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Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds to a question during an interview in Vancouver, Thursday September 6, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds to a question during an interview in Vancouver, Thursday September 6, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

After a stressful spring, how can Conservatives gain ground this fall? Add to ...

How was Stephen Harper’s summer?

A good deal better than his spring. That’s not saying much, and may be cold comfort for Conservatives as fall arrives in Ottawa.

Problems were mounting before the House rose, and the government was mostly on the defensive.

Their budget was controversial in substance and for the style it represented. A new NDP leader vaulted in the polls. Allegations of Tory campaign misdeeds persisted. Buying new fighter planes remained a pain in the head.

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Compared to the stress of the spring, the summer has been kind to the PM. He used the time fairly well, from a political standpoint. Those voters who have been paying attention (perhaps not great in number) will have noticed:

  • A somewhat less aggressive posture when it comes to major infrastructure projects and environmental oversight. The PM went out of his way to say that the role of the government was to ensure that the right decisions are made, based on the best evidence, a posture more in line with the expectations of mainstream voters.
  • A less than flashy but ostensibly productive meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Chancellor voiced support for trade growth with Canada and commitment to stabilize the European economy.
  • The PM in the role of proud cheerleader for our athletes at the London Olympics.

As a list of accomplishments, this may strike you as a bit thin, but my point is only that Conservative partisans will have enjoyed July and August more than the months that preceded them.

Come fall, then, what to expect?

Conservative strategists would be reckless to assume that the tone and style employed for much of the last several years will produce as good, let alone better results in the future.

Every new government has a period of time when it can deflect criticisms simply by calling to mind the sins of its predecessors or the weaknesses of its rivals. That time has expired for the Harper Conservatives. More and more, this government will live or die on the strength of its agenda and its ability to explain and build support for it.

The Democratic Party convention in Charlotte may not have been appointment TV for Canadian Conservatives, but there was one element that they would do well to notice: the role played by Bill Clinton.

Yesterday, Barack Obama joked about the idea of naming Bill Clinton the “Secretary of Explaining ‘Stuff’.” In this joke there was a serious point for incumbents everywhere. Despite best efforts, there’s something about being in power that too often turns communications about policy ideas watery, blurry, and uninspiring. Worse, partisanship can creep into every sentence like a poison, repelling independent voters.

Mr. Clinton showed how to take a complex web of facts and circumstances and walk worried voters through the thought process of Democratic leaders. Along the way, Mr. Clinton drew a powerful contrast with Republicans, and eased disappointment with Mr. Obama’s record.

Critically, Mr. Clinton’s partisanship seemed rooted in his argument, not in his DNA: a difference voters notice intuitively. Canadian Conservatives would do better if they put more emphasis on being better “explainers,” and worked to shed, rather than reinforce, the suspicion that they are in politics because they hate people in other parties.

Many (not all) Conservative ministers and MPs often seem forced to utter spin lines or talking points that are almost comically partisan and simplistic. These lines cause inflammation, probably by design, but in the end they prevent voters from ever really hearing the goal behind a policy choice, or the reasons why the Conservatives believe it will work.

Confidence in both conservative and liberal ideas weakens when they are presented in a highly partisan way, and the opposite is also true: Canadians are pretty open to rational ideas coming from either side of the spectrum.

Canadians know Mr. Harper does not crave their affection. Both he and the average voter seem content that the relationship need not develop into a more passionate embrace. Instead, there has been an implicit, soft contract: if the economy remains Mr. Harper’s top priority and his agenda is not too radical, voters who are not Conservatives will hesitate to coalesce and force his removal.

But circumstances are changing, and risks for the Conservatives are growing. Thomas Mulcair’s NDP is a tougher adversary than either the Dion- or Ignatieff-led Liberals. The election of the PQ will add drama and difficulty, and the federal Liberal leadership race will draw more attention in the coming months too. Whether the economy will seem less fragile or more threatening over time: neither prospect is happy news for incumbents once people are drawn towards the idea of change.

To succeed in these new circumstances, the Harper government will need to become more focused on, and better at making the case for its policy choices, at “explaining stuff.” Otherwise, their fall could feel even more stressful and difficult than the last session.

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