Stephen Harper's Balancing Act

THE ANSWERS to some questions are so obvious they hardly seem worth asking. But suddenly, one wing of Canada's political commentariat has become transfixed with just such a question.

Is Stephen HARPER conservative?

Oh sure, he's Conservative - leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, and of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition. But Harper once sat in Ottawa as a member of Reform, a party that used to accuse the Brian Mulroney Conservatives of being so eager to pander to Quebec and Ontario that they had sold out the very meaning of conservatism. Some of them used to chant: "Liberal, Tory, same old story."

And now some conservative commentators are levelling the same charge at Harper. "Conservatism is dying in Canada," Terence Corcoran wrote in the National Post on Nov. 30. "Not just dying; it is being murdered and deliberately removed from the political scene by strategists." Corcoran's investigation placed Harper at the scene of the crime: since the June election, he wrote, the Conservatives have "drifted ever further away from the core conservative values that once seemed to animate Mr. Harper."

Corcoran's articles of indictment included Harper's refusal to warn the Quebec government against cracking down on the English language; his support for "the Liberals' massive cash transfer to the provinces" for health care; his silence on the Liberals' state daycare scheme; and his ambivalence on Canadian participation in U.S. missile defence.

Two weeks later, Corcoran's Post colleague Andrew Coyne extended the list of complaints, taking issue with Harper preferring a parliamentary vote on gay marriage instead of a referendum, and staying silent while the Liberals prepare to sign yet another massive subsidy cheque for Bombardier.

Columnists aren't the Conservative leader's only skeptics. Speaking off the record, some Reform-era veterans of Harper's own caucus say they've been disturbed by the boss's new centrist bent. "It's very difficult," one MP said. "We're beginning to understand that the fight for the party's soul never stops."

Members of the old Reform core concede that they're likely to stick with Harper - albeit grudgingly. Lee Morrison, who sat as a Reform and Canadian Alliance MP from 1993 to 2000, says he's "kind of disheartened" with Harper's attempts to reposition himself as a "professional politician." Still, he adds the strategy probably won't cost the Conservatives any western seats. "What else is there to vote for?"

In a recent intervew at his office in Parliament's Centre Block, Harper disputed the thesis that the Conservatives are becoming less conservative. But his own remarks made it clear that, for now, he's demanding more flexibility from the party's Reform wing than from its Tory wing. Criticism from the right, he said, comes from "the usual suspects" and has "seldom been very specific. They're usually attacking me more through conjecture on what I might do than anything I've actually done."

So what's he doing? Trying to reassure "a certain kind of voter who could have voted for us" in last June's election, "but didn't. They just weren't sure what to believe." Negative Liberal ads had something to do with that, he added - "but I think it was actually compounded by some things we did that fed into it." What sorts of things? Characteristically, Harper refused to be specific. "You know the things that happened. People got off-message and things like that."

Clearly Harper was referring to widely reported comments about abortion, gay marriage and the Charter of Rights from Cheryl Gallant, Randy White and other socially conservative members of his caucus - comments that wound up derailing the Conservative campaign.

So if restraint is Harper's prescription for the social conservatives, what's the payoff? A shot at power, Harper says. "I don't see anybody out there who's asking us to go back and have two parties and have a separate Alliance," he said. "I don't hear that from anyone. Not a single person."

What's the difference between the old Reform and the new Conservatives? "I think it's less policy than culture," Harper said. "The Reform party was a protest party. This party isn't merely a conservative party, it's a party whose mission is to govern the country." Part of that mission is an unprecedented attempt to reach out to voters in Quebec. Harper travels to that province frequently. His long-term goal, he says, is "to see the party actually establish some roots in the province of Quebec, not borrow someone else's organization or rent it on a short-term basis."

The Quebec wing of the Conservative party, composed largely of former Mulroney-era Progressive Conservatives, has begun to hint at the price of its return to the fold. At a November policy meeting, Quebec Conservatives passed resolutions that were closer to the old Tory positions than to Reform doctrine on criminal justice, subsidies for big industry and even, to quote one resolution, "the possibility of reforming Canadian federalism."

Harper chalked the resolutions up to healthy debate. "There's no point asking people what their opinion is unless you're prepared to hear what it is." The Quebec wing will have to persuade the rest of the party at its national convention in March, he said.

Leading a national conservative party, Harper said, is a balancing act. "If you refuse to adjust to a wider electorate, the tendency in parties like that is not just to be locked in to your own supporters, but frankly for that support base to continue to diminish because you continue to have more and more ideological tests of purity."

But the opposing danger, Harper said, lies in reaching out too vigorously to every constituency. "If you don't care about your principles - which are ultimately embodied by your core supporters - you'll quickly find that you have thin and insignificant support everywhere. You're everybody's second choice. And then you're not on the map either."

Maclean's December 27, 2004