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Will the West have the clout it wants?

From The National | Jan. 24, 2006
Reporter: Joe Schlesinger

The election result has transformed the House of Commons and has Canadians watching with anticipation. The power shift in this country isn't just about ideology. It's also about geography. "The West wants in," was a rallying cry Stephen Harper used in his Reform days. In fact, some say he coined that phrase. The wish has come true.

In the jubilation of the election night witching hour, an announcement from the winner of something westerners have been waiting to hear for years: "People of the West, let me just say one thing, and let me be clear. The West has wanted in, the West is in now! Canada will work for all of us!" Stephen Harper told supporters.

For all the jubilation, though, one huge question remains: will Stephen Harper be able to get westerners the political clout in Ottawa they expect?

The main obstacle for getting his western vision past Ottawa's eastern blinkers may not be so much the slimness of his mandate, but rather the burdens of history, the experiences and often misfortunes of his western predecessors in the job.

There have been five of them, all Conservatives. The first, Arthur Meighen of Manitoba, was appointed, not elected. When he did try to get the voters' mandate, he was defeated three times. R.B. Bennett was next. The Albertan had the misfortune of being in charge during the Great Depression, and went down stubbornly doing all the wrong things to fight it. Next, Saskatchewan's John Diefenbaker. He had his triumphs. Despite three electoral victories, though, when he lost his fourth, his party turned on him and turfed him.

Joe Clark became a giant killer. The Albertan defeated Pierre Trudeau, but he lasted a mere seven months before being defeated himself. B.C.'s Kim Campbell's stay in office was even shorter. After a mere four months, she went down in the most disastrous defeat in the party's history.

Joe Clark sees a common thread. "Oh, I think what is common is that almost by definition, perhaps excluding Arthur Meighen, the western prime ministers are outsiders and have a sense of coming from outside the system."

So, of course, is Stephen Harper, more so than his predecessors, in fact. After all, he transformed the old Progressive Conservative party into something he and other westerners were more comfortable with. That was a factor today on the morning talk shows.

"I think Alberta's going to have the voice that it wants in Parliament, because Alberta seems to feel that it really doesn't belong with the rest of Canada," one caller said.

Clark says Harper fostered such attitudes. "I think the sense that the West has been excluded has been cultivated and has grown quite remarkably over the last 15 years. Mr. Harper was part of that mentality, and now he's going to have to govern with taking account of the fruits that he was part of sowing."

But another Alberta Conservative, former premier Peter Lougheed, believes Harper will avoid divisions.

"He's going to recognize that it's his responsibility to be pan-Canadian, to not be regional in his view, to be as much as possible national, and I'm fairly optimistic that that's what he'll do," Lougheed says.

Catherine Ford, a commentator on Alberta affairs and author of Against the Grain: An irreverent view of Alberta, says that to be pan-Canadian presents another pitfall for Harper. "Governments aren't beaten. They lose the election.

"You know, the West says it wants in. Well, nothing is going to change because you have to, you know, it's representation by population, and you absolutely have to address the issues that are central to the majority of the population."

So the danger for Harper is that if he's too centrist and pan-Canadian, he could lose his western base. If, on the other hand, he should be too attentive to the western populism that brought him to prominence, he could lose the rest of the country.

"It's a sea change as well with the leadership – and I'm not putting emphasis just on Western Canada, but the leadership of the country not coming from Quebec. It's a major change for us over the past decades," Lougheed says.

Harper has a few things going for him that his predecessors didn't. Instead of the Depression R.B. Bennett had to face, he will preside over a strong economy, and he's not likely to let himself get bogged down in the squabbles of parliamentary debate the way John Diefenbaker loved to do. Unlike Joe Clark, he is not likely to run a minority government as if he had a majority, and, most important of all, unlike Kim Campbell, he's not saddled with inheriting the mantle of a highly unpopular predecessor.

It seems that Stephen Harper has a good run at turning the history of western prime ministers on its head.

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