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Prime Minister Stephen Harper leaves the stage after speaking to a group of hunters and anglers in Ottawa on May 30, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper leaves the stage after speaking to a group of hunters and anglers in Ottawa on May 30, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Bruce Anderson

Harper’s success in next election hinges a great deal on tone Add to ...

Just over a year into their majority mandate, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives face a strategic dilemma. The choice they make will have a lot to do with their prospects of winning a fourth straight election.

The priorities they set and the initiatives they put forward will matter a lot, of course, but no less important will be the tone they convey. It’s a simple, inescapable fact of Canada’s politics: The stronger a government, the more the public is on the lookout for signs of arrogance.

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The best advice for a political leader, immediately on the heels of a big win, is to go on a charm offensive. To treat those partisans they vanquished with respect and the people who didn’t vote for them with particular attentiveness. There’s something so simple and self evident about this idea, it’s hard to understand why it isn’t a golden rule.

But political parties are notoriously, often ruinously, tribal. They struggle to declare peace with their enemies. They find it even harder to embrace the idea of “peace with honour” when they win. Election days feel more like the bell that ends a round of boxing, rather than an end to the fight. Too often, an election win is followed by the spectacle of those who won taking every opportunity to humiliate those who lost.

The competitive edge that has helped the Conservatives best their opponents for several years is double-edged. Whether they like it or not, the Conservatives will inevitably spend a lot more time in the next three years defending themselves than they have before.

It’s what comes with being in office this long – and having a majority in the House of Commons. They may try to put the focus on the other parties and leaders, but it won’t really work. In fact, the harsher they are toward their opponents, the greater the potential backlash among voters.

Some of the more effective ministers in this cabinet seem to have adapted to this context change and adjusted their style. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney are two who come to mind: Both were among the more bare-knuckled partisans in the minority days; both seem as though they are working to appeal to a much broader audience of Canadians now.

Finding the right tone is central to the ability of the government to escape harm or win support on controversial and difficult files. Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose has brought a tone of understated discipline to the F-35 file and the risks to the government have dissipated a bit, for now anyway.

The proposed EI changes are unlikely to win more votes for the Conservatives because those who are most supportive of this policy are likely already Tory voters. So the challenge for the government is to avoid losing too many votes, especially in rural Canada. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s reference to “the only bad job is having no job” might have rallied the Conservative base, but it raised doubts among other voters about the motive of the policy. Since then, the government’s point person – Minister of Human Resources Diane Finley – has been determined to stress these measures are meant to help the unemployed rather than demonize, stigmatize or abandon them.

In thinking through their strategic alternatives, the Conservatives know that if they try too overtly to win the hearts and minds of non-Conservatives, there is a risk that their partisans will feel ignored or unfulfilled. The late Progressive Conservative Party can testify to what miseries can result when this happens. Nevertheless, the math is inescapable: The longer in office, the stronger your opponents, the greater the need to broaden the appeal beyond the most deeply committed. How the Harper Conservatives deal with their opponents in the House of Commons is taking on an increased importance, as the polls portray a more competitive landscape.

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