Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of the At Issue panel on CBC's The National and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians but no longer does any partisan work. Other members of his family have worked for Conservative and Liberal politicians, and a daughter currently works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.
The plight of Syrian refugees has become a high-profile subject in Canada's federal election in the last 24 hours, as well it should. Few Canadians will be unmoved by the scale and depth of the human suffering the world is witnessing. Even his own Conservative Party watched yesterday's lamentable comments by Immigration Minister Chris Alexander and knew they needed to hit the reset button. The Syrian crisis is but the latest in a series of events that have made this campaign far less controlled and predictable than the Prime Minister had in mind.
Stephen Harper has had an elaborate plan for winning Election 42, one that has been in the making for a few years. He managed the budget to allow the room he needed to mail cheques to millions of voters weeks before dropping the writ. He had ministers and MPs fan out across the country cutting ribbons and spending billions of dollars in all sorts of communities where the Conservatives have a good chance of winning. Millions more was spent on a series of advertising campaigns to burnish the image of the government and remind people why they might want more of the Tories.
The Prime Minister was in control, he was setting the agenda, the elaborate machinery of government was at his disposal to make everything hum. He was anticipating a smooth transition to a campaign that would be run with tight control by operatives he has worked with for years and share his love of discipline and planning.
But, as life goes for most of us, events can disrupt the best-laid plans. A series of unexpected events have turned the election into a roller-coaster ride for the Conservatives, and it must often feel that no one is at the controls.
The disruptions started earlier this year with the shocking NDP election win in Alberta. It reminded us all just how quickly voters can reject the expected, when the mood strikes them. It helped catapult the NDP into the lead in national polls, and made it necessary for the Tories to battle on two fronts, rather than simply concentrate on Justin Trudeau.
Add the remarkable testimony at the Duffy trial, which exposed in detail how the Prime Minister and his staff misled Parliament and Canadians. Day after day of revelations trumped any effort by the Conservatives to establish a campaign message of the day, and put Mr. Harper on the defensive.
But the bigger challenges to the campaign rhythm Mr. Harper had in mind are beyond our borders.
The slowing of the Chinese economy has sent shock waves around the world, and have had a particularly powerful effect on Canada's commodities. There is nothing the Prime Minister can do about it but hope for the best.
When the Saudis refused to cut oil production, a glut of supply and a dramatic drop in the price of oil was inevitable. The consequences for Canada include tens of thousands of layoffs piling up in the oil patch here, and the contraction will be felt by many more people who are involved in the supply chain that supports Canada's oil production. Then there's the impact on tax revenues and budget balances. Once again, there's nothing the PM can do about the world price of oil, but hope that other countries' economies gather steam and increase demand, or other producers cut production and the price goes up.
Sustained turmoil in Greece and ongoing weakness in many parts of the EU have combined with slowing Asian market growth to produce some of the wildest gyrations the stock markets have experienced in years. Voters in Canada who have RSP savings invested in equities and equity-based mutual funds have watched as their assets lost value. In the last month, the TSX Composite Index fell by more than 6 per cent. The PM is not responsible for the volatility in global equity markets, but it's an unexpected and unwanted cloud overhanging the start of the campaign.
For years, the Prime Minister has maintained that he is the best person to help shield the Canadian economy from headwinds. Our polling shows that if that becomes the ballot question, he continues to enjoy an advantage over Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair. But when we ask people who would put in place the right policies to grow the Canadian economy and create jobs, Mr. Harper falls to third choice.
As a politician who values control, Mr. Harper can't be feeling good about the degree to which his political fortunes are hardwired to events and choices made by others, around the world.
He will know there is a risk that Canadians will find his "I can shelter Canada" message less convincing than it used to be. And, perhaps, less inspiring than they are hoping for.