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Harper In Control As Decade Winds Down But Polls Say Canada Hasn't Moved Right

Stephen Harper arrives at the morning session of the UN Climate Change Conference on December 18, 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

When an internationally known band of subversive “culture jammers” targeted Canada this month in an elaborate climate change hoax, it did more than irritate the office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The elaborate stunt pulled by the New York-based Yes Men – in which a phoney Canadian policy shift to deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions was announced to the world in Copenhagen, followed by an equally phoney government denunciation of said policy change – appeared to make barely a ripple on Canada’s domestic political consciousness.

But it might just signal something else.

Putting Canada into the ranks of other Yes Men targets such as George W. Bush, Dow Chemical and the stodgy World Trade Organization marks a huge shift in the international image of a country that was deemed “rather cool” by influential British magazine The Economist in September 2003.

Back then, the buzz was about Canadian budget surpluses, same-sex marriage, Kyoto and marijuana decriminalization.

Today Canada is talking tough on crime and stressing military pride, national security, “global energy superpower status,” tax cuts and deficits.

Canada enters the final year of the decade with Harper – a conservative thinker once deemed “unelectable” in this country by pollsters and pundits – and his Conservative government firmly in command of the federal political and legislative agenda.

But whether the country has moved to the right is another matter.

Canada was likely never as “cool” as the outside world perceived, nor is it today as uncool as New York underground activists would suggest.

Pollster Allan Gregg of Harris-Decima believes Harper has “learned that showing moderate, balanced, stable, competent government is good politics in this country. He benefits simply from being the prime minister and not doing anything stupid.”

The year 2009 encapsulated that decade-long lesson. It began with Harper’s minority reeling under the self-made threat of being toppled by a united opposition and ends with the Conservative minority on top and the election drums silent.

While talk of a pending Harper majority may be premature – the party closes 2009 stuck in the same old mid-30s of public opinion approval – there’s little doubt of Conservative party success.

Gregg calls it a “slow motion re-drawing of the political map” over the last five years. The Conservatives, he said are “just sort of inching into new territory all the time.”

Tom Flanagan, a political scientist at the University of Calgary and Harper’s former campaign director and chief of staff, agrees that the Conservative party is on the move in Canada, but not necessarily conservatism.

The party vote is “solidifying,” Flanagan told The Canadian Press, along the lines identified by its strategists before the 2006 federal election. Conservatives wanted to attract Roman Catholics, visible minorities and married women with children.

However at the level of Canadian political philosophy or ideology, “I don’t think there’s been any big shift,” said Flanagan.

The Conservative party’s strategic advances on the electorate have been accompanied only occasionally with conservative policy breakthroughs.

The repeal-in-principle of the long gun registry this autumn, courtesy of a Tory backbencher’s bill that received the full heft of the party’s shock-and-awe promotion, was lamented in some quarters as a two-decade roll-back of the progressive clock.

Others point to the celebration and promotion of the military and the absence of national debate on pharmacare and daycare as signals of a new conservatism in Canadian politics.

“Whether any of this has anything to go with changing values in the population . . . I think it has more to do with political tactics,” countered Flanagan.

By cutting taxes, particularly the GST, Harper has simply starved the centre-left of the fiscal room for new, big-ticket social programs.

“It shows what you can accomplish by control of government, by setting the agenda for public discussion,” said Flanagan.

The Tory tough-on-crime agenda taps into populist notions of justice, but Flanagan doesn’t see that as some new Canadian mentality.

“I don’t know whether much of (the crime legislation) makes much difference, to be honest,” said the conservative academic with characteristic frankness.

“A lot of it deals with fringe situations. But it certainly changes the terms of public debate: ‘How much more punitive should we become?”‘

Even on the issue of climate change, where the Conservatives appear offside with public opinion polls, the government has managed to frame the debate as a zero-sum game between the environment and the economy.

Promotion of Canada’s proud military history and our Arctic sovereignty are examples of the “kinds of symbolic things the government has done,” added Flanagan. “If they haven’t shifted people’s values, they certainly have shifted the climate of what gets said at the public level, what gets reported.”

But what kind of conservatism spends $10 billion bailing out failing auto companies, introduces a new $5-billion Southern Ontario development agency, boosts Employment Insurance and spends $38 million on a gauzy, big-government ad campaign?

Gerry Nicholls of the conservative online portal Libertas Post says Harper caters to “populist conservative” values such the family, the military and criminal justice – but avoids the issues of individual freedom, smaller government and balanced books.

Nicholls wishes the prime minister would do more to “sell” conservatism and believes having Harper at 24 Sussex Drive actually stalls conservative activism by making it complacent.

“This has kind of neutralized Canada’s conservative movement, because Stephen Harper is our guy,” he said in an interview.

Flanagan would like to believe that Canada’s aging population means more room for growth for conservatism, although he doesn’t yet see it happening.

His hope rests in part on the conventional wisdom that people become more “conservative” as they age. But that’s been called into question by a series of studies dating back at least to the 1980s.

A large U.S. research paper published in October 2007, using data over a 32-year period from 46,000 Americans, found that “the direction of change is most often toward increased tolerance rather than increased conservatism.”

As for Canada
, Harris-Decima recently concluded an end-of-decade telephone poll on political values of more than 1,000 Canadians and came to a firm conclusion.

“Canadians are, on balance, small-l liberals,” says Gregg.

Respondents, asked to self-identify their position on the ideological spectrum, hewed dominantly centre left.

Only 17 per cent of respondents identified themselves with the most extreme left-and right-wing options on the questionnaire – which Harris-Decima benignly offered up as “fairly left” or “fairly right” of centre.

Of these relative ideologues, 11 per cent said they were fairly left and just six per cent said they were fairly right.

Putting all the numbers together, 29 per cent placed themselves left of centre, 30 per cent were “perfectly in the centre” and 21 per cent said they were right of centre.

For corroboration, Gregg points to a poll conducted during last year’s U.S. presidential campaign, when 50 per cent of self-identified Canadian Conservatives supported Barack Obama.

“So this notion that there is this kind of wholesale drift to the right is simply not borne out.”

Harris-Decima also asked respondents to self-assess whether they had become more right-wing, more left-wing or had the stayed the same over the past decade. “The net result is zero,” Gregg said, laughing.

The vast majority, 70 per cent, claimed to be unchanged, while 10 per cent said they’d moved to the right and 10 per cent said they’d moved left.

Of course, it could be argued that the centre has shifted right over the last 20 years.

Bob Rae served as Ontario’s NDP premier from 1990 to 1995 before reincarnating himself as a federal Liberal in 2006.

He doesn’t believe the country has become more conservative, but notes “we did make a very clear decision in the ’90s as a country that we wanted to get our financial house in order, and I think that sense of prudence still underlies a lot of Canadian public opinion.”

Gregg says Canadians are fiscally conservative and socially progressive. And even Flanagan believes the Harper government “probably on most issues doesn’t really represent a majority view in the country.”

However the old political ideal of wanting your policies to appeal to at least half the electorate is not part of the Harper Conservative equation.

“These guys are quite happy with 35 (per cent), as long as they can get the other four (parties) on the other 65 per cent,” said Gregg, himself a former strategist for the federal Progressive Conservatives. “It is a different way of doing politics. And I think they have spooked the opposition. They don’t know what to do with this.”

It seems to be working.

While polls continue to show the Conservatives in the mid 30s of public support, safely ahead of Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals, they also show a fair degree of comfort with the country’s direction.

Four in 10 respondents to a Harris-Decima poll in November felt the outcome of last year’s Commons crisis – in which Harper maintained power by proroguing parliament – was the best option. Another 10 per cent would have preferred an election resulting in a Conservative win. That means more than 50 per cent of respondents appeared content with continued Harper rule.

NDP Leader Jack Layton sees the Conservative cup as half empty, not half full.

“You’ve got the government which has all the tools of power and is using them all,” Layton said at a recent end-of-session news conference.

“They’re writing cheques all across the country, they’re sending out videos of the prime minister, they’re staging every kind of event possible – and yet Canadians don’t seem to be agreeing with where the prime minister is taking the country.”

Gregg, with a diplomat’s finesse, also points to Harper’s aggressive use of every lever, including the courts, to get his way. “I have never seen a political party in government that uses the tools that are legally available to them with more assiduousness.”

For Liberals, Harper really is a right-wing ideologue who has been forced by electoral reality to adopt middle-of-the-road language.

“I think our country is progressive and prudent,” said Rae, his party’s foreign affairs critic.

“That’s a balance that we’re all wrestling with, and we’re going to be fighting a lot over the middle ground. That’s a lot of what politics is all about.”

Predicting a political trajectory for the country, or for the look and composition of the next federal government, or even the timing of the next federal election for that matter, is akin to reading tarot cards and tea leaves.

No matter how the world perceives Canada’s altered political persona, the reality is Conservatives are benefiting from the kind of divided opposition that helped Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien on his 10-year run through the 1990s.

“Conservatives can take advantage of a divided left, they can govern and they can use their agenda-setting power to frame what we talk about,” said Flanagan.

“They’re clearly consolidating their political support. And over a longer period of time – if this goes on for years and years – it may well shift public values on a lot of stuff.

“But that would be a longer term process which I don’t think has really happened yet.”