Harper hands Rae an issue by declaring the Liberals dead

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The Gazette, Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The partisan crowd at Stephen Harper's annual Calgary Stampede barbecue wanted a victory lap, and he was only too happy to oblige.

"I believe the long Liberal era is genuinely, truly ending," he told the crowd of 900 in a tent at Calgary's Heritage Park last Saturday. "As with disco balls and bell bottoms, Canadians have moved on."

The headline in the next day's Calgary Herald was entirely predictable: " 'Long Liberal era' over: PM."

The Liberals quickly pounced with a statement from interim leader Bob Rae accusing Harper of "triumphal arrogance," adding that "pride like this will be followed by a fall."

Courtesy of Harper, Rae just got a message track for his summer tour. He ought to send the PM a thank-you note.

This was not Harper improvising; he was working from a text. But it's never a good thing to kick a dog when it's down. It might jump up and bite you.

"Who is out?" he asked. "The Liberals are out. The Bloc Québécois is out. The politics of division are out."

He even had a word for the New Democratic Party.

"Quebec's honeymoon with the NDP will pass," he predicted. "As many provinces know well, no honeymoon passes as quickly and as completely as with the NDP."

Just to remind people that Rae, as NDP premier of Ontario, led such a terrible government that he had days named after him for the wrong reasons.

The crowd in the tent loved the campaign-style stump speech. The larger TV audience, seeing only these snippets, might have wondered if we weren't still in an election.

It's never recommended to consign your opponents to the dustbin of history. You can look this up under Pierre Trudeau, who in 1976 famously said "separatism is dead." A few months later, René Lévesque was premier of Quebec.

The Liberals were in office for 75 of the last 110 years, and were regarded as Canada's natural governing party and the most successful political dynasty in the Western world.

There's still lots of equity in the Liberal brand - not that the Liberals themselves ran on it in the spring. They forced an election that nobody wanted over an issue - contempt of Parliament - that hardly anyone cared about. They had a bad message and a lousy messenger, Michael Ignatieff.

Ironically for a public intellectual, in ignoring the Liberal brand Ignatieff sounded like someone with no sense of the history of the party of Laurier, King, St. Laurent, Pearson, Trudeau and Chrétien. It was like he was just visiting there.

In the sound bites of Harper stepping on his own message, the message was lost.

And that would be one of a new Conservative Canada, a party whose trend line has moved up from 30 to 40 per cent in the last four elections, from opposition in a minority Liberal House in 2004, to growing Conservative minorities in 2006 and 2008, to the present Conservative majority.

As Harper put it, somewhat boastfully but quite accurately:

"Our 166 members of Parliament represent every province and two out of three territories. We have representation in urban, suburban, rural and remote ridings. We have more women in our Conservative caucus than ever before. We have the largest aboriginal caucus ever. And we have the most culturally diverse caucus in parliamentary history."

As he also said: "We used to say the West wants in. Well, now the West is in. But so is the North. So are new Canadians. So is the East. So is that Conservative fortress of Toronto."

Who knew? The Conservatives won their majority in the Greater Toronto Area, gaining 19 seats. Where they had only 11 seats in the GTA before the election, they now have 30, and where the Liberals had 32, they have been reduced to seven. Where the Liberals won more than 100 seats in Ontario in 2000, they now have only 11, to go along with their seven seats in Quebec, a province where they won 74 seats in 1980.

"Conservative values are Canadian values," Harper said. "They always were."

In this there was an element of payback to the Liberals for their mantra in the Chrétien and Martin years that "Liberal values are Canadian values." Liberals should be no less offended now than Conservatives were then. No party has a monopoly on Canadian values; only the Bloc can be marginalized in that regard.

On a more profound level, Harper also said the Conservatives as the founding party of Canada were the party of "peace, order and good government."

And in this, he clearly defined himself as a classical federalist, respecting the constitutional division of powers.

Those are Canadian values, as well as Conservative ones. It's a debate worth having with both the Liberals and the NDP, who have always been the parties of strong central government. Or, in the NDP's case, at least until 59 MPs showed up from Quebec.

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