Harper's stumbles in Quebec cost him his majority

Well before the election call, Harper knew a majority was highly unlikely

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The Gazette, Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sitting with a visitor to his office in August, Stephen Harper reflected on the degree of difficulty of winning a majority government.

When you did the math, he said, it was highly unlikely, "with four competitive parties in the House."

He had it right - the math made a majority an odds-against proposition. In a 308- seat House, it takes 155 for a majority. But giving the Bloc Québécois 45 seats, and the NDP 30, plus acouple of independents, reduces the pool of available seats to 230.

This means that one of the leading parties, the Liberals or Conservatives would have to win 67.5 per cent of those available seats to form a majority government. Stated another way, one of those parties would have had to win two competitive seats out of three for a majority.

By Harper's own calculations, and very much by his own admission, a majority was always unlikely in an election. Then, why did he call it, setting aside his own law for a fixed election date next October rather than this one?

Well, because he saw a window for a majority open over the summer in Ontario and Quebec. And he jumped at that opportunity. Worst case, he figured, another minority government, probably a more comfortable minority than the 124 seats he won in 2006 and the 127 the Conservatives held at dissolution.

He saw a chance at four more years. He saw an opportunity to create a new Conservative majority.

There was just the matter of a campaign, five weeks, 37 days, two debates, just a matter of staying on message. What no one ever considered at the beginning was that Harper, so rigorously disciplined, would himself be off message so often. Or that the message itself would be wrong, all wrong, in Quebec.

No one ever imagined that Quebec, which was supposed to be the road to a Harper majority, would prove instead to be the roadblock to a majority.

But then no one counted on Harper, a stickler for message discipline, making unforced errors about "rich galas" that lit a firestorm under opponents of cultural cuts, or his thinking aloud of "buying opportunities" in the middle of a crash on the stock market. And no one counted on Harper, famously focused, calling an election and then failng to show up with a message on his preferred ballot question of the economy.

In fairness, neither did anyone else count on the crisis in global equity and financial markets that has occurred over the last three weeks of the campaign. Still, it was Harper, not the other leaders, who asked for an extended debate session on the economy. And it was Harper, not them, who fumbled the opportunity.

His message - Don't Worry, Be Harpy - was meant to project an air of calm and reassurance. Instead, he projected an empathy deficit, and seemed disconnected from the concerns of Canadians panicking over their cratering investments and retirement funds, and deeply worried about their jobs.

In the English debate, when he said Canadians weren't worried about losing their homes, he sounded like he wasn't worried about losing his. And then last Tuesday, after a major economic address in Toronto, he commented in a scrum about "buying opportunities" in the carnage of the stock market. The prime minister never comments on the stock market, any more than he does about the dollar. It's a cardinal rule, but Harper made the same comment later in a television interview with Peter Mansbridge.

It is Harper's great good fortune that he was a facing an opponent, Stéphane Dion, who couldn't even crunch a soundbite out of this. It is not difficult to imagine the glee with which, say, Brian Mulroney would have lit up John Turner: "The stock market opened down a thousand points yesterday, and the prime minister says it's a great buying opportunity. Imagine! It'll be a bonanza. We'll all hit the jackpot!" There was never any fear of that happening with Dion.

Then there was Quebec, where Harper's ballot question of delivering for Quebec got flipped into one of the Bloc defending Quebec values. This was a completely self-inflicted wound by the Conservatives, who were blindsided by the Quebec blowback on cultural cuts and juvenile crime, which worked for them in the rest of the country.

And the province that was supposed to deliver a majority to Harper instead deprived him of it. Even so, at the end, Harper regained his footing and his focus, marshalled his closing arguments, and barnstormed across the country as if he really wanted the job. He finally had what he lacked in the last two elections - a finishing kick.

In Quebec, where he argued that the place of Quebecers was at the table, not in the corridors, there was a sense his campaign was growing again, although not nearly enough to close the Bloc's lead. By yesterday, all the polls put the Conservatives within reach of a comfortable minority, with leads of six to nine points.

A Conservative majority, which so many Canadians feared, was clearly not in view. Which meant that strategic voters stayed with the NDP and Greens rather than rush to the Liberals. And so as always, the numbers talk.

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