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The Globe and Mail

With opposition parties in chaos, Tories focus on tone

These should be the salad days for the Conservatives, perched comfortably atop their four-year-long majority and peering down on the weakened, distracted opposition.

But in politics, there's never really the equivalent of putting your feet up and cracking open a beer.

Tory insiders say that even with the disarray of the NDP and Liberal parties, there are still important strategic considerations – and tone is a big one.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper seemed to take the proper read of the nation's sorrowful mood last week when he accorded a state funeral to the NDP's Jack Layton.

When the House of Commons returns next month, the Conservatives will still be grappling to find the right balance between the bald partisanship of question period and the civility that many Canadians have been clamouring for in the wake of Mr. Layton's death.

"To look too opportune in terms of wanting to take advantage of the circumstances of such a tragedy is not something that will be well received by the public," says Tim Powers, an Ottawa consultant and long-time Conservative.

"You almost need to let the NDP go about their business, select a leader, and then do whatever sort of critical constructive response you want to do about the selection."

Another veteran Tory agrees: "People will be on the lookout for the Prime Minister and the Conservatives being triumphalist, and everything I know about him and the party tells me they get that."

Triumphalist, perhaps not, but the Tories aren't going to give the opposition the kid-glove treatment either.

Some Tories are grumbling internally about how NDP party elder Stephen Lewis delivered a politically charged speech at Mr. Layton's state funeral, and how people were encouraged to make donations to an NDP think-tank in his memory.

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If the Conservatives had any self-imposed ceasefire following Layton's death, it was over on Tuesday when at least two senior Tory politicians publicly criticized the NDP for submitting a motion to eliminate the residency requirements for Old Age Security – and then promptly withdrawing the motion, saying it was submitted in error.

"They've been a party that's largely had a free pass on some of the things they've put forward and some of the things their members say," said Dean Del Mastro, Mr. Harper's parliamentary secretary.

"And I think that certainly members of the Conservative and Liberal party have been held to a higher standard about how they conduct themselves and what they say and the ideas that they put forward."

"I think there's a different expectation for the official Opposition."

Former Harper cabinet minister Stockwell Day says there will be opportunities for the Conservatives to legitimately score points, since the NDP and Conservatives are so diametrically opposed on policy issues.

"The great thing about all the sensitivities and how you have to be careful about the loss and the passing of somebody, the Conservatives can hit hard about the economic differences: the NDP want to raise taxes and raise spending, the Conservatives want to go in another direction," Mr. Day said.

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"It will help them to stay away from anything personal, and to be very aggressive on the differences on the economic message."

Mr. Powers says the main goal for Mr. Harper and his team will be to continue playing to their strength, which is the management of the economy.

"That is going to be potentially a pretty tough time but that's maybe where the prime minister has a little more space to operate because of the situation with the opposition parties," he said.

"Work and grow on your strengths and let the rest of the politics take care of itself in the immediate term. There's still plenty of time to portray your opponents and castigate your opponents thereafter once they have people in place."

Learning to steer clear of the low blows might not come so naturally to the Conservatives either, after five years of bare-knuckle brawling in the minority Parliament. They also remember how gleefully the Liberals under Jean Chrétien took full advantage of their weak moments.

Mr. Day found himself in an election campaign only a few months after he won the leadership of the Canadian Alliance in 2000. His past statements, career and personal beliefs all came under attack by the majority Liberals.

Mr. Day, now a private consultant, said there's a tendency to think that robust partisan differences are a bad thing.

"But that's what democracy is all about, so whomever wins a NDP leadership race, that person can expect to have anything they've said or proposed in the past or for the future vigorously and aggressively addressed just as the NDP and the Liberals do to the Conservatives," Mr. Day said.

"Anybody who's going to win a leadership race had better expect to be analyzed under the most severe of microscopes. It happened to me, it'll happen to anybody, and you will see that happen."

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