Federal Conservatives regularly identify a handful of key priorities, such as making streets safe, supporting families and "standing on guard for Canada" – things that they want to be judged on.
But the truth is, they've bet the ranch on their economic credentials. A win or a loss in the next election will mostly turn on what happens in Ontario and B.C. And that will turn on who can best assuage economic fear or excite economic hope.
Polls that show a rebound for the Liberals, and potential upside if Justin Trudeau is chosen leader, have only partly to do with the Grits, or Trudeau for that matter. Mostly, they are just a signal that lots of voters are restless, certainly enough to make the next election unpredictable.
Today, those who are unhappy with the Harper Conservatives usually have one or more of the following on their minds:
- Some see Conservatives as heartless towards those in need.
- Some worry that Conservative economic policy involves reducing environmental safety in order to increase GDP.
- Some dislike the highly partisan tone and style of the government and fear a loss of what’s best about our democracy: the instinct to get along.
There are enough people who harbour these concerns to bring about a change in government. But so far they don't agree on what to do.
If anything were to upset this balance it will be how people feel about the economy. Were Canadians to broadly lose confidence in the Harper government's economic policy, this would spell doom for the CPC. They can't even risk a draw on this issue: this is a must-win. There are no new votes in law and order, or family-friendly policy, or standing on guard for us.
For folks in the PMO, the economic agenda must feel like a grind many days.
Every step forward seems followed by a pause, and sometimes a reversal.
One day, the U.S. avoids a fiscal cliff. Before long, the "debt bomb" issue looms large.
Closer to home, the fiscal situation is improving, and better than in many parts of the world. But Conservatives must feel awkward about having added more public debt than any government in Canadian history. And continuing to add a couple of billion to our tab every month.
The PM had a good week last week, with encouraging employment numbers and the opportunity to talk auto jobs in the Ontario heartland. That the Conservatives backstopped the automotive industry may still cause a few heads to shake in Alberta, but it's a solid credential for Mr. Harper where he needs it most. But that news evaporated quickly and now it's clear that winning the "who best to manage the economy" stakes race won't be made any easier by the tensions building through the "Idle No More" movement.
Mr. Harper has astutely surmised that avoiding this issue is not an option if he wants to be able to campaign as a successful economic manager in 2015. There are too many important projects (think pipelines, mining, oil and gas) where progress will be more difficult absent stronger relations with aboriginal communities.
Strategies such as demonizing critics by calling them "radical ideologues" bent on undermining Canada's interests would be politically suicidal if aimed at First Nations. Public empathy for aboriginal groups is qualified to be sure. But pretty much everyone wants to see a dialogue of respect, and a search for common ground.
To date, to put it mildly, the Conservatives haven't often felt much need to build alliances outside their partisan tent. When it comes to coalition building, there's not much muscle memory in the Cabinet or caucus.
The Prime Minister's comments in the last few days suggest a determination to talk about common economic opportunities we all share, and a desire to work through differences. If his tastes more often run to omnibus bills and closure as political tactics, he is likely enough of a pragmatist to see this situation for what it is, and try a different approach.
This Friday's meeting between the Prime Minister and aboriginal leaders is about more than displaying empathy – it will reveal whether Mr. Harper's economic approach is about to hit a wall, or somehow find a way around it.