In the early morning hours of May 3, with the ballots almost all counted, he basked in a Conservative majority. The Liberal Party of Canada, his nemesis, was in shambles. The Bloc Québécois was decimated. If the world seemed then to have tilted in Stephen Harper’s direction, his political situation has become only more advantageous since.
The NDP, though now the official Opposition, has lost its uniquely popular leader, removing Harper’s primary challenger from the House of Commons. What’s more, with Progressive Conservatives mounting serious challenges in Ontario and Manitoba, Harper might awake one day next month to find that every single province west of Quebec is led by a right-of-centre government—a resounding endorsement of the Prime Minister’s twin assertions that “Conservative values are Canadian values” and that “the Conservative party is Canada’s party.”
But if it is to be Stephen Harper’s world, what will Stephen Harper do with it? Perhaps only as much as he said he would do. “The challenge will be getting the balance right and not overreaching,” says Jim Armour, who once served as Harper’s director of communications. “If the Prime Minister goes too big or tries to go too fast, then he risks unifying the opposition and attracting the media’s attention. If, on the other hand, he continues with the ‘stick-to-the script,’ ‘no-surprises’ approach to governing that he’s taken for the past five years, then he’ll be fine. As with all things—even once-in-a-lifetime political opportunities—the key is moderation.”
Beyond boosting the narrative, it’s unclear how substantive the impact of Conservative victories in either or both of Ontario and Manitoba might be on the Harper government’s agenda. “My observation of how the Prime Minister works with premiers is that it is wholly dependent on the personal rapport between the PM and the individual premier,” says Geoff Norquay, a former aide to both Harper and Brian Mulroney. Swapping Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty for PC Leader Tim Hudak would, if nothing else, put a supporter of the Prime Minister’s Senate reforms in charge of the country’s most populous province.
The greatest of Harper’s opportunities will remain in Ottawa. For the next six months—ahead of a convention in Toronto next March—the NDP will be embroiled in a leadership race, one that will likely direct attention, not to mention prominent members of caucus, away from Ottawa. Eventually—ahead of a vote in 2013—the Liberals will have to follow suit. Matched against two caretakers—the NDP’s interim leader Nycole Turmel and the Liberal side’s Bob Rae—Harper would seem first to have a chance to further define himself. “The mainstream generally likes energetic, focused, practical leaders, and Stephen Harper has been working hard to become known as the most energetic, focused and practical,” says Bruce Anderson, a pollster and strategist. “As other parties are in the process of defining their leadership choices, it gives Mr. Harper more time to establish himself as the best choice for centrist voters.”
The coming session of Parliament is set to be dominated by campaign commitments and Conservative icons. “One thing this Prime Minister has been very good at is keeping the covenant he’s made with his own voters, keeping his promises he’s made to his own voters,” observes one Conservative strategist. Government House leader Peter Van Loan is promising a fall agenda that continues the government’s focus on the economy, but also includes legislation to reform the Canadian Wheat Board, rebalance representation in the House of Commons and eliminate the long-gun registry, in addition to an omnibus bill to implement all of the government’s law-and-order measures.
Majority government is said to have provided certain degrees of comfort and focus for Conservatives and it might compel, at least as compared to the feverish years of minority government, a more substantive Ottawa. “Opposition parties will need to realize that basically their only option is cogent arguments that make sense in the court of public opinion,” Norquay says. “The real job of the government is, finally, to rise to the opportunity of having a four-year time frame in which to propose and implement a very substantive policy agenda.” In addition to the specific measures promised by Van Loan, everything from a security perimeter with the United States and free trade with Europe to copyright reform and shipbuilding procurement could, by turns, dominate the discussion in the months ahead.
Whatever he might hope to accomplish over the next four years, when the Prime Minister appeared before the Conservative caucus, he spoke primarily of the economy: a preoccupation that would become all the more understandable a day later when Statistics Canada reported a net loss of jobs for Canada in the month of August. However great his advantages, global turmoil still threatens the Canadian economy and another downturn would challenge the government’s ability to respond. And however advantageous the situation, Harper might be best advised to understand his limits. “They gave him a mandate, but it has a big old fence around it,” the Conservative strategist says of voters, especially those right-leaning Liberals who helped propel Harper to a majority. When the Prime Minister has suffered political wounds—think, for instance, of the decision to prorogue Parliament in late December 2009—they have often been self-inflicted. And in the absence of political rivals (and barring economic catastrophe), presumptuousness may be Harper’s only foe. “The trick for him, in the absence of an opposition,” says the strategist, “is to remain disciplined and focused.”