Ink committed to the Tories’ current decline is in no short supply, so I won’t bother rehashing all the old themes — that government fatigue is setting in, that Duffy’s charges have blown a hole through Harper’s credibility, or that Trudeau’s popularity has shattered Harper’s chill.
And, indeed, there’s some truth to those proclamations: coming in consistently below 30% is nothing short of a death knell for the Conservative Party — Harper has only just gotten them treading above that number for the first time since Trudeau became leader.
They are the second choice of a mere 9% of the electorate. More than half the country says that they currently fear for our democratic institutions, they worry that our safety net will collapse, and they fret that the environment may be damaged beyond repair.
It would seem that Conservative fortunes are depressed.
So what’s an unlikable patriot to do? Since burning down Parliament and blaming the Communists probably won’t work in the modern era, Harper has some ruminating to do.
And ruminating, I think, he is.
There’s been some consistent speculation that the grand pumba will step aside, launching a brief leadership race, and letting a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed upstart take his place. I was of that camp for awhile, but with a caveat: if he’s going to jump ship, he has to do it by the summer of 2014.
And, as we’re currently in the summer of 2014: I don’t think it’s going to happen.
There are certainty some mechanizations behind the scenes from some leadership hopefuls — including two would-be leaders who turned down a shot to run for the Ontario PCs, one of whom privately says they intend to run to succeed Harper — but nobody expects the race to occur before the next election.
So, we’re stuck with Harper. What does that mean?
Well, despite some dents in his hopes, I think the math still favours the big guy.
Indeed, that reality appears to be somewhat contingent on the failures of the other two parties. He needs the NDP to remain distrusted in the eyes of the broader public, and he needs Trudeau’s achilles heel to remain unprotected.
But the numbers, at least right now, still work.
Preface to the following paragraphs: these are unscientific, back-of-the-napkin calculation that are made under a series of hypothetical assumptions. For the love of god I do not want to read your angry tweets.
If Stephen Harper is to win again, he needs a handful of things to stand true: if the NDP holds Quebec, he needs the Liberals to sweep Atlantic Canada (or, inversely, if the Liberals pickup Quebec, he needs the NDP to pick up Atlantic Canada.) He needs to hold onto rural Ontario and, even if the Liberals push him back around the 905, he needs to hold places like Etobicoke, Brampton, Mississauga, etc. In the West, he needs the opposition parties to split the few urban seats that he’ll lose, and in BC, he needs the NDP to stop the Liberals from picking up many urban seats. And, finally, he needs to more-or-less sweep the new ridings.
Let’s assume all that’s true — my numbers work out to about 126 seats for the Conservatives, 106 for the Liberals, and 104 for the NDP. Oh, and two for the Greens because, why not. (I’m heartened by the fact that my numbers are not that far off from 308’s.)
That assumes that the Liberals place third in every Western province, that they more-or-less tie with the Conservatives in Ontario, that they only win Montreal in Quebec, and that they sweep Atlantic Canada.
So that would give Harper a weaker minority than he had when he won in 2006 but, never-the-less, he wins. Despite some current bumps, Harper is on track to win again.
Winning a small minority would buy time for the party to find a new leader. In what would be essentially a caretaker government, Harper could appoint someone as interim Prime Minister — I dunno, Ted Opitz? — and resign, as the others duke it out to contest the next election.
But he needs to win that election first.
That means he needs to address some serious weaknesses.
Seeing as how I’ve already rambled heavily on Harper’s strengths, consider this a cautionary tale to the chief on what may go wrong.
First, the democratic deficit has been one that Harper has outran for a long time. Through cutting party subsidies (good, was a common public reaction), slaying the three-headed coalition monster (reactions ranged from: damn separatists, to, great, more Ottawa stupidity), repeatedly proroguing Parliament (proro-what?), and axing the long-form census (what channel is the Big Bang Theory on?), it might finally be time that everything catches up with the PM.
Here’s how: the public now knows how much Ottawa spends on spin doctors. $263 million.
If Trudeau and Mulcair can successfully wrap up Harper’s egomaniacal message control with wasteful spending, and a general contempt for the democratic process, it could slice through Harper’s leadership numbers like a lightsaber through a brick of cream cheese. Nevermind that the Dipper’s Senate abolition scheme is infinitely more popular than the Prime Minister’s windmill-tilting promise of a Triple-E Senate. Even Trudeau’s Senate plan (…?) might test better with voters.
Second, there’s the possibility of the economy backfiring. Despite some generally positive job creation and GDP numbers, the opposition parties have smelled blood, and are doing some opening moves on undercutting Harper’s credibility. If growth, say, remains sluggish over the next six months, if the unemployment rate can’t stay below 7%, and/or inflation continues to chug along, Canadians might start to question just how capable this government is at managing our wrenching economy. Making Harper wear the temporary foreign worker program, as I’ve noted, is a great conduit to doing this.
Third, there’s the environment. The NDP and Greens have obviously made this an issue for a few elections in a row, but the difference this time could be the Harper Government’s insistence on moving forward with pipelines like Keystone and Northern Gateway. If the NDP are to be believed, just about every Harper-held British Columbia seat is up for grabs, thanks to the unpopular decision to approve the plan. Assuming the Dippers are right on that, and the Conservatives really have made vulnerable, say, half of their seats on BC: that could be the difference between winning and losing. Nevermind the possibility that Keystone, or Line 9, could motivate voters in the GTA. Combining general feelings of social responsibility on the environment with scare-tactic NIMBYism could prove a pretty powerful motivator.
Fourth, consumer issues. Despite Harper promising to champion the average Canadian’s pocket book, there hasn’t been much to show for it. Cellphone rates are still absurd, our internet is still painfully slow, there’s all these charges on our credit card statements, airlines treat us like cattle, gas prices are skyrocketing, and there’s nothing good on TV. Those may sound like idiotic issues, but Harper had promised us pie-in-the-sky solutions to those stupid problems. And he simply hasn’t delivered. The NDP has picked up on these issues and, despite a frankly moronic PR campaign, they could find some momentum therein.
Fifth, ending home postal delivery might bring the harbinger or doom for Harper in parts of the country. While much of Canada has, yes, already transitioned away from home delivery, those few urban and urban-ish areas of the country that still enjoy a visit from the postman might not take kindly to having the rug pulled out, especially seniors. (Or, freelancers: like me.)
And lastly, people might just get tired of Stephen Harper. Because, good god, it’s been almost a decade. People might just get tired of seeing his face on the news. They might just not want to hear his monotone anymore. As simple as that. Even Pierre Trudeau, supposedly the model for popularity in politics, was deeply unpopular for a considerable chunk of his tenure. His long-time reign can probably be thanks mostly to an unpopular opposition leader in Robert Stanfield, and later, an inept opponent in Joe Clark. If Pierre Trudeau had to run against Justin Trudeau in ‘72, he would probably get his ass kicked.
Anyway, Harper should perhaps expect a similar backlash, at some point, even if he thinks he’s been too clever to get caught up in that sort of public opinion trap.
Because the Conservative strategy has, on one hand, been quite brilliant. It’s been about compartmentalizing regions of the country, firewalling them off from broader public opinion — i.e. rural prairies, suburban communities, immigrant and ethnic neighbourhoods — while the opposition parties battle over those fickle and emotional voters — urbanites, Quebecers, East Coasters. The problem with this, however, is that eventually the plan collapses. Eventually, one brick falls out, and the whole thing comes crashing down. Immigrant communities get fed up and vote Liberal. Rural voters go NDP. Suburbanites vote Green (or, just don’t vote.)
So there it is. Three parties: each with huge weaknesses.
On the balance, Harper has the best shot of retaining the top job. The opposition leaders, however, aren’t far behind.
OTHER ARTICLES BY JUSTIN LING
Trudeau’s fortunes are fragile
Voters don’t trust the NDP on the economy
The shambolic study of the Conservative’s prostitution bill
330 Days to an election
What the hell is the Harper government thinking?
Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling