Harper should do some reflecting on what went wrong in 2008

PM missed his majority because of Quebec and almost caused Charest to miss his

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Saturday, December 27, 2008

Stephen Harper missed his majority in the federal election in October in Quebec, and played a role in Jean Charest nearly losing his in the provincial election in December. Harper learns from his mistakes, and he has plenty to learn from his strategic and tactical errors of 2008, which culminated in his nearly losing his government by disastrously miscalculating the mood of the House of the Commons.

There is one overall lesson from these events and it is this: Even if the language and marketing of the message are different in Quebec, the substance must be the same. When it isn't, the messenger gets caught up in doublespeak and damage control, as happened to Harper in both the federal campaign and the ricochet effect of the parliamentary crisis in the Quebec campaign.

There is no doubt that Harper had a missed rendezvous with a majority. The numbers were there for him at the beginning of the campaign, or he wouldn't have called the election.

But then Quebec, which was to have been the road a majority, instead became the roadblock.

This happened because a campaign that was supposed to be about Harper delivering the goods in Quebec, and the Bloc Québécois being irrelevant in Ottawa, instead became a campaign about Harper attacking Quebec values, which only the Bloc could defend in Ottawa.

How did that happen? Two things: Harper's cultural and youth crime policies, neither of which was very important on its own, were successfully bundled together by Gilles Duceppe as an attack on Quebec values. Simultaneously, in a fatal burst of arrogance, the Conservatives told Quebecers they had wasted $350 million electing Bloc MPs since 1990, insulting both the intelligence of voters and their democratic choices.

As the messenger for this really stupid idea, the Conservative war room selected Michael Fortier from the unelected Senate. Duceppe's push back on values was reinforced by his righteous indignation that Quebecers had no lessons to take in democracy from these scary guys from another planet.

Where the Conservatives had been on course to win 30 Quebec seats before this stuff happened, they were fortunate to hold on to the 10 seats they won in 2006 - and they only saved that furniture because Harper gathered his inner resources and campaigned very effectively in Quebec to stop the slide in the closing days of the election.

In the end, Harper won 143 seats, only 12 short of a majority. The shortfall in Quebec was responsible for a missed opportunity of historical dimensions, and all because of Conservatives' self-inflicted wounds.

It's no mystery, it's just the nature of Canada that some things play out differently in Quebec. The cuts and reprofiling of cultural programs generally played well in English-speaking Canada, but played very differently in Quebec, where culture is an identity issue not a financial one. Even so far as that goes, Quebec's cultural industries, from film and television to summer festivals, support thousands of jobs here.

And then Harper's young-offenders' package, highly popular in the suburbs of English-speaking Canada, was torqued into an assault on Quebec values, where Duceppe accused Harper of opening "universities of crime" and throwing "fresh meat" to pedophiles.

It was savage, intellectually dishonest and highly effective. As one weary survivor of the Conservative war room later asked: "How did you like our brilliant plan to lock up 14-year-old artists for life?"

The lesson is that while you can run a campaign on two different message tracks, you can't have two different messages.

And this lesson was brought home again to Harper during the parliamentary crisis, when his aggressive rhetoric helped put out one fire in English Canada, while igniting another one in Quebec with his frontal assaults on "the separatist coalition." That he called the separatists "sovereignists" in French just made things worse by making him appear like he was speaking out of both sides of his mouth.

Harper's near-death experience in December wouldn't have happened if he'd won his majority in Quebec in the first place, rather than acting as if he had one in the government's economic statement, notably in proposing to eliminate public subsidies to political parties.

For $15 million in cultural cuts in Quebec, Harper lost a majority. For $28 million in campaign subsidies, he nearly lost his government.

That he got a bounce in the polls because of the abortive coup in English Canada is nothing but a short-term benefit. And if Harper's entourage is emboldened by this, then they have learned nothing from this episode.

For Harper and his advisers, this holiday interlude should not be a time for swagger, but for reflection on what they did wrong in 2008, and how they can do better in 2009.

 
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