The three acts of Stephen Harper’s Conservative majority: merge, muzzle and march
There’s no denying it (as much as we might want to): Stephen Harper is now one of the most successful Canadian politicians of the last decade, certainly the most successful federal leader since Jean Chrétien. When Harper returned to federal politics in 2002, the conservative parties (remember, there were two back then) stood divided, antagonistic and smarting from handing the Liberals large majorities throughout the previous decade. Today, with a majority finally secure, Harper’s decade-long project is a resounding success. Given that the other parties might be looking to reinvent themselves very soon (paging Bob Rae), we look at the steps the Conservative leader took to achieve this historic victory.
Act I: Merge
It’s important to understand what merging the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties did and did not do. First, it did not suddenly create a united Conservative voting bloc. In fact, the united party actually lost votes in the merger’s wake, as spooked Tories (like Joe Clark) jumped ship to the Liberals. But what the merger did do was put an end to the right-wing vote-splitting that was gift-wrapping easy seats for Liberals, and harness the Conservative brand to the fundraising machine of the old Reform party.
Act II: Muzzle
With the merged party chock full of, ahem, colourful Reform MPs, Harper managed to shut down the explosive abortion talk and put the gay marriage issue to bed during the 2006 election campaign by basically promising to hold a vote—and not-so-subtly promising that the Conservatives would lose any vote to re-ban gay marriages. The spring 2005 policy convention was an important step towards taming the Reform wing of the party so that it wouldn’t freak out more socially liberal Ontario conservatives.
Act III: March
Having a united party with a solid fundraising arm and a moderated platform doesn’t help much if the leader can’t win an election—just ask Paul Martin. What’s been so impressive—and alarming—about Harper is the fighting shape he’s kept his party in for the last six years. Most of the things critics hate about Harper’s conservatives (obsessive secrecy, a Nixonian relationship with the press corps, constant attacks on the legitimacy of the opposition, etc.) are the product of the Conservatives’ belief that the next election is always around the corner. They’re always ready to engage in a political battle, and if last night’s results are any indication, they’re damn good at it, too.
Of course, Harper’s power play is by no means a rudimentary instruction manual for those who woke up this morning with a Liberal-NDP merger on the mind. For one, it took a few more years in the wilderness before the old Tories gave up and acknowledged reality. But for anyone wondering how, by the time 2015 rolls around, Harper will have managed to be prime minister longer than Brian Mulroney—well, that’s how.
• Elation in Calgary as Harper finally wins majority [Toronto Star]
• Tories won’t make radical changes with majority, Harper vows [Globe and Mail]
• Tories seal majority as Canadian centre fades [Financial Times]
• Harper reflects on election [CTV]