Stephen Harper: 'Honey, I shrunk the majority!'

The PM's failure to show empathy on the economy has turned Canadians off

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The Gazette, Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A good campaign knows when it's in trouble, which is the moment to throw out the playbook. It's also the moment when it becomes the leader's job to carry the campaign. The Conservative campaign is there now, and it's all on the shoulders of the leader, Stephen Harper.

What was, a week ago, a seemingly unassailable double-digit Conservative lead in all the tracking polls, has dwindled to low single digits in yesterday's Nanos poll. It isn't that Stéphane Dion and the Liberals are growing so much as that Harper and the Conservatives are shrinking.

Honey, I shrunk the majority!

What's happened in the last week? Well, the debates, where Dion won relative to expectations just by showing up. And where Harper lost ground in both French and English, not so much on the force of his arguments, but on his empathy deficit. In the French debate, he was cool to the point of being disengaged, and was unable to discredit Gilles Duceppe on the values and identity case the Bloc Québécois has built against Harper on culture and on youth crime.

That the Conservatives didn't see the flip side of two issues that worked for them in English Canada, but rebounded on them in Quebec, is quite revealing. Either the Harper team thought it could get away with it, or it didn't see it coming. Suffice it to say that for a lousy $15 million, Quebec's share of cultural cuts, the Conservatives could be giving up 15 seats. That's a million dollars a seat, quite something when you think about it.

Then in the English-language debate, in the expanded discussion of the economy, Harper sounded like he was reading a briefing note from the Privy Council. In the context of the meltdown in global equity markets, he was quite right about Canada's fundamentals being much sounder than the U.S., in terms of our financial institutions, housing mortgages and the federal fiscal framework. But it's not as if the autoworker being laid off in Ontario isn't concerned about losing his house.

Thus, Harper's empathy deficit. Or as the first George Bush once famously put it: "Message: I care."

For anyone who hadn't noticed, the Toronto Stock Exchange opened down 1,200 points on Monday, before narrowing its losses to about 570 points - a rally! In New York, the Dow closed below 10,000 for the first time since 2004. Bear-market territory? Fear is one thing in capital markets, panic quite another. Panic can be in the eye of the beholder, meaning anyone looking at a monthly financial statement on investments or a retirement plan.

This is the connection that, until yesterday at least, Harper was failing to make.

Having been flipped in Quebec on two of his issues of choice in English Canada, he has been flipped on his ballot question of choice - the economy, where his message from the start has been certain leadership for uncertain times.

The opposition leaders, the Gang of Four, also scored on him in demanding where his plan was in what has become not just a defining moment on the economy, but a scary one. Dion showed up with a plan to have a plan within 30 days, and successfully mocked Harper for his lack of one. Jack Layton wondered if he was hiding it under his sweater.

It took Harper until his speech to the Canadian Club of Toronto yesterday to effectively make a case that he saw the downturn coming a year ago, and tried to turn the tables on his opponents' economic prescriptions as "a menu of the wrong ideas at the worst possible time."

And then he delivered a killer of a line for the Ontario audience: "If we aren't re-elected, it will make Bob Rae's Ontario look like a boom town."

This would be the same Bob Rae who, as a born-again Liberal, is warning Canadians of the dangers of voting for the NDP. Go figure.

This is Harper trying to get out from under the flip. In the early going, the Conservatives made it about Dion and his carbon tax. In the end game, the carbon tax forgotten, the Liberals and NDP are making it about Harper not having a plan for the economy.

Buried in his speech yesterday was an announcement of industrial assistance, half of it to Ontario's auto sector and half of it to Quebec's aerospace industry.

This is an announcement that, in the late days of the campaign, might be welcomed by the premiers of Ontario and Quebec. Dalton McGuinty won't be doing Harper any favours, but Jean Charest's response could be important, even critical, in Quebec.

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