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His government mired in the Senate expenses scandal, Stephen Harper rallied the Conservative base Friday night by attacking academics, judges, senators, bureaucrats, bankers, big business, diplomats, lobbyists and the Rideau Club.
Mr. Harper has always railed against, and governed in opposition to, people who live in leafy neighbourhoods filled with fine old houses. Now, with his government in bigger trouble in the polls than it has ever been, he is hauling them out as the crew who would silence the voice of the little guy by bringing the Liberal Party to power.
This will dismay many, including academics, judges and so on. But if Mr. Harper is ever to contain the political contamination being spread by the scandal surrounding senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, then his most important job is to reassure those who first championed him that he still governs first for them.
In that context, it was an effective speech. Whether it persuaded any of the Persuadables – those who might vote Conservative, but might not, and who must be brought back into the tent – is a different thing. But the base comes first, and that was Job One Friday night.
The foundation myth of the Conservative party is that it stands for the little guy, for the "cab drivers, the small business owners, the farmers and foresters and fishermen, the factory and office workers, the seniors…those honest, decent, hard-working Canadians, old and new," as Mr. Harper put it.
This is the populist legacy of the party's Reform roots. That legacy makes it possible – even ideologically consistent, after a fashion – to trumpet the Tories' many tax cuts, including to business, while also promising to limit bank changes and roaming charges.
It is also why Mr. Harper is so determined to push Mr. Duffy and Ms. Wallin out of the Senate. When Mr. Duffy was "the Duffster" – a popular broadcaster who spoke to the average Jane – he was golden. When he was alleged to have charged $90,000 in expenses he didn't deserve, he became toxic to small business owners who must scrutinize expense accounts and factory workers who have never filed one.
In the service of this effort, Mr. Harper at times stretched facts beyond the breaking point. In detailing his efforts to pass legislation that would have senators elected to term limits, he claimed: "We were blocked by the other parties in the minority parliaments. And now we are being blocked in the courts."
The Prime Minister may have been referring to a Quebec Court of Appeal decision that said Senate reform required the consent of the provinces. But it was Mr. Harper himself who referred his legislation to the Supreme Court for a ruling, and that ruling will trump anything the Quebec court says.
For the base, it hardly matters. Judges belong to the self-entitled elites who live downtown and vote Liberal and govern through that party. They have always been Mr. Harper's mortal enemies.
But the base is not confined to the rural and the Western. It is also found in Ontario suburbia, especially among the millions of immigrants who have come to Canada over the past two decades from the Philippines, China, India and other Pacific and Asian countries. So it's no surprise that Mr. Harper reached out to them too, reminding them that, not only had his government maintained high intake levels, but that "we accept these newcomers as full and equal members of our Canadian family."
This was clearly a dig at Pauline Marois and her Parti Québécois government's restrictive secular charter. The base always enjoys a bit of separatist-bashing too.
Those who are not inside the Conservative tent will dismiss Mr. Harper's effort as shop-worn and superceded by scandal.
But if the Conservatives are to overcome that scandal, get their agenda back on track and win the next election, they must hold together the base and persuade the Persuadables.
If they succeed, some may mark the recovery as beginning with this speech. If they fail, it will be because it didn't matter what Stephen Harper said.
John Ibbitson is the chief political writer in The Globe's Ottawa bureau.