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Conservative majority will change how Ottawa operates

Prime Minister Stephen Harper on stage in Calgary May 2, 2011 after Canadians went to the polls in the federal election.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

A sigh of relief rippled through senior Conservative ranks May 2 when Stephen Harper and the Tories finally arrived in the promised land of Canadian politics, securing a majority government after seven years of trying.

One cabinet minister confided that he felt as if a giant weight was lifted from his shoulders, saying the win would put an end to short-term worries and "three-month" mandates that exacted a psychic toll under minority rule.

Majority government brings stability, but it also changes the way Ottawa operates. Here are some things to consider as the Tories get ready for four years in the driver's seat.

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The trains will run on time

Two terms will re-enter government vocabulary: time allocation and closure. These are Parliamentary powers a majority government can use to shut down opposition debate on its bills and motions.

Conservatives speak solemnly of how Commons committees will discover a new purpose as opposition MPs lose the power to block or amend bills - a development they predict will turn these bodies into vehicles for serious policy debate.

Don't believe it. The Prime Minister's Office will ultimately have a say in everything these committees do because the Tories now control them.

However, this iron grip will at least make the Finance committee's pre-budget report more useful reading. For years, this document was merely a hodge-podge of opposition wishes. Now, because Conservative hold the pen, they will ultimately telegraph the themes of their next fiscal plan.

Tone deaf

The Conservatives, NDP and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May talk of changing the tone in Parliament to something that less resembles a bare-knuckle street fight.

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Promises to reform the antics and decorum of Question Period are as old as the stone gargoyles that populate Centre Block. Attempts at making the Commons a kinder, gentler forum, though, tend to founder after opposition parties discover boy-scout behaviour gets them nowhere and costs them media coverage.

Former Reform leader Preston Manning, who wants changes to House rules to make the Commons less unruly, recalled in an essay last year how his 52 MPs tried to rehabilitate Question Period back in 1993. For four months, he said, "we tried to ask substantive and genuinely information-seeking questions ... and to refrain from theatrical challenges."

But the government of the day didn't reciprocate. "Most ministers, the prime minister in particular, carried on in the usual adversarial manner." The Bloc Québécois, by contrast, grabbed the headlines. "Very soon our own supporters, especially in Western Canada, were also accusing us of ineffectiveness, saying, 'We never see you on television.'"

Control issues

The long-run trend line has favoured more control in the Prime Minister's Office. Paul Martin centralized power in the PMO and then Stephen Harper took micromanagement to new heights as he struggled to master his minority government.

But in the short term, at least, there might be more room for Mr. Harper to delegate.

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He's got dozens of experienced cabinet ministers to rely upon - and two of his old adversaries, the Liberals and the Bloc, are distracted by existential crises in the wake of disastrous election-night showings.

The Official Opposition NDP, meanwhile, will be struggling to cope with growing pains. It must now manage a caucus that's nearly three times the size it was just six weeks ago - one full of rookie MPs who have little to no experience with Parliament.

Cementing a legacy

Mr. Harper's long game, as he's discussed in years past, is to shift Canada rightward politically so that the Conservatives replace the Liberals as the "natural governing party" in the eyes of voters.

This is unfinished business despite his 167-seat majority and Mr. Harper can be expected to chip away at Canadian politics until he's reshaped it to suit his goals. He's an incrementalist though, because he knows that his party is still more conservative than the average Canadian voter.

That's one reason the Tories are hell bent on axing per-vote political subsidies to parties, money that politicians have come to depend upon in recent years. The Conservatives are by far the best at raising funds from individual donors and will be the least affected by losing the $2-per-vote assistance. By contrast, the once-powerful Liberal Party, now a rump of 34 seats, may be the most affected.

Hills to climb

Mr. Harper's primary challenge in the short term is balancing the budget. The imperative to squeeze $11-billion in savings from Ottawa over the next few years will dominate the agenda.

He's promised to find this spare cash by taking an axe to federal government operating costs. But it's never been easy to wring big efficiencies from Ottawa this way - and the Conservative Leader will be praying for a strong economic recovery so Ottawa's tax base recovers more quickly and saves him from deeper cuts.

If he's really unlucky, the Prime Minister's biggest headache might ultimately be the return to power in Quebec of the separatist Parti Quebecois in 2012 or 2013. But the near destruction of the likeminded Bloc in the May 2 election clouds the future for sovereigntists.

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