- The Washington Times - Monday, December 25, 2006

Now that Tony Blair is preparing his final bows, the roster of America’s friends is thinning fast. Who’s Mr. Bush to turn to? Possibly his new best friend, “Steve” Harper (despite the Presidential nickname, apparently Mr. Harper’s mother — in common with mothers everywhere — thinks “Stephen” is more dignified), who as Canada’s prime minister is the political leader of the world’s next energy superpower.

Mr. Harper is also a lifelong admirer of the United States. He’s a social conservative. A major priority of his administration is to improve Canada’s ties with the United States. Under his leadership, Canada has taken a major role in the fighting in southern Afghanistan. What’s not to like — particularly in reference to the last Canadian PM, Paul Martin, who when he wasn’t flip-flopping (the Economist nicknamed him “Mr. Dithers”) was increasingly hostile to the U.S.

The major concern with Mr. Harper is how long he will keep his job. In the Canadian parliamentary system, the House of Commons is the prime minister’s electoral college. Unlike the U.S. Electoral College, which never meets collectively and makes its decision on who won just once, Parliament meets all too frequently. There are 308 members of Parliament, and if the government of the day cannot command the allegiance of a majority of them, it’s gone. A defeat on any major legislation, particularly financial bills, may be taken as an “issue of confidence” requiring the government to resign and fight an election.

Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have just 124 seats in the Commons, making him dependant on either the Liberals (103 seats) or the Quebec nationalist Bloc Quebois (51 seats) for survival. So far, the Liberals, who are in the process of replacing Mr. Dithers with a new leader, haven’t had any interest in defeating the government. But this month a new leader will be elected, creating much more uncertainty about Mr. Harper’s tenure.

So how will Stephen Harper fare? He has a number of challenges. First and foremost, he’s a “red state” guy in a “blue state” country. Even conservative Alberta (where Mr. Harper lives), in the context of the U.S. political map, is somewhat liberal. Second, he leads a party with a Christian conservative wing, which is regarded with deep suspicion everywhere in Canada. Third, the opposition Liberals are possibly the most opportunistic political organization on Earth, with a record of retaining power during the last century bested only by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (the Liberals are still around). Finally, Stephen Harper’s personality is so low key, that even Canadians think it’s low key.

Against all that, there are two big aces. First he’s lucky. Three weeks prior to the last general election a year ago, the Mounties announced a criminal investigation into allegations of insider trading focusing on a botched taxation announcement by the then Liberal finance minister. The ensuing outcry effectively derailed the Liberals’ re-election bid. Second, Stephen Harper is a brilliant strategist, managing a disciplined “hare vs tortoise” campaign that allowed him to define the issues rather than the Liberals.

So what’s Mr. Harper’s strategy? Looking back at his “electoral college” we find two regions, Ontario and Quebec, really represent the whole game in Canadian electoral arithmetic. Without good results from either of these two provinces (total votes in Parliament: 181), he can’t win.

To date, Mr. Harper has focused on Quebec. Last spring he dramatically increased his visibility in the province, impressing the locals with his ability to communicate in French. He courted Quebec’s Premier (read “Governor”) Jean Charest. He talked about “redressing the fiscal imbalance,” which is polite way of saying taxpayers of rich provinces like Alberta and Ontario will fund public-sector programs in poorer provinces like Quebec. In “blue state” Quebec, funding the province’s public sector always trumps tax cuts. Last week, incredibly to many, he endorsed the Quebec nationalists’ claims to be a “nation,” although not a country.

Initially, Mr. Harper’s numbers in Quebec soared to a point where he looked able to challenge the Bloc Quebecois. Today, however, most polls show the Conservatives back in the 20 percent range. Unfortunately, the Harper strategy has been overwhelmed by the Harper realities. Quebeckers hate foreign wars and approval for the Afghanistan mission in the province is in single digits. Quebec — once one of the world’s most church-centered societies — now is single-mindedly secular.

Recently, the Conservatives have mused about a “Defense of Religion Act” to ensure that religious denominations who refuse to rent church halls to same-sex “weddings” would be protected, reminding Quebec voters of the values gap between them and the Conservatives. Finally, the Conservatives greenhouse gas policy that in a number of key ways resembles that of the Bush administration is anathema in pro-Kyoto Quebec. Added up, these new factors don’t give much optimism for growth by Conservatives in Quebec.

Curiously, Mr. Harper does not appear to have an Ontario strategy. In contrast to Quebec, he has been largely invisible. He’s involved in an increasingly angry spat with Ontario’s Premier Dalton McGuinty over the “fiscal imbalance” issue. Ontario voters tend to see the issue as an imbalance between the government sector which, with Canada’s high taxation, runs big surpluses and their own pocketbooks, which could use some relief.

On the environment, the government’s one tough stand was more stringent auto emissions regulations — one directly in the eye of Ontario’s biggest industry (the province now makes more vehicles than Michigan). Speaking of the auto industry, the federal government recently turned down a request from the province for help on its highly successful campaign to secure new investment by automakers.

Ontario has a disproportionate number of investors (many are seniors) still sore about a broken “no tax” pledge regarding flow-through investment vehicles.

Finally, the social conservative measures that scare Quebeckers are not particularly welcomed by Ontarians, who are fiscally conservative but also worry about faith-based politics. Unsurprisingly, the Liberal numbers in Ontario have been consistently better than those of the Conservatives.

Time is not Mr. Harper’s friend as the opposition parties will probably defeat the government’s environment legislation, potentially precipitating an election in the early spring. The prime minister needs to take charge of his Ontario strategy, increasing his visibility in the province as well as crafting policies conducive to Ontario’s fiscally conservative base. Either that or Mr. Harper could trust to luck. For the cautious, strategy-minded Stephen Harper, trusting to his own luck would be the last thing he would do.

Stephen Probyn is a Canadian writer and economist and has been a policy adviser to both the Canadian and British Conservative parties.

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