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Prime Minister Stephen Harper looks on during a news conference in Riviere-du-Loup, Que., on January 12, 2010.MATHIEU BELANGER

It apparently wasn't just a rogue poll by the Strategic Counsel earlier this week. With Ekos reporting similar finding - albeit with some peculiarities in the regional breakdown - it seems the Conservatives have taken a public opinion hit from prorogation.

Whether they were expecting to take that hit is a different question, and the answer would tell us a lot about how much trouble they're really in.

It's not at all uncommon for parties to accept the probability of a negative short-term response to something they think will help them in the long-run. To use one of my inevitable Ontario examples, the McGuinty Liberals did exactly that with the HST. They didn't expect an initial outpouring of voter affection - and they certainly haven't gotten one - but they calculated that down the road it would help convince Ontarians they were willing to make tough decisions in tough times. (Whether that calculation will prove correct is a different discussion for a different day.)

Stephen Harper has certainly gone the short-term pain, long-term gain route before. (The attack ads against successive Liberal leaders, for which the Tories were initially pilloried but from which they subsequently profited, are an obvious example.) But it's not readily apparent that was the strategy with prorogation.

It may be that this is all going roughly according to plan. It might, as has been speculated, have to do with gaining control of the Senate. If we buy into some of the (less-frequent than-they-used-to-be) accounts of Harper's ruthless genius, perhaps he's somehow contrived a scenario in which this will ultimately force the Liberals' to overplay their hand. It could be that the Tories had reason to believe that the detainees controversy, despite not having resonated much with the broader public, was set to blow up in a way that was going to hurt them more than the prorogation outcry is hurting them.

Or maybe - and from occasional glimpses of panic, this is starting to seem like a good bet - prorogation is a short-term strategy that's backfired miserably.

Maybe the weakness of the Liberals, and Canadians' general disinterest in what goes on in Parliament, led the Conservatives to think they could score a little tactical victory - sparing themselves the detainees headache with very little backlash. Maybe they even thought it would win them support, since Harper and his ministers are better able to communicate with the public when they're not stuck in Ottawa, answering opposition questions.

In other words, maybe they just misread the public's mood, and overestimated its patience. Conservative supporters should be hoping there's something more to it - if not because this will necessarily matter in the next election, then because of what it says about the instincts and the foresight of the party's decision-makers.

(Photo: Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

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