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Bruce Anderson: Stakes are raised for Harper as he readies return to Parliament

In a few short weeks, the Harper Conservatives will return to Parliament for the most important session of any they have entered so far.

What makes it different? Why are the stakes higher?

1. The economy

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It's muddling along. Maybe if it were rocking and rolling, voters would never consider change. If it were truly awful, many would be tempted by change, but worried about making things worse.

Much of the formula for economic success so far has rested on: hoping developing countries don't sputter, being thankful our banks don't fail, spending billions to stimulate the economy and keeping interest rates low.

Some parts luck, some parts design – people can debate. But for many voters, it's worked well enough against a foreboding global backdrop.

But now, the world is a less scary place. Many days, we're not so fearful of falling off a cliff, but instead, wonder how to gather a bit more forward momentum. Voters like hearing about growth and opportunity, not just protection against harm.

2. Stephen Harper is now the anti-change candidate

The Prime Minister is no longer plausibly a change agent. He certainly started that way: the stern authoritarian who was going to end the culture of entitlement and clean up Ottawa.

If he came off as emotionally distant, even chillingly cool, well maybe that's what Ottawa needed. Someone who wouldn't go along to get along.

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Being the anti-change candidate is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, incumbents in provincial elections have had a pretty good winning streak in the last couple of years (think Alberta, B.C., Ontario, and very nearly Quebec).

But the instinct for change is hard to see coming, in part because it's not always rational. It can build up gradually, or arrive more suddenly, triggered by some idiosyncratic, often unforeseen event.

But here's the one sure thing about political restlessness.

Change may have had a losing streak lately, but It always, eventually, wins. One hundred per cent of the time.

The best incumbents can do to deal with a public instinct for change is stall it, shape it, or find a way to be the change that people want. So how might Conservatives want to evolve, to take into account this different context?

3. A fresh agenda

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The upcoming Throne Speech will indicate if the government feels that the mood for change is a real and present danger. If it's chock full of the old themes, the signal is either "not worried," or "don't know what to do." Practically speaking, though, the old themes are becoming dry as a 7 year old bone. Nothing new to say about the deficit. No money for new programs. Done much of what they can to rebuild the military. Will get nowhere reforming the Senate. No more tax breaks until the deficit is gone. More law and order? Yawn.

Agenda resets are trickier to execute for Conservative governments than Liberal ones. The conservative base is great political fuel, but a wonky guidance system. The most conservative voters in Canada, just like those in the U.S., equate compromise and tent-widening with weakness, not progress. But, while a reset towards the centre might annoy the base, standing pat is pretty high risk too. The Liberals are resurgent and the NDP is stronger than ever.

4. The best players in the most vital roles

The shuffle was the big chance to make that happen, and ended up a mixed bag of smart moves and missed opportunities. Ministers like Baird, Kenney, Moore, Raitt, Ambrose and several of the new crop are all working hard, living the idea of the perpetual campaign. But the level of effort across the rest of the team seems uneven. As happens with all governments of a certain age, some veterans start coming across more like people who have an important job, and less like people who want to earn one.

This is, perhaps the biggest point for Conservatives to contemplate. Messages of humility and hard work were a key ingredient in their original victory.

Canadian voters are allergic to arrogance. If you want their support you need to "ask for the order," and nothing is more fatal than looking like you've simply come to expect it.

Casey Stengel, who won 10 pennants in his first 12 years as manager of the Yankees, once said "If we're going to win the pennant, we've got to start thinking we're not as good as we think we are."

To properly motivate his team, Stephen Harper may want to hang a sign with that quote on the dugout, er, Cabinet room wall.

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.

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