Paul Wells: How Stephen Harper will survive in 2011

January 7, 2011

by Paul Wells on Friday, January 7, 2011 8:00am
Macleans

On New Year’s Eve, his last day as Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, Guy Giorno wrote a farewell memo to Conservative government staffers and launched a Twitter account. Ottawa started poring over his 140-character Twitter bursts and ignored the memo. Let’s read the memo.

“After exactly two-and-one-half wonderful years,” Giorno wrote, it was time to leave Harper’s side. He reminded his colleagues of the government’s successes. Only one item on his list was about policy: “A sweeping, affirmative Economic Action Plan to protect the economy.” The result? “Our economy is outperforming the economies of many countries of the world.”

The rest of Giorno’s list was about partisan political achievements. “We won a general election, only the eighth time in 40 elections that a governing party has increased both its seat count and its share of the popular vote. We eliminated the so-called gender gap”—the Liberals’ former advantage among female voters—“and made inroads into communities that have not voted Conservative for decades . . . Today, our standing in the polls is stronger and higher than when I first arrived.”

Of course Giorno’s account is self-serving. Which is not the same as saying he has no point. The man who ran the PMO wasn’t interested in much besides the economy. By the time he left, the Conservatives were in decent shape to fight an election. One may explain the other.

Harper heads into the third full calendar year of his second term in a position, not of utter dominance, but of relative strength. He has a good shot at avoiding an election and, if he cannot avoid it, a good shot at winning it. That’s why his little New Year’s cabinet shuffle was not the overhaul bored Ottawa scribes wanted: because he does not need an overhaul.

Now is the time for “continuing proven approaches that work and have brought us safely thus far,” Harper said at Rideau Hall after the shuffle, “and not for economic adventurism.” It was, almost word for word, the message he used to launch the election of 2008. A steady hand on one side, the crazies on the other.

Is this his pre-electoral pitch then? Only if it must be. He would rather it be his avoid-elections pitch. If the opposition wants to force an election, “it’s their decision,” he said. “But this government will be focused on the economy.”

His argument makes enough sense to enough voters to make him a risky target for his opponents. A new poll from an upstart Ottawa polling house, Abacus Data, asked respondents how they felt about the three big national political parties. Abacus found respondents were likelier to agree the Conservative party “keeps its promises” than the Liberals or New Democrats do. They were also likeliest to agree the Conservative party “has a good team of leaders,” “has sensible policies,” and is “professional in its approach.”

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