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Analysis & Commentary

Tories then and now

What a difference 18 months has made for the Conservative Party of Canada.

In the run-up to the June 2004 election, Stephen Harper's party was beset with problems, yet still came within hailing distance of defeating the long-ruling Liberals. This time, the Conservative campaign came out of the gates at a gallop, and has hardly stumbled in the past seven weeks. The result: Canadians soothed by the party's new moderate image have elected a non-Liberal government for the first time since 1988.

But has the Conservative party's underlying nature, not merely its strategies, changed? You be the judge.

Harper, the party's 46-year-old leader.

Harper's well-documented views were on full display in the 2004 campaign, and his demeanour backed them up in the public consciousness to sway uncommitted voters away from the Conservatives.

Some of the views were years old when the campaign began, but he did not disavow them. In 1987 and 1988, he drafted much of the early policy of what would become the Reform Party of Canada, including a suggestion that the federal government should make a written agreement to stay in Canada a condition of giving Quebec any further transfer funds.

He put his name on the famous "firewall letter," published in the National Post in 2001, in which he and other prominent Conservatives advised Alberta Premier Ralph Klein to withdraw the province from many federal programs and "build firewalls around Alberta to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction."

Harper believed strongly in small government, a stance that on the campaign trail fed fears of massive cuts to social programs if he were elected. He proposed that there should be "no sacred trusts" in Canadian government and no "corporate welfare" in the form of business development agencies such as the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

His image as a hawk was born in 2003, when he slammed the Liberals' decision to keep Canadian troops out the Iraq invasion, saying we should be "shoulder to shoulder" with the Americans.

On contentious social issues, he said he would allow free votes in the House of Commons on abortion and capital punishment if one of his MPs introduced a private member's bill.

He confirmed a leaked party memo on watering down official bilingualism, saying the party wanted to see Air Canada providing bilingual service only where there was a measurable need for it. Supreme Court justices would be appointed only after being grilled to ensure they don't believe Parliament should play second fiddle to the judiciary, he said.

Meanwhile, his image as a self-righteous "angry man" was fed by his continuous references to what the Liberals were doing wrong and his general disinclination to smile when cameras were around. In the last two weeks of the campaign, his open musings about winning a majority were blamed for spooking centrist voters away from the NDP and into the arms of Paul Martin's Liberals, allowing them to win more seats than most analysts had predicted, and thus a minority government.

He smiles, even at the tension-filled height of leaders' debates. He mentions his family frequently. He is photographed playing with children. He sprinkles turtlenecks and open collars in with his shirts and ties, strolls around stages at party events carrying a portable microphone, and occasionally jokes with reporters.

On the substance side, he insists he won't use the charter's notwithstanding clause to turn back the clock on same-sex marriage, even if most MPs vote to do so in a free vote in the House of Commons. He says his government won't support or debate changes to Canada's abortion laws. It will give more money and power to Quebec by addressing the fiscal imbalance and letting the provincial government have a voice on international bodies such as UNESCO. The party's platform does not cut spending at any government department, while adding new programs, reducing the GST and promising a new fiscal deal for the provinces. Even ACOA's budget is safe, he told Atlantic Canadians.

"I think I'm a normal, thoughtful person," Harper said on Jan. 11, 2006. "Over the course of a decade, people's views evolve somewhat - and situations change." Those "situations" may include the Conservatives' realization after 2004 that something had to evolve if they ever wanted to truly unite the right and form an electable alternative to the Liberals. The party conducted a painstaking analysis of what went wrong in that campaign, and came out of the starting blocks this time determined to move toward the centre and thus boost the Conservatives' acceptability quotient to the average voter. Harper's image was refined; the public smiles eventually started to look more natural, and his wardrobe became more relaxed.

A quote from Harper as he announced his party's full platform on Jan. 13: "I'm basically a cautious person. I don't measure progress by the level of emotion or the intensity of the sales pitch. I measure it by achievement, one step at a time. I believe that it is better to light one candle than promise a million light bulbs."

Outspoken candidates such as Cheryl Gallant, Rob Merrifield, Scott Reid and Randy White (the first three of whom are running again in 2006).

Up to and during the 2004 campaign, the Conservative party's roster of MPs and candidates made a number of comments about abortion, bilingualism, gay marriage and the courts that allowed the Liberals to say, "See? We told you they were scary." Some examples were unearthed and released by Liberal operatives during the campaign, though others were made in the heat (or overconfidence) of the moment.

For example, health critic Merrifield said women wanting abortions should be required to go through third-party counselling. Ottawa-area MP Gallant suggested hate law amendments should be repealed because protection of homosexuals could end up protecting pedophiles, and a Catholic newspaper article surfaced in which she compared abortion to al-Qaeda's recent televised beheading of American Nicholas Berg. MP White told a documentary film crew that recent rulings supporting same-sex marriage could be blamed on "obscure judges" wanting to make a name for themselves. He also said "to heck with the courts" and predicted the Conservatives will not be shy to use the charter's notwithstanding clause. The party's official critic on bilingualism, Reid, told a Moncton newspaper the Conservatives would rewrite the policies put in place during the Trudeau era.

Except for Ontario candidate Rondo Thomas, a pastor and professor who told a documentary filmmaker a "war" will break out "between those who believe in righteousness and those who believe in immorality" to reverse the same-sex marriage law, the Conservative hopefuls didn't speak about controversial subjects this time. They toed the party line, speaking carefully whenever prodded for their personal views, and in some cases not speaking at all.

Rob Anders, the MP for Calgary West who once called Nelson Mandela a terrorist, has not been attending all-candidates' forums in the riding and does not talk to the media. Gallant is being similarly careful, communicating largely through press release and door-to-door campaigning. And Paula Henderson, a volunteer for Nova Scotia candidate Rakesh Khosla, told a Halifax newspaper that nobody would be commenting on Khosla's participation in a meeting involving clergy members who are against same-sex marriage. "We've been told by Ottawa that we don't talk about that," Henderson said. "That's a dropped subject."

"For now, we've got to do what we've got to do to get elected," Alberta MP Myron Thompson told an interviewer in June 2004. Certainly there have been strict instructions that candidates not make up policy on the fly, or present their own views as the party's stance. Party spokesman Stephen Carter confirmed that in an interview with CBC.

"I'd say that Rob Anders has had the same communication that all of the 308 candidates (have) had from the party, and that is that we have a platform that's been agreed upon by members of this party across the country and that platform is what we're speaking to," he said on Jan. 12. "I don't believe that's a muzzle."

The individual views of Conservative candidates matter very much in a party that promises to hold more free votes in Parliament on social and moral issues, David Laycock, a political science professor at Simon Fraser University, pointed out in a recent interview with a B.C. newspaper.

Conservative campaign organizers.

The people running the campaign were kept busy putting out fires started by the outspoken candidates, but also managed to start a few themselves. The most damaging example was a news release sent out on June 18, 2004 just 24 hours after a Toronto murderer admitted he watched child porn in the hours before he kidnapped, raped and killed a 10-year-old girl in 2003.

The release was headlined "Paul Martin supports child pornography?" The wording was later softened, but Harper refused to apologize for it. Then there was the handling of the release of the party's platform. The Conservatives chose a Saturday afternoon in early June to release their whole platform, which contained many promises that had been previously announced or leaked, including tax cuts and higher spending on the military. And hampered by the newly merged party's inability to hold a policy convention before the election call, the team decided to prepare a list of policy talking points for candidates to use on the campaign trail. Some of those policies changed over the course of the campaign, leading to confusion among candidates and reporters alike about what the party was really intending to do.

Harper's team had a well-thought-out plan this time, and it showed. Early in the campaign, their leader was out making policy announcements every morning, seizing the agenda for the day and forcing the Liberals to react rather than make proactive statements themselves (not that there was much sign of the Liberals intending to announce much new policy until after the Christmas break).

By the time the Conservatives' full platform was released, on the Friday 10 days before election day, Harper had been getting headlines on what it contained for almost six weeks. As a result, voters told pollsters the Conservatives seemed to have more of a plan for the country. On the quick-response front, the campaign had also learned a lot.

CBC election journalists received regular, meaty missives from the Conservative war room, which sent out releases questioning or attacking Liberal moves almost as soon as they happened.

The desire to win a chance to put their ideas into action, of course, especially if it means avoiding the unemployment line. Undoubtedly, Harper and his team learned from their 2004 mistakes, with practice making an imperfect science more perfect. The extra 18 months also allowed for more collaboration to build among the former Canadian Alliance camp and the former Progressive Conservative contingent, who historically knew a thing or two about winning elections.

There are still some gaps in professionalism, though whether accidental or deliberate is hard to tell. For example, the president of the M�tis National Council, Clement Chartier, told a recent news conference that the Conservatives ignored two letters asking for their positions on various issues. The Liberal and NDP camps responded, and the group endorsed the Liberals.

The party's policies.

The new party didn't really have co-ordinated package of policies to sell, as a result of the months-old merger between the Canadian Alliance Party of Canada under Harper and the Progressive Conservatives under Peter MacKay that created the new united-right entity. No policy convention had been held before the election call. More moderate Red Tories like MacKay and the former Reformers were negotiating on the fly to decide what the party's direction should be. Into the vacuum rushed the musings of their rogue candidates, the leftover policies of the old Reform party and the accusations of their political foes.

The party's policies are focused, internally consistent, easy to understand and designed to appeal to a wide swath of Canadian society. They are also carefully delivered. The full platform release on Jan. 13 was in the form of a blue book labelled Stand Up for Canada.

Time and thought on the part of party policy drafters to come up with a coherent set of promises; the luxury of being able to communicate those policies to their candidates.

Despite the publication of a full platform, complete with costing that the Liberals quickly labelled "a formula for fudge," critics still fear the Conservatives are planning to cut programs to pay for their tax breaks and new spending. The platform promises to put a cap on spending in all government departments, except for Indian Affairs and Defence, but doesn't say whether or how spending priorities will change within departments.

Small-c conservative supporters who had made the Canadian Alliance their home.

An Edmonton Journal columnist once described Harper as "the professorial policy wonk who's happy to keep the state out of your bedroom as long as you'll agree to keep the state out of every other part of Canadian life."

He had long been uncomfortable with the segment of the Reform party made up of social conservatives who saw a chance to bring family values and traditional morality back into Canadian laws and government. In the 2004 campaign, these groups overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives in an effort to defeat the Liberals, who were promising to pass same-sex marriage legislation that would apply across the country, not just in provinces where courts had ruled the traditional one man-one woman definition unconstitutional.

Delegations from the groups showed up at many campaign events, and were openly hostile to protesters and even some reporters, swearing at and heckling them on at least two occasions.

There was been near-total silence from such groups, compared to last time. When the groups surfaced, they were sometimes even seen disagreeing with Harper. For example, a founder of the Defend Marriage Coalition said Harper's statement that he would not use the notwithstanding clause to overturn same-sex marriage was "not appreciated."

Charles McVety went on to say, "This is not the position that we would like Mr. Harper to take, but we do recognize that he is running for prime minister and that he is seeking a compromise."

They don't need to appear on the campaign trail to remind Harper about their issues, given that such a strategy appeared to have hurt the party's performance last time.

They didn't have to, though; on the first day of the campaign, Harper told reporters he intended to hold a free vote on same-sex marriage in the House of Commons.

After that promise was not included in Harper's list of top five priorities in early January, social conservatives were unfazed.

Hermina Dykxhoorn, president of the Alberta Federation of Women United for Families, said it was regrettable that nobody was talking about tighter controls on abortion. "We need to be able to win the hearts and minds of the majority of individuals," she said. "I think we could go ahead and do a lot of things that would not be attractive to most people, and we would not change governments."

People who wanted Harper to stick to his original neo-con agenda from the late 1980s are also resigned to the change. "It's better to take a pretty good outcome rather than a total loss [like we saw] when we were purist," Ezra Levant, editor of The Western Standard magazine, said in a Jan. 11 interview with CBC's Don Newman.

A group called Vote Marriage Canada, headed by Liberal MP Pat O'Brien and former Conservative MP Grant Hill, is bucking the quiet trend. It has been publicly endorsing candidates who promise to vote to restore the traditional definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman. Some of those endorsed have been Liberals, but the majority so far have been Conservative candidates, especially in the Atlantic provinces. O'Brien rejects the suggestion that such a push might have the effect of pushing moderate voters away from the endorsed candidates, telling CBC: "That's the old canard to get you to be quiet on the issue."

Alberta Premier Ralph Klein.

The most prominent Conservative premier in the country, from the province that gave birth to the Reform Party of Canada, set off a bomb that sprayed shrapnel over Harper when he signalled dramatic changes to Alberta's health-care system in the midst of the 2004 campaign.

The announcement would be made two days after the June 28 election, Klein's government said.

Defenders of medicare immediately accused him of intending to throw Alberta's doors wide open to the private delivery of health care, and Martin was able to tar Harper as the man who would be "a silent partner in Ottawa" for Klein to break the spirit of the Canada Health Act.

Klein didn't help by saying "there's no pact with the devil" - in other words, Harper. The big announcement is moved up and turns out to include nothing more startling than a decision to hold public consultations on reforming the system, but the damage is done.

Apart from telling Halifax reporters just before the election call that he didn't think Harper would win because Canadians haven't warmed up to him, Klein said almost nothing.

"Duct tape works." That's what Klein told reporters when asked what he thinks is behind the dramatic increase in support for Harper three-quarters of the way through the campaign. It's a reference to Peter MacKay's quip to reporters asking him how Klein could be kept from accidentally sabotaging the Conservatives' chances this time: "Maybe duct tape?"

As one of the founders of Reform, a party whose early slogan was "The West Wants In," Harper could be a friend indeed to Klein as prime minister. In fact, he could be a friend to all premiers who want the federal government to stay out of their areas of jurisdiction while handing over more money or tax points to fund their increasingly expensive responsibilities.

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