Harper Is Turning towards the Centre – Just a Bit

By Peter Russell

As we watch the new Throne Speech for the direction our new Premier wants to take Ontario's government, it's also relevant to take a look at an interesting development in federal politics.

The Harper Conservatives may be turning – just a bit – away from the right and towards the centre.

The explanation is easy to discern.

A week ago, the Nanos Research Survey released data showing support for the Harper Conservatives at 34.3%. While that is about 7 points higher than their main competition the Liberals’ (27.6%) and the NDP (27.1%), it is still not very good.

Through the first two years of its mandate, conditions have been very favourable for the Harper government. 

Relative to other industrialized countries, Canada’s economy has been doing reasonably well, and for a good part of the time its main political rivals have been preoccupied with finding new leaders.

And yet, support for the Harper Conservatives during this period has fallen five points since the May 2011 election.

Support for the Conservatives appears to be capped well below what is needed for a majority government. And of one thing we can be sure - Mr. Harper likes ruling with a majority.

There are two possible ways of growing support for the Conservatives.

One would be to persuade more Canadians to subscribe to the tough, hard-core Conservative program.

The other would be to soften the Conservative profile just a bit to make the party more palatable to centrist voters.

There is some evidence to suggest that Mr. Harper has chosen the latter option. 

His decision to respond to Idle No More by meeting with native leaders is a case in point.

Though nothing very concrete came out of the meeting except a commitment to work together on implementing old treaties and facilitating the negotiation of new treaties, it still represents a significant change of approach for Harper.

Harper was groomed through his apprenticeship in Preston Manning’s Reform Party, whose approach to treaties with First Nations was to tear them up.

As prime minister, up until January 11 of this year, he showed not the slightest interest in turning away from the top down, Ottawa- knows-best approach to Indian affairs.

A measure of the change is the fury with which Tom Flanagan, Harper’s erstwhile friend and advisor, attacked the prime minister for agreeing to work on improving the conditions of First Nations through nation-to-nation relationships.

Another sign that the Harperites may be softening their image is their decision to abandon Bill C-30, the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act, which would have significantly expanded government surveillance powers, including access to financial and personal information.

It wasn’t so long ago that opponents of this Bill were accused of being child pornographers.

Now, thank goodness, that legislative initiative has been flushed down the toilet.

I would also cite Mr. Harper’s putting some brakes on foreign take-overs of Canadian companies as a bid to win back some of the Canadian nationalist support his "Canada-is-open-for-business" stance had alienated.

Now I admit these are just a few straws in the wind – and pretty frail straws at that.

I can hear the anti-Harperites howling in protest at what I have written, citing all the bad stuff that still goes ahead including the omnibus budget bills, and more ill-advised  tough-on-crime initiatives, including last week ‘s announcement of legislation that will make it more difficult to release persons found “not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder.” 

It may be that these small moves towards the centre are just a flash in the pan.

There may be just too much hard-right conservative juice in the Tory machine to put a softer spin on its message.

But, nonetheless, I think Prime Minister Harper will try.

When 65% of the electorate reject what you have had on offer, a smart political operator will try to sweeten the offering.

About Peter Russell

Peter H. Russell is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is one of Canada’s leading constitutional scholars, has published widely in the fields of aboriginal policy, the judiciary and parliamentary democracy, and is a frequent commentator on Canadian government and politics. He is the founding Principal of Senior College at the University of Toronto. Peter Russell is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Posted date : February 19, 2013

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