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Conservative Leader Stephen Harper salutes the crowd after a victory speech at his Calgary election headquarters on Oct. 14, 2008. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper salutes the crowd after a victory speech at his Calgary election headquarters on Oct. 14, 2008. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

Tories changing election tune to stress majority Add to ...

The Conservatives are breaking their own taboo by starting to call on Canadians to award them a majority government in the next election.

The tactic will be part of an appeal for stability in a recession if the opposition defeats the government in the Commons early this fall, a year after the last election.

The Conservatives expect to contrast their call for a majority with two other potential scenarios they hope will prove less appealing: a Liberal minority and a Liberal-NDP coalition.

The Harper Conservatives have long kicked themselves for asking for a majority in the 2004 election, which they narrowly lost, believing it caused many skittish voters to turn back to the Liberals. In the two elections since, in 2006 and 2008, they have tried to dispel qualms about a Conservative majority, or avoid the word entirely.

But Conservatives are spelling out their wishes for a stable, majority government at partisan rallies this summer.

Conservative MP Paul Calandra made the pitch last Thursday at a barbecue in his Markham, Ont., riding in the presence of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Revenue Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn confirmed the new messaging in an interview this week.

"We have had three elections in the last four years, and that's a lot. A minority can have its charms, but over the long term, a country like Canada cannot continue to be eternally governed by minorities," he said.

"It's up to the voters to decide, but we hope that, given our actions and our attitude, people will decide that the Harper government has acted seriously and deserves a majority."

The Conservatives have 143 seats in the House of Commons, only 12 seats away from a clear majority in the 308-seat chamber.

Conservative Party officials said it would simply not make sense to call for a "stronger mandate," as Mr. Harper did in the last campaign, which the Conservatives started at 127 seats.

While he broke his promise for fixed-date elections last year, Mr. Harper is now actively campaigning against a fall election and emphasized last week that this is not the time for political instability.

"The last thing Canadians want is a Liberal government propped up by the NDP and the Bloc Québécois," Mr. Harper said at the event in Mr. Calandra's riding.

However, the Conservatives are getting ready for an election, and some are relishing the thought of openly calling for a majority for the first time in five years.

The Liberals have an opportunity to table a no-confidence motion on Sept. 30; Mr. Harper's team planned a relatively heavy summer schedule of announcements and photo ops in part because they expected Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff to tour the country before that motion.

Yesterday, Mr. Harper, who is on a week-long tour of the Arctic, was praising the Canadian Forces, stressing Canada's sovereignty and being photographed on helicopters, submarines and frigates.

An adviser noted that this projects commitment to Arctic sovereignty and the military, whereas the Liberals don't like photo ops on ships near guns.

Many Conservatives felt Mr. Harper made a mistake in 2004 when he talked about forming a majority government.

Swing voters appeared to harbour concerns about the Conservatives having a "hidden agenda," and Paul Martin's Liberals launched a "Stop Harper" campaign that helped them win a minority.

In 2006, Mr. Harper sought to dispel the idea that a majority would give his Tories free rein, saying that Liberal appointees in the bureaucracy and on the courts would be a counterweight - but still managed only a minority.

In last year's campaign, Mr. Harper stuck firmly to asking for a stronger "mandate."

The Conservatives may feel they have been in government long enough to allay voters' fears. The call for a majority might also be a way to separate them from the opposition: they could say that voting Liberal, NDP or Bloc might result in a coalition or more elections, but choosing the Tories would bring stable government.

"But there's still a big risk in that strategy of talking about a majority," said Innovative Research Group pollster Greg Lyle, who has been a strategist for provincial Conservatives in Manitoba and Ontario, and B.C.'s Liberals.

"There are still a lot of people afraid of the Tories," he said.

The Liberals are the second choice of many voters, so they might benefit from a polarized campaign involving calls for a majority, while the Conservatives have less second-choice appeal.

***

HARPER'S WORDS ON WINNING A MAJORITY

2004: We want a majority

"We're heading towards a national majority and I think we're edging closer to that all the time. ... I think if Canadians want the strong majority that I think most Canadians want, they should look very, very seriously at giving us that kind of a mandate."

Date: June 16, 2004

In the 2004 election campaign, support for Paul Martin's once-mighty Liberals slid as a result of the fallout from the sponsorship scandal, and Mr. Harper sought to close the deal by arguing that his party was winning, and a majority was better. But it seemed to spook voters worried about giving the Tories a free hand.

The prospect of Conservative government was still new, and the Liberals exploited fears that Mr. Harper's party harboured a "hidden agenda" of social conservatism. Mr. Martin's campaign produced stop-sign-shaped buttons that said "Stop Harper," and the Liberals made an energetic last-ditch appeal to NDP and Green voters .

Result of the June 28 election: Liberal minority

2006: There's no such thing as a Tory majority

"The reality is that we will have, for some time to come, a Liberal Senate, a Liberal civil service - at least senior levels have been appointed by the Liberals - and courts that have been appointed by the Liberals. ... I am not sure there is such a thing as a true Conservative majority in the sense of a Liberal majority."

Date: Jan. 17, 2006

The Conservatives felt they'd scared off voters in 2004, and wanted to allay their fears. Mr. Harper's campaign team advised him to say that Canadian institutions could check a Tory majority's power, but the partisan twist - that the bureaucracy and courts were Liberal appointees - seemed to cloud the message. And Mr. Martin pounced on it to reassert the "hidden agenda" charge.

"Mr. Harper is challenging the courts for a reason," the Liberal leader said. "Mr. Harper has something in mind. He is afraid the courts will stop it. He wants a blank cheque. And the question to ask is, what does he have in mind?"

Result of the Jan. 23 election: Conservative minority

2008: Don't say majority, say mandate

"If I get two mandates in a row, two minority mandates, I will be very thankful to the Canadian population."

Date: Oct. 12, 2008

After 2½ years in minority government, Mr. Harper and his Conservatives wanted a majority, but he wouldn't say it. Two weeks into the campaign, as his advisers began to be confident of a majority, he was still hinting, almost teasing the reporters who asked if his call for a strong mandate was code for majority. "I say we need a strong mandate. I could say a stronger mandate."

As a financial crisis struck, Mr. Harper's campaign was unsettled, but in the end, missteps in Quebec cost the Conservatives a majority, though they came close.

Result of the Oct. 14 election: A bigger Conservative minority

Daniel Leblanc and Campbell Clark

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Follow us on Twitter: @danlebla, @camrclark

 

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