Canada is having an election simply because Stephen Harper believes hisparty — the Harpers — can win a majority of seats in the next parliament.We know his preferred scenario: turn Canada into a more easily recognizableversion of the American Republican dream. He knows to get there the HarperConservatives need to become the dominant Canadian political party.
Conservatives have won big majorities before; John Diefenbaker in 1958 andBrian Mulroney in 1984 swept the country. While he would also love toprofit big from a Liberal collapse, Harper is aiming for less: winning aplurality of the vote where it counts and seeing his party in first placein more than one-half of the ridings in the country.
If getting the Harpers in first place with the most voters is what thiscampaign is all about, then the lines of battle become more clearly defined:identify your voters and win them over.
The “Harper Heartland,” as James Laxer calls it on the rabble.ca election blog isbest characterized by what it excludes: downtown voters in Canada’s threebiggest cities. The Harper policy agenda does not support safe injectionsites, urban transit, social housing, or measure to eliminate inner citypoverty. While the Liberals and the NDP fight it out in Vancouver, Torontoand, joined by the Bloc, in Montreal, the Harpers are working the suburbs ofurban Canada for votes.
The Harpers target voters from the top 40 per cent of income earners, aimingtax cuts in their direction, and promising not to help out with socialspending, arts funding, foreign aid, or support for United Nationspeacekeeping.
This is in sharp contrast with the “middle class” strategy of the Liberalsin the postwar period, where it was assumed that the top 20 per cent ofincome earners were too few to elect a government and the bottom 20 per centdid not vote, so policies aimed at the middle 60 per cent: pensions,healthcare, unemployment insurance, affordable post-secondary education anda nationally funded transport infrastructure made sense.
The top 40 per cent strategy is how the Harris Conservatives won Ontario, andJean ChrÃ©tien slipped through to three straight majorities in Ottawa. A lethalcombination of upper 40 per cent voters (plus wannabes) and declining voterturnout, meant that a strong showing with upper income Canadians was enoughto win a plurality of the vote and a majority of the seats.
Harper has found a great way to reduce voter turnout. By calling a federalelection in the middle of municipal elections and an engrossing U.S.election, the Harpers hope to operate under the radar of as much of thepopulation as possible. If governments are defeated, not elected, for theHarpers, the more voters that stay home the better.
University of Alberta scholar Janine Brodie explains elections are aboutvoters and not leadership. The Harpers have clearly established themselvesas the first choice of so many prairie Canadians that few other partiesexpect to win seats outside Winnipeg. In Ontario, Quebec and BritishColumbia the Harpers have gotten themselves in so many tight races that amajority government is within reach.
In its efforts to appeal to its base outside the cities, the Harpergovernment has also made many enemies and alienated many groups. Calling fora vote on same-sex marriage, questioning a woman’s right to choose, ignoringthe Kyoto accord, promoting Canada’s military might while sending soldiersto their death in a losing war, as well as de-funding Native peoples,artists, amateur sport, minority rights claimants, sends positive messagesin one direction and negative messages in another.
Therein lies the Harper strategy unite the base: divide the opposition. Onlya citizenry fully engaged with the issues his government raises can expectto stop him.