontario-Quebec axis - the Laurentian region, some people called it - has now shifted to Ontario and the West working together."

During most of Canada's history, opinion shapers in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa debated national priorities among themselves within the Liberal Party, which was almost always in government. The consensus often resulted in some new national program, such as the proposals to help with university tuition, child care and home care that formed the core of Michael Ignatieff's platform. But that approach no longer resonates with Ontario voters, who abandoned the Liberals in droves. Less than a decade ago, almost every seat in Ontario was Liberal. Today, only 11 are.

Matthew Mendelsohn thinks he knows why. Mr. Mendelsohn heads up the Mowat Centre, a think tank at the University of Toronto dedicated to Ontario issues. "When parties come forward and say, 'We've got a big new national program to offer you,' say, on daycare, Ontarians are now very skeptical, much like people out west," he believes.

As the oil patch emerged as a new economic hub and Asian markets rose in importance, Ontario businesses increasingly looked west for markets and investments. And with unemployment a major worry and both the Ontario and federal governments running deficits, many workers in Canada's most populous province preferred the more minimalist Conservative alternative of lower corporate taxes and a quickly balanced budget, with modest help for low-income seniors and little else.

That platform appealed also to immigrant Canadians, most of whom now come from Asia. In fact, the Tories made their biggest gains in the immigrant-dominated ridings surrounding Toronto and Vancouver.

Brampton was especially fertile. The city on the northwestern edge of Toronto has a booming population of 434,000, 48 per cent of whom are immigrants. In the 2008 election, all four Brampton ridings went Liberal, as they always had. All four went Conservative last Monday.

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