The rise and fall of the Harper majority

Élections fédérales du 14 octobre 2008

What happened? When Stephen Harper called an early election Sept. 7, it looked like a sure thing for him and his party. The Conservatives were alone on the centre-right, while four parties divided the centre-left vote.
As to which leader would make the best prime minister, polls showed Mr. Harper exceeding the combined scores of the opposition leaders. Stéphane Dion,
leading a party in debt and disarray, was even outpolled by Jack Layton.
Mr. Harper had led a steady government in good times, surprising those expecting a right-wing gorilla, and the financial crisis suggested returning an experienced leader, an economist to boot. But the Prime Minister's greatest accomplishment was most unexpected: The outsider, the Westerner, had so disarmed Quebec's nationalist animosity that secession, a prominent threat in 2005, had fallen off the agenda.
So why have the Conservatives fallen in the polls to within the margin of error of support for the Liberals?
In 2005-06, Mr. Harper was seen as dangerous, so his campaign focused on a sharply defined program offering populist goodies. He won a minority with 124 seats, 36.3 per cent of the vote. In Quebec, he surprised by winning 10 seats and 24.6 per cent.
This time, he centred the campaign on himself. He forgot that his high approval rating rested on his performance as a minority leader. In late September, when a majority appeared likely, he was reconsidered. All the old suspicions came tumbling back.
Mr. Harper had created a nasty image by his ultra-partisan treatment of political opponents. His brutal attack ads against Mr. Dion were not just unfair, but dishonest. The puffin defecating on his rival symbolized a deeper corruption. When the real Mr. Dion appeared in debates and speeches, his presence so bettered the caricature that his support rose.
The ultra-partisan control freak who let few ministers shine and kept Conservatives out of local debates reinforced the disquiet left by the manipulation and paralysis of Commons committees investigating controversies, such as the in-and-out campaign-financing affair of 2006. What would he do with a majority?
True, Mr. Harper was sideswiped by the sudden worldwide panic over crumbling financial markets. But the impact needed not be negative, had Mr. Harper established a congenial rapport with voters.
Another factor has been the surge in the politics of radical chic that followed cuts announced in cultural support programs. These cuts should have been discussed in the context of major increases in grants to cultural agencies such as the Canada Council for the Arts. But the arts communities reacted as though the entire subsidies structure had been burnt to the ground.
In Western societies, intellectual and artistic communities share a pro-Bohemian and anti-bourgeois political culture. In English Canada, radical chic means being anti-American, defending a left-wing Canadian nationalism that favours a quasi-independent Quebec, and demonizing conservatism. In Quebec, it means being anglophobic, secessionist and demonizing conservatism.
In 1988, during debates over the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement, Barbara Frum began a television program: "Writers like Pierre Berton and Margaret Atwood insisted that the deal would destroy Canada - kill our culture."
Ms. Atwood suggested this week that cutting funds to artists was the first step toward dictatorship. And she raised eyebrows last Friday by asking Quebeckers to vote for the Bloc Québécois. But no surprise there. Years ago, Ms. Atwood confided to journalist Francine Pelletier her disappointment that Quebec voted No in the 1980 referendum on sovereignty-association. "Many of us were in favour of Quebec's right to self-determination. And you voted No."
"The result of the referendum disappointed Canadians?" Ms. Pelletier asked. "The intellectuals, at least. There was a rather widespread feeling that one has to stand up and affirm one's identity," Ms. Atwood said.
In Quebec, the debate has been far more virulent. There, the cuts in cultural grants have been presented as an attack on the province's very identity. The incredibly effective campaign has been symbolized by a spoof video in which popular songwriter Michel Rivard is turned down for a grant by ignorant anglophone panelists because his song La complainte du phoque en Alaska is interpreted as using a four-letter word.
Anglophobic, anti-Canadian, untrue. It has supplanted the issue of secession by one of cultural persecution, even genocide. It has saved the Bloc Québécois and sunk the Conservatives.
WILLIAM JOHNSON, Author and a former president of Alliance Quebec

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