Harper's Road Map to Beat the Liberals
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, March 27, 2004

The Reform Party’s battle cry that ‘the West wants in’ seems closer than ever to realisation. Stephen Harper’s victory as leader of the newly unified Conservatives is the finishing touch that makes the party a viable government-in-waiting while the sponsorship scandal and a stronger NDP, both bleeding votes from the Liberals, should create openings for significant gains in the next election.

Good news aside, the party must, at a minimum, break through in Canada’s most populous province, Ontario. Harper’s leadership and party unity will suffer if it doesn’t.

You’d think that with vote splitting no longer a factor, this is assured. Think again. Like so much else in politics, there are no guarantees in the political cards for anyone, much less the Conservatives.

While the Liberal party is universally deplored, its leader Prime Minister Paul Martin remains popular. As any federal candidate will attest, running for political office means you are running against the other party’s leader, not his candidate in your riding. In the last two elections where vote splitting was a factor, this meant running against Jean Chretien under whose leadership many Liberal candidates languished sufficiently to allow the combined Reform, Tory and Alliance vote to whup them numerically but not to unseat them.

This time, the Liberals have Paul Martin who responded to the sponsorship scandal with manifest contrition and, increasingly, concrete remedies.

This week’s announcements of aid to cattlemen, whistle blowing legislation, and the budget also demonstrate how the advantages of incumbency easily supplant the headlines of a deserving political party, even those of HM’s Official Opposition. A later rather than sooner election, suggested by the government’s ambitious housekeeping agenda and a low key budget, means more of the same.

Whenever they drop the writ, Liberals will hope that voters have forgotten if not totally forgiven them for the sponsorship scandal.

As they must, Conservatives will try to ensure that voters do neither. But the sponsorship scandal can’t be the only weapon in the Conservative arsenal. On pain of reviving old Ontario fears about a lynch mob approach to wrong doing, even this must be pursued with respect for due process.

A later election gives Conservatives time to hone their policies and sharpen their communications’ strategy. Governments may be lost, not won, but in battle weary Ontario where low voter turn out means more voters with longer memories, it is a close run between the devil you know and the one you don’t. The McGuinty Liberals coasted into government because they chose the high road, fleshed out a few policies, and whose leader had grown into his job, leaving the Eves’ Tories to their uncertain policies and campaign gaffes.

In the West, where provincial governments tend to stick around longer, the favored federal party is both symptom and instrument of its alienation. Despite the tempering influence of Progressive Conservatives, Ontarians remain suspicious and unconvinced such a party has either the comportment or substance to acquit itself properly in government.

Conservatives’ new watchwords must be sophistication, clear messaging and connectedness.

It isn’t enough to oppose the gun registry when significant numbers – urban and mostly female - is deathly afraid of guns. What reassurances can Conservatives offer a constituency whose support could make the difference between government and minority government?

Ditto the environment. Kyoto may be too expensive, too bureaucratic and based on controversial science, but for parents who equate global warming with their child’s asthma, it’s the only thing on offer.

And while the pocket-book benefits of tax cuts are easily understood, to self-sacrificing Canadians concerned about health care, the economic benefits appear far fetched and mathematically impossible.

The function of leadership is to articulate voters’ highest aspirations and to address their deepest fears. This presumes a willingness to identify and empathize with those hopes and fears. Great leadership is further characterized by an ability to move beyond the merely prescriptive to moblise voters to the necessary course of action by engaging their best and most noble instincts as citizens.

This kind of leadership is rare enough at any time in history but even small doses can be effective.

Paul Martin understands this intuitively which is why he is more popular than his party, while Stephen Harper grasps it cerebrally. Certainly he is at his best when he is thinking tactically and making the conservative case. This is how he will break through in Ontario.

Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.

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