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For Harper, re-election trumps holding fast to conservative values

A Senate clerk waits for the start of Question Period in the Senate chambers on Parliament Hill.

DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail

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When news broke Tuesday evening that Wednesday's Throne Speech would include action to close the gap between American and Canadian prices on consumer goods, the reaction from the commentariat was immediate and furious.

"Happy trails, conservatives. You have no party," fumed Andrew Coyne of the National Post on Twitter.

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"The worst that can befall a party is to stand for nothing," the Toronto Star's Chantal Hebert concurred.

But Stephen Harper stands today for exactly the same thing that he has always stood for. He stands for an electable, conservative alternative to the Liberals. When electable conflicts with conservative, electable wins. Especially when it comes to the Persuadables.

We will return to this all-important category of voter in a moment. But first, a very brief history lesson in Stephen Harper's brand of conservatism.

From the far distant political past (the 1990s) when the Mr. Harper argued in public and private with Preston Manning over the future of the Reform Party, to this Throne Speech, the Prime Minister has made the same case: Canada needs an electable, conservative alternative to the progressive consensus embodied by the Liberal Party.

"The logical permanent role of the Reform Party is to accept itself as the principal force of the democratic right in Canadian politics," he wrote in an op-ed piece for the Globe and Mail in 1995. That role contrasted sharply with Mr. Manning's vision of Reform as a populist insurgency.

An electable conservative party would need to attract the broadest possible coalition, Mr. Harper maintained as Canadian Alliance leader. For example, "many traditional Liberal voters, especially those from key ethnic and immigrant communities, will be attracted to a party with strong traditional views of values and family," he observed in 2003.

As leader of the new Conservative Party, Mr. Harper sought to forge a coalition that could defeat the Liberals while being as conservative as possible. Since winning power, he has at times pushed the conservative theme – lowering taxes, punishing criminals, disdaining environmental issues – and sometimes pushed the electable theme – such as the pledge that will also be contained in the Throne Speech to reduce smartphone, Internet and cable/satellite TV costs.

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With the government behind in the polls and struggling to shake off the taint of corruption from the Senate expenses scandal, it is hardly surprising that Mr. Harper would emphasize electability over ideological purity right now, whatever the hecklers in the cheap seats might think.

Which brings us back to the Persuadables.

About three Canadians in 10 have supported the Conservatives since the party was formed. About six Canadians in 10 would never vote for them. One in 10 might vote Conservative or might not. In the last election, almost all of these Persuadables voted Conservatives. If the polls are to be believed, almost none of them are willing to right now.

We know a great deal about these voters. They live in the suburban ridings surrounding downtown Toronto and Vancouver. (Most Atlantic Canadians and Quebeckers are too committed to activist government to vote Tory; rural Ontario, the Prairies and the interior of British Columbia are already onside.) Many of them are immigrants from the Philippines, China and India. They consider themselves part of the middle class. They aspire to a better life for themselves and their children. But they worry about the security of their job, the value of their home, the direction the economy is taking.

They also worry about the safety of their communities and expect governments at all levels to do whatever it takes to keep the peace, which is why the throne speech will continue to pound the law-and-order drum.

They are not averse to direct help from government, whether in the form of a new road or bus route, a shorter wait to see a doctor, or all-day kindergarten. But they resist tax increases and, if forced to choose between more services or lower taxes, generally default to lower taxes.

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Mr. Harper can't lower taxes right now. Balancing the federal budget by 2015 and then introducing new tax cuts for couples with children – two ideas that are very much part of the conservative side of the ledger – means maintaining the current revenue stream.

But there are different ways to deliver money to the wallets of The Persuadables. Increasing their buying power and lowering their telecom bills will have exactly the same effect on them as a tax cut.

Mr. Coyne is absolutely right that these regulatory intrusions defy conservative economic orthodoxy. But at the moment orthodoxy and winning back The Persuadables are at odds. In such contests, guess who wins?

This disappoints Mr. Coyne and Ms. Hebert. No doubt the Star's Susan Delacourt feels the same way. In her fine new book, Shopping for Votes Ms. Delacourt mourns the trend toward treating voters as consumers rather than citizens. "We may want to ask whether it's time to draw some clearer lines between our civic life and our shopping pursuits," she writes. The Throne Speech's consumerist pandering to the Persuadables, who epitomize the "Tim Horton voters" she describes, fits exactly with her notion of what is wrong with our body politic.

But my friends at the Star and Post miss the point. A political party that embraces principle over pragmatism is a contradiction in terms, since the first and final purpose of a political party, whatever its ideological core, must be to exercise power by winning votes.

If Stephen Harper is to prevail in the next election, he must say and do whatever it takes to persuade the Persuadables to return to him. If Thomas Mulcair or Justin Trudeau are to defeat him, they must say and do whatever it takes to persuade the Persuadables to come to them instead.

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Given that unalterable truth, why would anyone believe that anything else matters?

John Ibbitson is the chief political writer in the Ottawa bureau.

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