Stéphane Dion liked to point out the advantage he gained because people underestimated him. Dion then proceeded to underestimate Stephen Harper and his party, and lose his leadership in the process.
As parliament resumes this week, the Harper Conservatives are only a dozen seats short of a majority. In office since 2006, the Harper Conservatives are now preparing to rule as if they had won a majority. The rest of us have to deal with the likelihood of renewed Conservative strength.
It was Quebec that stopped the Conservatives. Gilles Duceppe asked Quebecers to vote Bloc to prevent a Harper majority. Now the Bloc has no interest in an election, and, ironically, Duceppe will provide Harper with the votes he needs to stay in office.
Watching Harper do a victory lap as he opened his party convention in Winnipeg last weekend should put his adversaries on notice. Taking down Stephen Harper is not going to be done easily. If his government used to be an untested, upstart band, it is no longer. Once dismissed as an accident of history, overshadowed in victory in 2006, by the self-destruction of the Paul Martin led Liberal party, it is time for a fresh take on the Harper government.
The Conservatives have 175,000 party donors making annual contributions averaging $115. Harper’s party has four times the number of donors the NDP does, and for the first nine months of 2008 raised four times more money ($14.8 million) than the Liberals ($3.6 million). As the Obama campaign showed, electoral strength goes along with fundraising capacity. While the Conservatives will be debt free once Elections Canada funding flows into party coffers, the Liberals are broke, and heading into an expensive leadership context, featuring two seriously flawed candidates in Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff.
In his opening speech Harper called his party, the party of Canada. He appropriated the history of the old Progressive Conservative party, a party he spent much of his political career working to undermine, to lay claims to representing the new multicultural Canada. Conservatives elected the first Chinese Canadian and the first African Canadian, named the first woman to cabinet and the first African Canadian to cabinet, Harper told his followers, who it must be said, looked less white bread than the crowd the old Reform party once attracted.
According to party guru Tom Flanagan, the Harper vision includes Conservatives attracting the multicultural vote the Liberals believe belongs to them. So, recording significant victories in suburban ethnic ridings around Vancouver and Toronto compensates somewhat for the Conservative failure to break through in Quebec.
The Harper stumble in Quebec was not an outright rejection of Conservative policies on the war, or on the economy, bad as they might be. The Conservatives got credit for restoring transfer payments, and recognizing Quebec as a nation. What did in the Conservatives was cultural blindness. Harper is bilingual enough, but he, and his inner circle, are monocultural. The Conservatives had no idea that laughing at spending on the arts would provoke such a strong negative reaction in Quebec, or that threatening to lock up 14-year-old child offenders would be rejected out of hand.
Harper broke the Mackenzie King rule. Have a Quebec lieutenant guide you on political questions, and act on the advice. For instance, any politically astute Quebecer could have explained to Harper that is was Quebec artists who created the quiet revolution, and define its people still today.
Luckily for Harper, Stéphane Dion, despite many years in Ottawa, remained resolutely monocultural himself. While Dion had trouble figuring out Anglo-Canadian sensibilities (and the Anglophone media were not equipped, and had no interest in helping anyone understand what Dion was doing asking rhetorical questions, and generally enjoying playing with ideas) the Quebec public figured out the Harper Conservatives, and drew back.
In Winnipeg, the Conservatives decided to set up a new structure to better accommodate its Quebec members, and facilitate growth of the party in the province. Should Conservatives succeed in crossing the cultural divide, Harper could be around for a lot longer than expected. Nobody should underestimate him.