Election ’08 Report: Challenges Facing Harper

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said on many occasions that he views the path to a stable, durable, Conservative majority government as a long march.

By that measure, in the recent election campaign, he achieved several important milestones: He broke through Ontario’s resistance; he won new levels of support among Canada’s ethnic communities and New Canadians; and began to make urban inroads. It looks like he has bridged the gender gap with important groups of women. And significantly, he held his Quebec beachhead in the face of very strong political cross-winds.

And, of course, he’s still the one with the keys to 24 Sussex Drive.

Not too bad for one campaign, the prime minister might reflect. But these very significant political gains are counterbalanced by equally significant governing challenges.

Cross pressures are the story of not only the outcome of election 2008 but they are the story of the road ahead. Juggling these competing demands will test this prime minister’s ability to lead in uncertain times.

To explore these questions, Ensight Canada undertook a five-city, national qualitative study the day after the polls closed to determine why Canadians voted as they did, what it means, and what they expect.

Here’s what we heard.

Almost to a person, participants said this election was a waste of time and money which prevented meaningful action to protect Canada’s economy.

The Harper government now needs to play catch up.

Canadians were looking for a clear vision or program from the candidates and they were disappointed. While participants clearly identified Stephen Harper as the best choice for uncertain times, their enthusiasm was muted, even amongst his own voters.

Let none of the opposition party leaders take comfort from that; there was a level of disengagement and frustration with all parties’ lack of ability to present a compelling message. One woman spoke for many when she said, “I held my nose and voted.”

One finding will cheer Prime Minister Harper. There is emerging evidence that he is making significant inroads with an important segment of female voters. We found women were in tune with Harper on issues like fiscal management and the role of government in the economy.

More predictably, Canadians very much continue to vote with regional interests in mind. Conflict between these interests will continue to present challenges for the new government.

Quebecers voted for those best seen to defend their interests, whether in culture, crime, or values or, simply, who they believed understood them.

What a difference two years makes. In our study conducted after the last election, Harper got points from Quebec participants for his efforts to learn French and to understand “their” issues. However, despite attention lavished on Quebec by the Harper Conservatives, his culture and crime policies appear to have erased much of this hard-earned good will. And as other Prime Ministers have discovered, courting Quebec inspires resentment in other parts of the country. Many participants said, “enough is enough.”

In Halifax, “The Maritimes want in” was the frustration voiced. Atlantic Canadians see the West awash with oil money. They watch as the federal government lavishes money on struggling sectors in central Canada. And they see themselves left behind.

Interestingly, while men in Calgary were among the ‘greenest’ voters in the country, the carbon tax was obviously a nonstarter in the home of the oil sands. Perhaps this is because Calgarians are still haunted by the spectre of the National Energy Program, which is a powerful memory triggered by Dion’s Green Shift.

British Columbians are keenly aware of their diversity. They see it as a possible source of tension with the traditional French-English duality in Quebec and the federal government.

As always, Ontarians see themselves as Canadians first. They have, however, bought the argument that the province is no longer being treated fairly by the federal government.

When we turned to issues and leadership, we found that paradoxically, Canadians want to see consensus AND action – at the same time.

When it comes to the economy, there was a real mood of “country first.”

They want an end to partisan bickering. They expect the parties to deliver what the country needs to get through the current economic turmoil.

They expect the Prime Minister to do something dramatic. They will give him wide latitude to ram a tough economic package through the House of Commons. In our study, men especially said, “Just get it done.”

However, first he must be cooperative with the opposition!

His overall tone needs to be different. Participants want him to adopt good opposition ideas. They want him to listen and be respectful of those who disagree.

For the first time in more than a decade, we are beginning to see openness to the possibility that the era of surpluses is over – for now.

There is no question participants remember the previous deficit era and the lessons learned. They have no tolerance for ad hoc or partisan deficit games.

Were the government to go into deficit for strategic reasons, participants expect their government to have a plan to return to a balanced budget quickly. Deficit spending is not normal and cannot be permanent.

This, of course, creates a serious tension between accommodating these concerns, dealing with an economic downturn AND Prime Minister Harper’s core voters for whom a deficit is anathema.

There is a hesitant willingness to allow the government to use fiscal and economic levers to directly intervene in the economy. Participants recognize that the government may need to make strategic investments.

The Conservatives must, however, put “country first.”

This means that a choice between a Canadian interest and a foreign one must protect the Canadian interest.

Over and over we heard from participants the fundamental belief that Canada’s banking system is strong because it is different and insulated from those in other countries. People believe the decision to ‘hold them back’ has isolated financial institutions from the crisis sweeping the globe. Those who are advocating that our banks should now expand internationally through mergers and acquisitions or merge and lessen competition, will find very little public support.

During the election, Harper hammered repeatedly on the strength of Canada’s financial institutions and regulatory regime.

It worked.

This poses a policy conundrum. Canadians are convinced our financial institutions don’t need or deserve support. Should the government decide assistance is necessary, it will have little room to manoeuvre.

The economic crisis also indirectly impacted views on Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. Even among supporters of the mission, there was a widespread sense that the time was coming when we should wrap things up.

They felt we have been there long enough, that we have conducted an honourable mission, and that now it is time to come home.

The release of the Afghan mission’s costs has given Canadians an acceptable new reason to support withdrawal: it’s too expensive. As the economy worsens, the costs will continue to stoke opposition.

Prime Minister Harper is justifiably admired for his strategic judgment.

The challenge of his first term – juggling an unstable minority with a greenhorn government – was daunting.

His challenge this time is infinitely harder. The expectations of the second Harper government will be immeasurably harder to fulfill than the first. And he will have to contend with cross pressures which did not exist prior to the campaign.

The next year will reveal if Prime Minister Harper is the strong leader in difficult times that Canadians somewhat grudgingly chose. But then, throughout his long march to 24 Sussex, nothing has ever come easy.

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