Column: Desire for change PM’s biggest threat

by Tim Harper

Three men, three potential paths to victory.

All three will be wrestling with history in 2015.

For Stephen Harper, it will be a battle against a traditional best-before date, a bold effort to enter a second decade in power, to bust a barrier that has proved to be a tripwire for many before him.

He also seeks to avoid becoming the first prime minister in 36 years to go to Canadians with a majority of his own making and concede defeat on election night.

For Tom Mulcair, it is the obvious – the NDP has never formed a national government.

And for Justin Trudeau, the challenge is to turn around history in one electoral bound, taking a Liberal party from its all-time electoral nadir to victory.

Three challenges, to be explored over three columns, starting with the man who must surmount the highest bar, Harper.

For this prime minister, anything short of another majority is a defeat.

A minority win for Harper can really lead to only one of four outcomes – defeat at the hands of a Liberal-NDP coalition, quick defeat followed by another election, discontent within caucus and would-be successors emerging from their bunkers, or, most likely, Harper declaring victory then stepping aside of his own accord.

To chart a path to a second consecutive majority, Harper must – and will – use the power of incumbency, the advantage that allows him to set the agenda and the timing of the election and use a healthy war chest to spend much of the year touting his government’s achievements and tearing down his major opponent on the nation’s airwaves.

Harper lives in a narrow political lane of 10 percentage points, the 30-to-40-per-cent vortex.

At 30-per-cent support he fails; anywhere close to 40 and he can replicate his 2011 majority, as long as the New Democrats and Liberals essentially split the anti-Harper vote.

For that to happen, the Conservatives have to take more air out of the Trudeau brand or provide some buoyancy to Mulcair and his New Democrats.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for Harper to wait until the autumn for the vote is his ability to spend money promoting his brand and stuffing mailboxes with pre-writ cheques for families with young children.

But he can’t just buy a majority.

He must somehow recapture the late 2014 bounce he received after his decision to join an allied effort to degrade the Islamic State and the attack on Parliament. Foreign policy as a vote-getter could be a wild card.

It rarely plays in a federal election, but Harper’s hard line on Vladimir Putin, his unwavering lockstep with Israel, even his promotion of maternal health, are all playing well at home.

He must keep voter turnout low because his supporters are more committed and likely to cast a ballot. A flood of new Trudeau voters will doom him.

He must soften his stand on climate change and the primacy of energy and resource extraction. He is an outlier on the world stage and Canadians know it. Worse for Harper, his jobs-first, environment-second mantra makes him an outlier in his own country, even in the Alberta oilpatch, which realizes a little greening could help get their bitumen to market.

He must maintain the support of new Canadians who, Conservatives believe, will remain loyal to a government that creates the atmosphere for success, but stays out of their face.

He must again convince Canadians that change is risky, champion his trade deals and argue that putting the economy in the hands of an untested poseur or a job-killing socialist would bring ruination.

He will spotlight his wife, Laureen, during the campaign to take the edge off the anyone-but-Harper movement.

And that is the biggest challenge facing a man looking for a fourth victory. At times in our history, voters have collectively decided it was time for a change.

It happened in 1993 when Brian Mulroney got out too late to save his Progressive Conservatives. It happened in 1984 when John Turner and a shopworn, patronage-ridden Liberal brand could not turn back the Mulroney tide.

Whether it is the Harper autocracy, his environmental record, his demonizing of opponents, Supreme Court spats, omnibus bills, back-of-the-hand treatment of natives, dictatorial treatment of the premiers, ethical stumbles, treatment of veterans or an unyielding lack of collaboration, the list of grievances against a government verging on 10 years in power adds up.

Harper is a winner. But how many times can you go to the well?

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Twitter: @nutgraf1

Copyright 2015 Torstar Syndication Services

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