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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

A formula that will fail to add up to a Conservative majority Add to ...

Stephen Harper attracted a large crowd in Montreal this week - 2,000 people, some news reports suggested. His party scooped up about $350,000 at the fundraiser, and the Prime Minister declared that those who had predicted the demise of his party in Quebec were wrong, witness to which was the crowd.

Appearances, however, deceive. A lot of attendees, according to La Presse, chatted throughout Mr. Harper's half-hour address and had to be shushed repeatedly by party organizers circulating through the hall.

Chatterers aside, the Conservatives have sunk to a bad third in Quebec. All their high hopes of a breakthrough in the province that would lead to a national majority government are shattered. And there is so much disappointment and even resentment in the party outside Quebec about the failed Quebec strategy that Mr. Harper's room for further flattery is now limited.

Conservatives tried everything to flatter Quebec, and they failed spectacularly. Since the election, their support has further eroded there.

It's hard to imagine what additional policies Mr. Harper could offer Quebec that would succeed where previous blandishments did not. Even if he tried, Premier Jean Charest would pocket the "gain" and immediately demand another. Playing that no-win kind of game was bound to fail, and it did. So Mr. Harper's Montreal speech - formulaic as ever - plowed through all the old ground that had Quebec momentarily intrigued but ultimately unimpressed.

There is indeed so much formulaic about Mr. Harper and his government that the wider question beckons: What, if anything, can Conservatives do to get a majority?

The formula they have used, and still use, has six fundamental elements. In no particular order, they are: cater to Quebec nationalism; demonize the leader of the Opposition; impose tight internal discipline; string out announcements across the country that flow from budgets; woo multicultural Canadians; and throw the occasional piece of red political meat to the right-wing core.

They've been deploying this strategy from the beginning and it hasn't worked, at least not in moving Conservatives to a majority. If anything, the party is now further from majority territory than the day the Conservatives were elected.

They would appear to be behind the Liberals, but since much political chit-chat between elections is ephemeral, all that can be said is that the Conservatives have no momentum. They are fine in the West, but struggling elsewhere. Political headway won't be easy to make in the teeth of the recession.

When in doubt, the Harper Conservatives reach for attack advertisements, backed by the chorus line of Conservative MPs, constituency mailings and, of course, prime ministerial speeches.

As always, these ads contain gross policy distortions and nasty personal attacks, as we saw in the ads against former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion. They reflect far more on the mentality of the makers than the portrayal of the victim.

This time, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff stands accused, among other things, of preparing massive tax increases (including a carbon tax), having lived too long outside Canada and speaking French with a French accent.

Happily, for those who care about decency in politics, these attacks are all misplaced.

Of course, Mr. Ignatieff would raise taxes as prime minister, as will every government in the Western world once the recession is over - including Mr. Harper's, unless he is being grossly irresponsible, as is possible from someone who weakened the fiscal underpinnings of Canada by cutting the goods and services tax. The huge deficits in Canada and elsewhere cannot be reduced without tax increases, the only question being which kind, how much and when.

Mr. Ignatieff did have a serious and justified problem, even within his own party, when he first tried for the leadership, having been away for so long. He has paid his Canadian dues by now. As for his French, well, francophones won't much care about his accent, knowing he's an anglophone, especially when they stack his accent against Mr. Harper's.

Forget the attack ads, because this set will fail. They're just part of the wider, failed strategy to move the Conservatives to a majority. The rollout of announcements; the formulaic, mind-numbing prime ministerial speeches; the failure to impress Quebec; and the government's right-wing instincts - these are the real culprits in their receding majority prospects.

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