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bruce anderson

By-elections mean nothing? By-elections foretell the future?

As with most things, the answer isn't black or white. There are certainly things that can be taken away from the results in Manitoba's Bourassa and Provencher, Toronto-Centre and Brandon Souris.

In a few columns to come, I'll offer thoughts about the implications for the main parties. First up, the Conservatives.

The Conservatives hope the next election will turn on the health of the economy. Supposedly it's a cardinal rule that elections are about "the economy, stupid."

But it's obvious that voters vote about other things too. And those who do care only about the economy are often more preoccupied with "what's next" than using their ballot to say thanks.

The economy is no weaker than in 2011, but the Conservatives saw their fortunes slide last Monday. They will need a broader agenda.

Conservative partisans admire what the government has done. They like that infrastructure has been built, taxes have been cut, regulations reworked and trade deals worked out. In Calgary, at their recent convention, it was clear that they want to run on this broader range of conservative policy ideas.

But they know that not much of it is being noticed lately.

And despite the whining of Tory trolls, the blame for this lies not with the "Media Party," or other imaginary enemies of righteousness.

The blame rests at the top of their own party. If they want to turn the page, they should head over to the Langevin Block and have a candid chat about what's really burying the work the government is doing.

The best politicians know that Canadians are a generally forgiving lot. They get that mistakes are made, and when given an apology and a decent explanation, are happy to move on.

The best Conservative politicians know only too well, that if on the first day the Senate scandal broke, someone had said "look folks, we made a mistake, here's what it was, here's why it was done, here's what we're doing about it, and we're sorry about this," today would feel pretty different.

Perhaps the country would be talking about Canada-Europe trade, the impending fiscal surplus or rail-safety reforms. Anything would be better than the miserable beating they are taking in Question Period every day. And the certain knowledge that the way questions are being handled is only guaranteeing more of the same tomorrow.

If the Conservatives want no chance of running on a broader agenda, they need only keep on doing what they are doing.

They will shred whatever is left of Paul Calandra's political capital and then have to find the next person willing to say ridiculous things in an offensive way, in a stubborn effort to dumb voters down or numb them to the point of indifference.

(I've never met Paul Calandra, but I've got to believe he didn't get 46,000 people to vote for him by talking to them the way he is in the House of Commons every day.)

The choices being made in the PMO have put the Conservatives into a political "infinite loop." (In computers, this is also called an "unproductive loop" – a series of endlessly repeated actions that fail to achieve a desired outcome and eventually can cause a system to simply freeze.)

To break the cycle, the PM should call his top ministers together and ask for their candid assessment of where things are and what should happen next.

No staff in the room. Just people who have to get voters to mark an x by their names come next Election Day.

In addition to working through how to finally put the Senate scandal behind them, they might also reconsider the positioning their party has defaulted to. By all appearances, it amounts to trying to win only the most conservative 40 per cent of the voting public, and giving everyone else a Salmon Arm Salute.

The Prime Minister and his parliamentary secretary like starting answers with "the facts are very clear." But the facts are anything but clear. The only clear thing is an attitude.

If you believe most people would never support you, and sound like you don't really care what they think, that becomes an inescapable reality. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Bruce Anderson is one of Canada's leading pollsters and communications strategists. He is a member of the CBC's popular At Issue Panel, a regular Globe blogger and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising.