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It wasn’t just Harper: Why the Conservatives lost, and how they can win again

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, Canada's prime minister, attends a news conference where he conceded victory on election day in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on Monday, Oct. 19, 2015. Ben Nelms/Bloomerg

Ben Nelms/Bloomberg

Was it all Stephen Harper's fault? Yes, the defeat of the Conservative Party in Monday's election certainly had something to do with the fact the outgoing Prime Minister had what is known in pollster-speak as "high negatives." He was disliked by many, and returned the favour by sometimes acting in ways that seemed secretive, controlling and even vindictive – further pushing up those negatives. Mr. Harper was still respected and even trusted on the economy, but after nearly 10 years in office, the voters' desire for change had become overwhelming. And voters, as every party knows, tire of leaders in power for that long.

That has Conservatives speculating that, if only Mr. Harper had left a little earlier, they could have won the election. Keep everything about the Harper government, except its name. Would the Conservatives have triumphed if they'd put someone sunnier at the helm – a Conservative Justin Trudeau! – while otherwise staying the course? Maybe. But probably not. This defeat was not authored by one man.

Or was it all Jenni Byrne's fault? As the campaign wore on and the polls showed victory slipping away, campaign manager Ms. Byrne, a long-time member of Mr. Harper's inner circle, became the subject of whispers and speculation. Unnamed tipsters repeatedly (and unfairly) fingered her as the source of the party's missteps. And missteps there were: "Just not ready," "If he comes on stage with his pants on, he will probably exceed expectations," the niqab, "barbaric cultural practices" and a final, desperate campaign rally organized by The Notorious F.O.R.D., the brothers Doug and Rob. Would the Conservatives have won if Ms. Byrne had never left Fenelon Falls? No. This defeat was not authored by one woman.

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Yes, the Conservatives made errors on the campaign trail. But a lot of voters were clearly unhappy with more than just the party's advertising preferences or choice of words. This wasn't just a marketing issue. Parts of the Conservative platform and record, the real substance of government, were a big red flag.

It didn't have to be this way. In fact, the transition of power that took place a decade ago resembles the one happening now. The Liberal Party of 2006 had also been in government for too long. It had made mistakes and it was tired. It used over-the-top attack ads to persuade voters that Mr. Harper's Conservatives were fanatics who would destroy Canada. Remember the ad – "Soldiers with guns. In our cities. In Canada." – suggesting the Conservatives might impose something like martial law? As in 2015, the fear-mongering backfired. It was clearly untrue, and voters knew it and voted for change.

The Conservatives came to power promising to make government more accountable and more transparent. In the early years, they made steps in that direction. They also promised to make government less burdensome, and made strides there, too.

But over time, the government started to resemble some of what it campaigned against. It created watchdogs like the Parliamentary Budget Officer, but threw up roadblocks in front of them. Early in its mandate, it made elections fairer by imposing strict limits on campaign donations, but, a few years later, it weakened democracy, under the pretext of fighting non-existent cases of voter fraud, by making voting a bit harder under the Fair Elections Act. The party talked about defending citizens' privacy rights, but in the name of fighting terrorism it handed intrusive powers to government via Bill C-51. It gutted the long-form census, falsely invoking privacy rights. The Conservative government sometimes gave the impression of being at war with evidence and science – thumbing its nose at elites who believed it might need more of both.

In the name of law and order, it picked fights with judges and the Supreme Court. Using the excuse of national security, it defended its glacially slow, nearly impenetrable bureaucracy for Syrian refugees. For the sake of oil industry and pipeline jobs, it gave the impression it was monkeying with environmental review processes – which unfortunately made it even harder for new pipelines to gain public approval. And on the pretext of promoting social cohesion, it sowed social divisions by inventing a crisis over the niqab.

Under Stephen Harper, the Conservatives were dedicated to making government smaller. That is, within reason and depending on the starting point, an admirable goal. Government should run as cheaply and efficiently as possible, and Canadians should bear as low a tax burden as possible. But the Harper Conservatives were stubbornly resistant to the idea that in some areas, more government might be needed. For example, the decision to shelve expansion of the Canada Pension Plan was a classic case of ignoring the public desire for a stronger retirement safety net, while simultaneously ignoring compelling economic arguments. The party didn't want to raise a tax or be seen as having raised a tax, period. At the same time, income-splitting and the expansion of the TFSA had the defect of favouring a small number of upper income earners, but the Tories pushed ahead with these poorly structured tax cuts anyhow. They seemed unwilling to consider the consequences, almost as a matter of principle.

And in some areas, the party's sense of what government was supposed to do was fuzzy. The Harper government had no idea how to deal with global warming and adopted a faith-based approach: It prayed the issue would go away. When Conservative godfather Preston Manning came out last year in favour of carbon taxes, calling them a conservative, responsible, market-based solution, Conservatives were horrified. But Mr. Manning is right. His approach should be party doctrine, not heresy.

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A future Conservative Party that championed civil liberties and the rights of the individual, and that thought deeply on economics beyond slogans, as Mr. Manning has done on climate change, would deserve to be elected. It would also have a shot at making this very good country slightly better.

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