Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Halftime Show: Conservatives

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning (Sunday December 25, 2005 at 1:59 am)

Next up in a the halftime show lineup: the Conservatives.

No election since 1993 had looked as promising for Canada’s “right-wing” than 2004. At last, the Western Reform movement had been united formally with the remains of the federal Progressive Conservatives (surely uniting their support levels?) and a major scandal had just rocked the Liberal party.

It was no surprise to close observers that simply merging two parties wouldn’t naturally result in the combination of their supporters, even leaving the more organized opponents aside. The new party, fronted by Preston Manning disciple and long-time Conservative policy analyst Steven Harper, hoped to take advantage of Liberal weakness over the sponsorship scandal.

Mr. Harper came across as stand-offish and angry in the election. A close race between the Liberals and Conservatives widened in the Grits’ favour over the final week. Harper’s focus on policy made him appear cold, while his responses to Liberal attacks were unsuccessful in stemming a final tide. Most of the attacks hinted at a “hidden agenda” which would undermine the Charter of Rights and bring Canada closer to the United States. The Conservatives wound up in second place; but in a Parliament where the government couldn’t be certain of the House’s support.

Satisfyingly, the question of the election’s necessity never gained any traction, despite early Liberal efforts to make it an issue. The Conservatives have largely defined the issues in the first half of the campaign, forcing the Liberals to respond with both policy offerings such as their daycare proposal and quick rebuttals such as their response to the Tory plans for Arctic sovereignty.

The regular release of policies (both social and military) has done more than enable the Tories to frame the debate, they’ve captured more lead stories than the Liberals (can’t report on nothing). Moreover, by presenting substantive material, they’ve managed, so far, to define themselves and articulate their policy choices, which inhibits the Liberals’ ability to present them as purveyors of a “hidden agenda”. If they can keep this pace up, rather than turning their focus to the sponsorship scandal (as they did last time), the Liberals will have a hard time demonizing them or their leader.

And the Conservative leader is proving much harder to demonize. Harper’s speech on the dissolution of Parliament was the first stage in a deliberate effort to rebrand himself. Rather than discuss either the events of the day or policies to come, he spent his time naming and praising those around him like a weepy thespian with a golden statue. If a bit over the top, the point was made: this Steven Harper isn’t a cold fish — he’s a people person.

But in spite of this change (and voters’ desire for change), there has been relatively little movement in the polls for Conservatives. Much of this can be attributed to lingering distrust — the kind of wariness that has been sown over time cannot easily be dismissed, and Mr. Harper’s efforts have a bit too much effort about them to be easily accepted. On the other hand, the lack of movement may also be due to a large number of undecided voters little-interested in the first half of a long campaign, and yet to turn their attention to the issues and candidates. These voters may be surprised by what they see; and movement of support in the second week of January may surprise many curious onlookers.

Conservative strategy has been focussed on two fronts: the aforementioned presentation of policies and self-determination; and the humanised Steven Harper. The difficulty is that the party has little more to offer. They’re distinguishing themselves cleanly and doing a decent job of responding to Liberal attacks (thus far), but have little to show. They need to hope that voter attention will increase and result in better returns.

In the Atlantic, Conservative support has remained roughly constant. Given Steven Harper’s notorious and incendiary remarks about Maritime Canadians, it doesn’t seem likely that the Conservatives will gain much in the region under his leadership. Conservative hopes in the area must rest on improving NDP numbers taking some seats from the Liberals.

In Quebec, little is expected of the Conservatives, and they aren’t asking for much. An improved showing by the BQ will benefit the Tories, if only because the Liberals will lose seats.

In Ontario, where the new Conservative party made a strong showing in the last election, indications are positive. Liberal strength is concentrated in the GTA, where the Tories have few sitting members and where NDP victories may strip the Liberals of a few additional seats. Outside the GTA, Conservative support is either even or slightly ahead of Liberal numbers. The Tories may make inroads, picking up one or two seats around Peterborough and Northumberland, as well as a small number in Southwestern Ontario, depending on local candidates. The Liberals will be under two prongs of attack, with a strong chance, as things stand, of losing as many as ten seats in the province.

The West looks unpromising for the Tories, mostly because they’re starting from a position of significant strength. In 2004, they took 68 of 92 seats in the region. Now, faced with resurgent NDP support in Saskatchewan and a three-way race in British Columbia, they run the risk of losing between five and ten seats in the region.

Overall, the Tories may prove little better off given present polling after the election. Increased support in Ontario (the likeliest place for them to pick up more seats) is unlikely unless voters come to feel more comfortable with them. On that score, there seems to be little hope save the theory that voters haven’t really started to pay attention yet. In British Columbia, some degree of dissatisfaction with the local right-wing government may be helping to depress levels of Conservative support, even in its traditional strongholds. Without a strong showing from its Atlantic component (unlikely), levels of support in that region are unlikely to rise.

The Conservatives seem well-placed for moderate gains which, depending on the Bloc and Liberals’ performances, will put them in a stronger second place. While that might be disappointing, the most disappointing news for them must be that their campaign is being as well-run so far as might be expected. Whether more of the same will be helpful remains to be seen in the New Year.

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