ELECTION SPECIAL 2006

SURROUNDED BY SHARKS

February 6 2006
ELECTION SPECIAL 2006

SURROUNDED BY SHARKS

February 6 2006

SURROUNDED BY SHARKS

ELECTION SPECIAL 2006

On Jan. 10, while the leaders were making last-minute preparations for the French-language debate in Montreal, Michael Ignatieff had a fundraiser in a nice Bay Street venue in Toronto—well outside the Etobicoke-Lakeshore riding he was trying to win. Admission was $300 a head.

Ignatieff is the Harvard prof and international relations expert who came home to a country he has grown rusty on, to run for Parliament and, who knows, maybe more after that. It was the “maybe more” that drew a sizable gaggle of reporters and cameras to his event.

Ignatieff, working diligently at playing modest, professed amazement at the attention. “It’s a fundraiser. I’m a candidate in Etobicoke-Lakeshore.” And why wasn’t the fundraiser in Etobicoke-Lakeshore? “I did one fundraiser in Etobicoke-Lakeshore already,” he said. “And I’m doing the second one.”

And why had he been greeted by this gaggle? “Absolutely no idea,” he said. “I can’t figure it out. It’s your problem, not mine.”

How could the struggling Liberal campaign turn around? “I think it’s comic to ask a rookie who’s never run before what you need to turn a national campaign,” Ignatieff said. “I mean, my sense is, all across the country, there are Liberal candidates doing what I’m doing. They’re getting on their ski pants,

they’re getting up early in the morning and they work 16-hour days. And that’s what you do. I mean, there are hundreds of us out there sweating it out. And when you work hard in this business, you get a good result.”

Alfred Apps, who called himself a “supporter” of Ignatieff, chatted with the reporters too. “I don’t know” why people were so interested in Ignatieff, Apps said. But he ventured a guess. “I think it’s clear that the only reason why the media are interested in this single fundraiser is because of who the candidate is.”

That’s not quite true. Michael Ignatieff was pretty rare fauna in this election, with his global reputation among the literati and his lanky Harvard Yard carriage. But the media were also interested in him because guys like Alfred Apps seemed to accrete around him. And Alfred Apps helped run John Manley’s 2003 Liberal leadership campaign, such as it was. And the job might be coming open again soon, for all anyone knew.

Apps was having none of it. “It’s going to be a great night. Okay?” And he went back into the fundraiser.

That wasjan. 10. Jan. 23 wasn’t such a great night, although Martin managed to pull a respectable performance out of the fire for the Liberals. Or more precisely, the voters of Ontario pulled it out of the fire for him. Martin announced this had been his last campaign. He would stick around for some time as the MP for LaSalle-Émard, perhaps in part so he could be sure the frenetic week behind him would not be his last memory in politics.

Oh, and Michael Ignatieff won in EtobicokeLakeshore. And John Manley spent election night at the CBC election decision desk. And you can’t throw a brick in Ottawa these days without hitting a Frank McKenna fan. Jack Layton was right about this much, at least: the Liberals really will be busy for the next little while, thinking about themselves.

And Harper? He can take some consolation from the writings of Tom Flanagan, whose 1998 book Game Theory and Canadian Politics reminds readers that the largest electoral majorities in Canadian history were consistently fragile and unstable. By that matter, Harper’s wee, barely governing caucus should be sturdy indeed, because the new

minister takes office surrounded by sharks.

Or, more accurately, by Zoés. Pollster Greg Lyle’s research for Maclean’s shows the nasty side effect of the efficient demographic targeting Harper used to get this far: the Conservatives attained an ever-higher comfort level among voters who would consider voting for them, while leaving a narrow majority of Canadians entirely unmoved by Harper’s charms. Actually, that’s a considerable understatement.

In the 1995 campaign that got Mike Harris elected premier of Ontario, Lyle says, Harris’s campaign team worked hard on what they called the HOAG variable, for Hell Of A Guy. They needed voters to warm to Harris, so they set about portraying him as the kind of fellow anyone would enjoy spending time with. To say the least, many Ontarians didn’t buy the HOAG sell. But enough did.

“The federal Tories delivered HOAG big time in this campaign,” Lyle says. Respondents to Lyle’s Internet panel who were always willing to consider the Conservatives became much more impressed with Harper over the course of the campaign. That’s true even for respondents who didn’t vote Conservative in the end, but who had the Tories as their second choice. “Second-choice Conservatives are twice as likely to like Harper as to say he would be the best PM,” Lyle says, “which sets the stage for growth if he convinces those voters of his competence in the job.”

As for consistent Conservative voters, well, they’re in love. The proportion of Tory voters with a strongly favourable view of him grew from 34 per cent to 64 per cent.

That’s the good news. Here’s the other kind. “More than half the public—55 per cent— is not in the Conservative universe,” Lyle said. “Those voters remain strikingly unconvinced that Harper is a Hell Of A Guy.” By the end of the campaign, panellists who hadn’t considered voting for Harper were 86 per cent likely to agree that “the Conservative party is too extreme for me,” and 83 per cent likely to agree that “Harper scares me.”

Now ordinarily there is a kind of serenity for a confident leader in knowing who doesn’t like him. Jean Chrétien took positive glee in hearing he had upset somebody who was never going to vote for him anyway. But

Chrétien had majorities. If Harper is going to do more than toe-touch at 24 Sussex Drive before fading into the history books, he needs to get stuff done. Which means he needs to build coalitions with parties that were sent to Parliament by voters who think he is seriously not a HOAG.

A free vote on same-sex marriage? Lyle’s research shows that the compromise position Conservatives passed at last year’s Montreal convention actually has a chance of making it through Parliament, albeit in a bumpy ride. Non-Conservative voters don’t like the idea

of a free vote on a question they consider settled, but they are mightily reassured by Harper’s promise that the final say would go to the Supreme Court, unchallenged by any threat that he would use the notwithstanding clause to override the Suprêmes’ will. Harper’s own supporters, on the other hand, don’t like the idea that the top court would get the last say, but they are pleased that same-sex marriage will at least get another vote in Parliament. So the strategy should appeal to different parts of this rickety Parliament at different times.

As for Harper’s plan to cut the GST from seven per cent to six per cent, and eventually to five per cent, that’s “a slam dunk,” Lyle says. Nobody will block it. But Harper was going to pay for that measure by rolling back Liberal tax cuts. There he faces considerable opposition from the panellists who were least likely to support the Conservatives and likeliest to support other parties.

Rolling back tax cuts is a measure Harper would probably introduce in a money bill. A government that is defeated on a money bill fails the test of confidence in the Com-

mons. If push came to shove, an issue like this could have us all back on the campaign trail very soon indeed.

HARPER NEEDS TO WORK ON THE 'HOAG' VARIABLECONVINCING THOSE WHO DIDN'T VOTE FOR HIM THAT HE'S A 'HELL OF A GUY.' IT WON'T BE AN EASY JOB.

Which is the long way of saying it won’t be easy. Harper has gained a tenuous foothold on power. On the one hand, even that is an extraordinary accomplishment. His own spokesman, Geoff Norquay, quit on him less than a year ago, convinced Harper couldn’t get this far. On the other hand, all the work Harper has done is only a prelude to the challenge ahead. He has failed to charm or calm the people who didn’t end up voting for him. Indeed, for the most part, he didn’t try. Now he needs to get Dougie-style policy through a Parliament of Zoës.

He brings discipline, humility and a team with diverse and complementary talent. He has managed to get one notoriously tough crowd—francophone Quebecers—to give him a serious second look. Paul Martin, in an amazing parting gift, gave him perhaps a year’s free running to show what he can accomplish. We will

refrain from predictions for the moment. But

so far, this has been a rough decade for peopie who underestimated Stephen Harper. M With Joan Bryden, John Geddes, Steve Maich,

Nancy Macdonald, Nicholas Köhler and Shanda Deziel