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Prime Minister Stephen Harper chairs a roundtable meeting at a cardboard plant in Victoriaville, Que., on Jan. 6, 2011, (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper chairs a roundtable meeting at a cardboard plant in Victoriaville, Que., on Jan. 6, 2011, (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Gerry Nicholls

Why Stephen Harper will trigger a spring election Add to ...

Here's some free advice for Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff: Be afraid, be very afraid.

Okay, that's more like a warning than advice, but it's a warning Mr. Ignatieff should heed. He needs to understand that while he's playing political chess, his opponent, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is waging total war.

To be blunt, Mr. Harper's ultimate strategic goal really isn't to win a majority government - it's to eradicate the Liberal Party as a viable political force.

Sound overly dramatic? Well, consider the well-documented ruthlessness of Mr. Harper's political style. Consider, too, that he's a master tactician who likes to concoct long-term strategies. And, finally, consider the fact that he just doesn't like Liberals. It all adds up to a prime minister who's capable, willing and able to take out Canada's "natural governing party."

Indeed, his desire to eliminate the Liberals is something he and I discussed way back in the days when we worked together at the National Citizens Coalition. His theory, as explained to me, was that conservatism would be better served in this country if Canada had a two-party system, one that pitted right against left, free enterprise against socialism, Conservatives against New Democrats.

He believed that, in such a polarized political environment, a conservative-oriented party would have a huge advantage over its left-wing rival. When given a clear choice, voters will usually pick conservatism over socialism.

This polarization, however, could not take place as long as the Liberal Party - with its chameleon-like ability to change ideological colours - was around to muddy up Canada's political waters.

Mr. Harper also has personal reasons for wanting to decimate the Liberals. In his view, the Liberals have exhibited an anti-Alberta bias since the days of Pierre Trudeau, a bias that resulted, among other things, in the disastrous national energy program. For this, Mr. Harper holds a grudge, and he wants payback.

He has pursued his anti-Liberal agenda with great tactical skill. For one thing, he has zeroed in on the Liberal Party's chief weakness: its lack of financial resources.

Recall that one of his first acts as Prime Minister was to make it illegal for individuals to contribute more than $1,000 to a candidate or political party. This was done to financially cripple the Liberal Party, which has traditionally relied on fewer and wealthier donors. Then, in an attempt to deal a death blow, Mr. Harper unsuccessfully tried to cut off the Liberals from their public subsidy.

Mr. Harper is also trying to cut off the Liberals' ideological oxygen. He's done this simply by stealing their policies. The Conservatives have essentially adopted the Liberals' "big government" and "big spending" agenda.

In the process, Mr. Harper had to jettison his own conservative principles and values, but, to his mind, it was a necessary sacrifice to neuter the Liberals. After all, how can the Liberals mobilize their base against a government that's essentially implementing Liberal ideas?

Of course, Mr. Harper is lucky in that the Liberals are also unwittingly aiding in their own downfall. The party's recent uninspired leadership, combined with its incessant infighting, has helped tarnish the Liberal brand.

What all this means is that Mr. Harper, like a hungry predator circling a weakened prey, is set to move in for the kill. That's why it's likely he'll try to trigger a federal election this spring. As Napoleon once said, "In war there is but one favourable moment; the great art is to seize it."

The Conservatives face such a moment: They won't get any stronger and the Liberals won't get any weaker. It's the perfect opportunity for Mr. Harper to roll the dice.

Gerry Nicholls is a political consultant and a former vice-president of the National Citizens Coalition.

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