Is 'a walk in the snow' in Stephen Harper's future?

With the Senate scandal and other problems, this past year has been among the worst for Stephen Harper and his Conservative government, and the year ahead isn't looking any brighter, Greg Weston writes.

The Tories have some work to do if they want to recover from this disastrous year

In one of the few bright spots last year, Stephen Harper shares a laugh with his wife Laureen during the Conservative convention in Calgary in November. (Todd Korol / Reuters)

While most Canadians were ringing in the New Year, it is easy to imagine Stephen Harper bidding a profound good riddance to 2013, and pulling the covers firmly over his head.

Rarely has this prime minister had less to celebrate.

The latest Nanos Research polls show a Canadian electorate in a winter of discontent, consigning the Harper government to the dumpster on a broad range of key issues.

Pollster Nik Nanos says he has hasn't seen numbers this bad for the Conservatives since Harper first led the party to power in 2006.

Performance of the federal government? Survey says this past year has been the Conservatives' worst.

Direction of the country? More than half of those polled said the Harper government is taking Canada down the wrong path — again, a record thumbs-down since the Conservatives took power.

Canada's reputation in the world? Only 18 per cent say it has improved in the past year. In the 2011 Nanos survey, that figure was close to 50 per cent.

But these assessments aren't the worst of it for the PM and his party. Polls show public antipathy towards them is hardening. 

Finally, what must be Harper's personal pain: other Nanos polls show Canadians would prefer Justin Trudeau as prime minister.

All of which has the parliamentary boardrooms and backrooms abuzz with two obvious questions: Can the Conservatives dig themselves out of this mess before the next election in 2015? And will Harper still be their leader?

A suddenly restive caucus

The answers are not readily apparent.

Internally, there are signs Harper's once iron fist is losing its grip on party discipline. And the worse things get for the Conservatives, the more the troops are beginning to rebel.

One example: Conservative insiders say there are more than 30 Tory MPs ready to defy their parliamentary whip if necessary to support a private member's bill to reduce the almost omnipotent powers of party leaders.

While the bill is unlikely to pass, it points to a level of internal dissent that even some of the MPs involved say wouldn't have happened a year ago.

Stephen Harper and Conservative Senator Mike Duffy participate in a G8/G20 National Youth Caucus on Parliament Hill in 2010, when they were still on speaking terms. (Chris Wattie/ Reuters)

What's more, the mood inside the Conservative caucus isn't likely to improve anytime soon.

First, the Senate scandal that has done so much to put both the party and PM in the doghouse is far from over.

It could even get much worse, especially if police end up charging Harper's former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, or anyone else from the PMO, in connection with the $90,000 cheque to disgraced Senator Mike Duffy.

Charges against any of the senators or others involved in the unfolding fiasco could keep the issue in the news for months, if not years, and likely provide Canadians with even more details unhelpful to the prime minister.

Similarly, if there are no charges or court proceedings, questions about Harper's involvement would likely remain hot political fodder right into the next election.

This may also be the year election authorities finally get to the bottom of the insidious robocalls that were designed to send thousands of Canadians to the wrong polling stations in the last federal election.

No matter what the outcome there, it is unlikely to enhance the Conservative brand.

The diversion route

The Harper government, of course, will do everything it can to divert public attention to other less embarrassing debates.

There is already no shortage of potential diversions, not all of which will make life easier for the Conservatives. For example:

  • Consumer initiatives. The government is promising some perfectly NDP-like market interventions to lower household cellphone and cable-TV bills; expand no-cost banking services; and provide high-speed internet service to rural and remote communities. 
  • Postal service. The surprise year-end announcement that Canada Post is phasing out home delivery in the large urban centres, and hiking the price of stamps, is bound to spark a heated political debate.
  • Government spying. The Harper government is going to have some explaining to do in the wake of the revelations by American whistleblower Edward Snowden that a super-secretive Canadian intelligence agency has been hacking into computers and intercepting phone calls, often at the request of the U.S. National Security Agency.
  • Free trade with Europe. It is popular media wisdom that the Senate scandal completely overshadowed the signing of this supposedly massive trade deal with the 28 nations of the European Union. Truth is, the Harper government hasn't seen fit to share details of the agreement with Canadians, and could hardly expect dancing in the streets over a press release saying it's a great day for Canada. The fine print has to show up soon, however, and by definition there will be regional winners and losers. Let the political fireworks begin.
  • Pipelines. It is considered unlikely the Obama administration will rule on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to southern U.S. refineries before the midterm congressional elections in November. In this country, the far more contentious Northern Gateway pipeline to the B.C. coast has been approved by the National Energy Board, and will likely get the cabinet's OK later this year. That will almost certainly touch off a huge round of protests and court actions by aboriginal and environmental groups across the country.
  • Procurement boondoggles. The Conservative government that promised to give the military everything is having trouble delivering almost anything, whether fighter jets, helicopters, ships or armoured vehicles. Virtually every  procurement on the books has so far produced mainly controversy and huge bills, and this is one war the Tories can't seem to win.
  • Aboriginal issues. Last year began with the Idle No More movement, followed by a period of relative calm. No one in government expects that quiet to last.

Of course, no one without a crystal ball can say what lasting impact, if any, these issues will have on either the Harper government or the mood of the Canadian electorate.

After all, history is full of Canadian prime ministers and their respective parties weathering all manner of political storms and winning re-election.

And perhaps, as pollster Nanos says, the fate of Conservatives will be in the hands of others.

"Maybe they just have to hope Justin Trudeau's leadership blows up, Tom Mulcair does relatively well, and the economy is booming by 2015," Nanos says.

Failing that, next New Year's Eve may well find Stephen Harper at 24 Sussex Dr., contemplating a walk in the snow, following in the footsteps of an earlier Trudeau's famous winter stroll straight out of politics.


Greg Weston was an investigative reporter for CBC News and a regular political commentator on CBC Radio and Television from 2010 to 2015.