Conservative public commentators and some academics have started to notice what should have been evident some time ago: the serious problems encountered by the Liberal part do not necessarily translate into support for Conservatives. The 2004 federal election might serve as another case in point that should have triggered consern among Conservative strategists and politians. Instead, attention was directed to Paul Martin's so-called "scare tactics", supposedly driving nervous voters back to the Liberals by generating fear of a Conservative secret agenda. We now have good evidence (National Election Survey) that Martin's "scare tactics" were not an appreciable factor in the late campaign surge in Liberal support. A year after the election, the Liberals are running at about the same level of support, the NDP is up slightly, and the Conservatives have dropped slightly. Why is this? Why cannot the Conservatives make headway against one of the most distrusted governments in Canadian history? Why cannot they make headway against a Prime Minister whom the media targets as "Mr. Dithers"? The answer Conservatives seemed to have focused on is: leadership. It is all Harper's fault.
Let me be clear about this from the state. I am no fan of Stephen Harper. I think he would make a truly horrible Prime Minister and I have no intention of voting Conservative in the next election. But ... to blame Harper for the problem of the Conservative's lack of popularity is to miss the point. Right now, it is simply damn hard for Conservatives to win federal elections in Canada. It doesn't matter who leads the party. It does not matter how united the right is. It does not matter how the media responds to Conservative politicians. The truth of the matter is that Canadians -- right now, at least -- don't vote the Conservatives into office because they don't like what the Conservatives stand for. The problem is ideological. Dressing Harper up and having him serve burgers all summer is a PR exercise. Its part of the political game and Harper has to play it along with every other leader. But, it ain't gonna chance the way Canadians vote in the next federal election.
Right now someone might be saying: Why don't Canadians like the Conservatives? How can they not like what Conservatives stand for? Do Canadians not want clean and honest government? Sure they do. But, the NDP, the Green Party, and in Quebec, the BQ are promising the same thing. As are, btw, the Liberal Party (see my next blog about this particular issue). On this point -- clean government -- the Conservatives don't win any points because they cannot differentiate themselves from other voters. If we strip away clean government as an element of Conservative ideology, what are we left with? We are left with a bunch of policies Canadians don't want. The Conservative Party opposes the Kyoto Accord. This plays well in the Conservative heartland and with committed Conservative voters, but few other Canadians. The Conservatives have opposed equality for gay Canadians. Again, this works well among Conservative core voters, but not with other Canadians. What about the abortion issue. Harper says its not an issue, but other Conservatives say it is. Again, on this issue, the Conservatives are out of step with middle-class Canada (Conservatives oppose abortion; Canadians are pro-choice, by and large).
We could do this all afternoon: gun control, public spending, and expansion of the free market economy, tax cuts, support for the US war in Iraq. On virtually every key issue, the Conservatives are out of step with ordinary Canadians. Canada is a democracy. The Conservative Party is a democracy institution. That is, in fact, why it has these particular policies: core Conservative voters support these issues and they (rightly) influence their party to maintain a platform and an ideological perspective they like. But, the fact that core Conservative voteres oppose abortion and equality for gay people, support the US war in Iraq and reject the Kyoto Accord, etc., does not mean that this is where ordinary Canadians stand. The polls suggest that Conservative Party support is running somewhere between 25% and 30% of decided voters. My bet is that this is the core Conservative vote, the percentage of Canadians who share Conservative values. Importantly, these people are not voting for Harper because he flips a good burger. They vote for him because they are thinking human beings who listen to what Harper has to say (and other Conservatives) and like what they hear. The 70-75% of Canadians who vote other ways (include the 50%+ who vote centre-left Liberal-NDP) are exactly the same. It does not matter how many picnics Harper attends this summer. These people have listened to him and don't like what he (or, other Conservatives) have to say. This is the problem Harper confronts. The problem is not that he's unpopular. The problem is that his popularity has nothing to do with Conservative election fortunes.