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Conservative Leader Stephen Harper plays football on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, June 16, 2005. (Jake Wright/Canadian Press)
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper plays football on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, June 16, 2005. (Jake Wright/Canadian Press)

Stephen Harper successfully quarterbacks the status quo Add to ...

Medical students are instructed in the principle that they should first "do no harm" - that if a physician may not always be able to do good, at a minimum they should avoid making things worse.

I've been thinking about how voter values have evolved to enable a small-c conservative political movement to become the default choice for an increasing number of voters.

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I don't diminish for a moment the organizational competence, money raising efficiency and message discipline of the Conservative Party: They are successful to a degree unprecedented. But three consecutive victories were not built exclusively on superior organization or the frailties of their opponents.

The question that arises is whether the swing voters whose decisions determine election outcomes have moved to the right. In my research I've seen a more conservative orientation emerge among middle ground voters - however it's a conservatism that has typically Canadian limits and nuance.

The biggest change I find is an erosion of the instinct that when big problems emerge, government should build big programs to solve them. Today, many people are content with a government that embraces the "do no harm" principle.

Stephen Harper's Conservatives correctly interpret this mood, and also help perpetuate and deepen this shift in expectation. The new cabinet lineup announced by the Prime Minister last week was like a huge billboard that said: "Don't worry, we'll do no more than we promised to do."

The Conservative policy agenda preaches reducing taxes, ending government stimulus, inviting more global investment, cutting stale-dated government programs - all with the express goal of allowing the economy time and room to heal. It's overtly about leaving people to build their own futures, with less involvement by government.

New spending planned by the Conservatives is largely on things like prisons and military equipment: ideas less about creating a new public good, more about avoiding harm or maintaining a stable status quo. When it comes to health care, the Conservatives resist the temptation to announce a magic solution to solve accessibility, quality and affordability once and for all. Instead, they promise to do nothing to disrupt the way things have been going.

This positioning isn't for everyone. It drives some voters to distraction - there are plenty who think government should be more ambitious. But over the years an increasing number of voters have grown skeptical about whether ambitious government works very well.

Big solutions can sound good, but can also cost a lot, and results can be hard to see. A party that promises to avoid the policy equivalent of the long bomb can sound pretty reassuring to those who are having a hard time making ends meet, filling a gas tank, or figuring out how to save enough money to retire on.

The calamitous global economic swings in the last few years might have, in earlier times, triggered an instinct on the part of Canadian voters to demand big government initiatives to cushion shocks. While the Harper government did pump a lot of stimulus into the economy, in truth, public opinion was rather blasé about much of that.

This evolution in terms of expectations may be something you think is terrific, or terrible. My point is only that it is something that has been developing for some time, and a key factor that underpins the contemporary political success of this Conservative Party.

When mainstream voters felt Stephen Harper might be a highly activist prime minister, upsetting apple carts with a reformist conservative zeal, they balked. The more he has become seen as someone who feels government should limit its role, avoid big promises and big disappointments, the less resistance he meets.

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