The most lasting image of election 2004 may be the face of Stephen Harper the day after.

Peering from a limousine upon his return to Ottawa, a pouting Harper looked not only glum, but downright miffed, even indignant — like an athlete might look after being wrongly deprived of a medal or Princess Diana after discovering Mrs. Parker-Bowles’ business card in her husband’s underwear drawer.

The Conservative leader is not what you’d call a gracious loser. After the Liberal victory in the 2000 election, Harper, then president of the right-wing National Citizens Coalition, joined other petulant Alberta conservatives in urging the province to build a “firewall,” presumably to shield itself from the leftist hordes running loose beyond its boundaries.

Harper was more careful this time, but some of his supporters were quick to suggest that the West had every right to feel bitter toward the rest of the country for refusing to co-operate with Conservative plans to fundamentally reshape Canada along lines established by George W. Bush’s Republicans.

This is an odd notion of democracy. Most Canadians apparently didn’t care for the package the Conservatives were offering — privatization, downsizing government, beefing up the military, rejecting Kyoto. Isn’t that our right? Would Conservatives ever contemplate voting for a party whose platform they found fundamentally repugnant, in order to make some part of the country feel “included.”

Are Conservatives concerned that some two million NDP voters were once again deprived of having the government they want in Ottawa?

Harper’s sullen face and impatience with the media last week — he bluntly refused to hold the traditional post-election news conference — suggest he considers that he and his party have some sort of “right” to govern. Ironically, this is exactly the kind of arrogant attitude that conservatives have for years correctly accused the Liberals of harbouring.

It was this attitude, probably more than anything, that got Paul Martin into trouble.

For years, Martin connived and plotted — with the active help of the business community — to overthrow his former boss, Jean Chrétien.

After finally muscling aside the tough street fighter from Shawinigan, Martin apparently figured that maintaining his grip over the country would be a cakewalk. But like the Americans in Iraq, he discovered that toppling the big guy wasn’t actually the hardest part.

Having collected some $12 million in political contributions, mostly from business interests, Martin seemed to be counting on a docile Canadian electorate giving him a free hand, allowing him to put in place policies favoured by his business donors.

Then along came the sponsorship scandal. In many ways, it was simply the tipping point. After all, the Liberals had been knee-deep in scandals about mishandling taxpayers’ money before — with billions disappearing at HRDC and the gun registry.

This time, however, a media frenzy took hold, and it became politically fashionable to question the notion that the Liberals were the only option. In this new political landscape, Martin’s apparent sense of entitlement — his assumption that Canadians would simply transfer their loyalty to him when prompted — seemed downright presumptuous, even insulting.

Suddenly, Martin could no longer park himself above the fray, mouthing the sort of banal platitudes — “Destiny is ours to hold,” “This country belongs to us and we belong to it” — that the press had let him get away with during his coronation at the Liberal leadership convention last November.

Out of the blue, Canadians saw Martin for what he was: an unelected Prime Minister and the guy who, as finance minister, had cut off funding for social programs they really liked.

They demanded to know what he was planning to do with the country — something he’d apparently given little thought to during his months in exile, as he waited impatiently for the throne to become vacant.

Plunged into an election he felt obliged to call, he was unexpectedly in the fight of his life, desperately trying to figure out — perhaps for the first time — what Canadians really want. He quickly realized they want public health care defended, a national child care program, investment in cities — policies toward which he’d demonstrated no particular inclination in the past, before the prospect of the abrupt termination of his political career revised his sense of priorities.

Both Harper and Martin suffered from the same defect — they harboured the notion that they had the right to govern. Both were punished; Harper more so because he had the added defect of advocating a slew of policies Canadians didn’t want.

In a front-page column in The Globe and Mail last week, Roy MacGregor suggested this “may be the most odious election campaign of our lives.”

Perhaps, but in the end it was almost democratic.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...