Canadian Federal Election 2011 header image 2

How Harper’s miscalculations hurt Conservative chances

April 29th, 2011 · andrea

By Geoffrey Stevens

If the universe continues to unfold the way it has been unfolding in recent days, the election on Monday will indeed be “historic” – a label some commentators are already pinning on it.

Pending Monday’s verdict, let’s just say the election, so exhilarating to some and devastating to others, is already notable on two scores.

The first is the surge that has carried the New Democratic Party to second place in the polls in the closing days of the campaign. Led by Quebec, the surge has confounded the presumed “experts” and upset the apple carts of all the other parties.

Next, this election is notable for a series of miscalculations by Prime Minister Stephen Harper – miscalculations that could not only deny him a majority, but could cost him his government and even his leadership.

Others may have longer lists, but my tally is six Conservative assumptions gone awry.

First, he assumed that if he manipulated the opposition parties into defeating his government – and that’s what he did – the public, which always tells pollsters it doesn’t want elections, would be incensed and would take its anger out on what he called the opposition “coalition.” It didn’t play out that way, despite waves of Conservative attack ads.

Second, he assumed the public didn’t really care about issues of ethics and transparency and would embrace his contention that the Commons resolution that found his government in contempt of Parliament was simply a cynical political trick that did not deserve to be taken seriously. He was wrong about that.

Third, he thought he could rebrand the federal government as the “Harper Government” and parlay this personalized entity into a majority government. What he didn’t understand was that while many Canadians may respect his accomplishments, they don’t like him enough to trust him with a majority.

Fourth, he put all his policy eggs in the economy basket, assuming Canadians would accept his argument that the Conservatives have done a better job of managing the recovery than any government anywhere in the whole wide world. In fact, what people were telling pollsters was that they were more concerned about the health care system than the economy – an issue that played to the advantage of the NDP and Liberals.

Fifth, Harper, assuming Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals were his only real enemy, underestimated the NDP and misjudged the appeal of Jack Layton. Viewing Layton through a conservative ideological prism, Harper saw just another shallow socialist politician, and not what Layton really is: a smart, resourceful and focussed leader that Harper needed to worry about.

In fact, as Layton’s leadership numbers climbed past Harper’s, people told pollsters they find the NDP leader open, approachable and trustworthy – not qualities universally ascribed to the Prime Minister.

While Ignatieff came across as a same-old, same-old Liberal and the Bloc’s Gilles Duceppe as dated and increasingly irrelevant – a living anachronism to Quebec’s soft nationalists – Layton appeared fresh, intriguing – and maybe worth a chance.

Sixth and final, Harper based his strategy on the assumption of a voter turnout as low or even lower than the record low of 58.8 per cent in the 2008 election. His campaign was designed to suppress public interest by avoiding controversy, minimizing exposure to media questioning, appearing in controlled settings (glorified photo-ops), and reciting the same set (and boring)  speech at every stop.

But something was happening out there. The public got interested. Crowds at all-candidate meetings increased. A record number of Canadians tuned in to the leader debates on television. And more than 2 million Canadians went out to vote at the advance polls over Easter weekend – an increase of 35 per cent over 2008.

The advance polls are usually a harbinger of the turnout to come on election day itself. If there are long lines at the polling stations on Monday, the Conservatives will fear the worst. And Stephen Harper will have only himself to blame if the day goes badly for him and his government.

(published April 29, 2011 in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury)

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at

Post to Twitter

Tags: Uncategorized

17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 mikerosss // May 4, 2011 at 6:03 am

    Couldnt agree more with that, very attractive article

  • 2 The Vorlon // May 3, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    Interesting column.

    It was, however, totally wrong.

  • 3 Keith Elliott // May 2, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    Certainly a number of interesting scenarios and comments here.
    One thing I notice – no matter what site one goes to – is that the cons always find it necessary to insult others who disagree with their position. I am told this is something to do with an authoritarian style government, which the Harper regime certainly is.
    I’m sure the results this evening – now just a few short hours away – will surprise many of us. In a positive way I trust.

  • 4 Mike // May 2, 2011 at 11:03 am

    @ Jeremy: Barriers to trade are “meat and potatoes” issues. Millions of third world farmers are not able to export commodities into the Canadian market because of barriers to trade. Canada currently has a treaty ready for signature by India which represents a healthy step away from this problem.

    Your use of the term “neoliberal orthodoxy” is cute but far from correct. There a few, and I mean very few, economists who don’t believe that reducing barriers to trade is in everyone’s best interests. You could make a very strong case that rapid reduction of trade barriers, especially by third world nations, is not advisable but moving in that direction is highly preferable.

    As for the Globe and Mail’s endorsement, it was choice between the lesser of three evils and it is one that I happen to agree with even though I also found the charges of contempt to be well-founded.

  • 5 Dianne // May 1, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    First off, I am not devoted to any party. I vote each election according to platforms, history of how party has performed in recent past etc.

    What I am failing to understand is how Canadians don’t appear to recognize the number 1 issue for them should be the economy! We need to keep Canadian Corporations healthy to keep them investing in our country and employing people. If any party thinks that raising Corporate Taxes or not finding “breaks” for Corporations is a good idea…then they don’t get the simple fact that Corporations will close down in Canada if it is not profitable for them to do business here..they won’t continue to invest in our country and that means “no work”.

    There are a few small cities in Ontario that come to mind where they use to be booming (car industry/oil and gas industry). Both those cities are “hurting” and becoming retirement communities as Corporations did not update plants or spend money in those cities. This is what will happen to other major cities if the Canadian Government do not take steps to “partner” with Corporations and make them a priority.

    Think of the “health” issues, unemployment issues, pension/retirement issues etc that will be created if Major Corporations seize to exist in Canada and thus unemployment sky rockets! Canada will have far more issues to worry about if Corporations are not seen as a priority to look after!

  • 6 Vinny // May 1, 2011 at 5:10 pm

    The author is spouting nonsense.

    There is no “orange surge” in real world Canada down at ground zero. If one does exist, it resides only in the leftist mindset of the anti-Harper media; which happens to be all of them, especially the CBC.

    Good golly, do you folk really believe their supposedly unbiased fluff passes as objective, balanced reporting? Sheesh!

    To wit, like a month ago, even at the turn of the new year, all the “signs” pointed to Harper and the Conservatives soon governing Canada as the majority party in parliament. And, as they should!


    You leftist loons should give it a rest.

    Jiggy-jig Layton is a disgrace. Anyone who would support this “snake oil politician” and/or his faux party, should and I mean in a big way, seek redemptive psychological counseling.

    You have a deadly disease- Liberal/Socialism bordering on outright Communism.

    If have any sense, your conscience should tell you the only way to vote is:

    Harper, and CONSERVATIVE!

  • 7 Paul N // May 1, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    Only time will tell, but I personally doubt the assertion that advance polls signal an increase in voting. Having been a politician myself, I think advances are merely a reflection of preferred time usage by the voters that opt for them. I am one of them. Work days are busy. If I can vote on a Saturday when I’m out doing errands anyway, that is my preference.

    I think all the parties waited far too long to release meaningful platforms. Good heaven, if they knew an election was coming (and they clearly did), then why not issue their platforms as soon as possible?

    Oh yes, of course, it’s called politics.

    Politics: the same thing that collective governs all their actions.

    Campaign in poetry; govern in prose.

    Keep that in mind folks!

  • 8 Alvin Finkel // May 1, 2011 at 11:51 am

    Tom Flanagan, who, having managed a national campaign for the Conservatives, should know, says that the Tories do not want more young people to vote. Speaking at a conference in Banff in 2009, he noted that polls suggest that young people generally prefer the Greens and the NDP, and look askance at the Conservatives. So the Conservatives are not interested in ideas that will result in more young people voting.

  • 9 Paul Gagnon // May 1, 2011 at 5:18 am

    Geoffrey Stevens, I came to this website because of the interactive map but the more I read your ramblings, the more I wonder if you are actually an educator or just trying to indoctrinate young people into the Liberal party. I sure hope your lectures are not as biased as your commentary on this website. You are supposed to be teaching young people to think, not how to think.

  • 10 Jeremy // Apr 30, 2011 at 11:15 pm

    @Mike The fact that free trade agreements are always negotiated behind closed doors is one of their chief failings. Many commentators have written about how this is an undemocratic way to address issue that affect millions of lives. I for one agree that transparency in trade agreements is vital so it worries me too.

    I think that when you read the Globe & Mail’s endorsement of the Harper Conservatives you get a sense of why many people (by no means all) are skeptical of this government and of the press. Harper’s “economic accomplishments” (I put them in quotation marks for a reason as I don’t see them as anything more than neoliberal orthodoxy) are touted and his “respect for markets” is praised but it neglects the real meat and potatoes issues which is his contempt for parliamentary procedure. They lightly admonish him for this but, to my mind, completely reveal their real lack of concern on this front by stressing free market policies uber alles.

  • 11 Mike // Apr 30, 2011 at 11:04 am

    @Katherine: Granted but it is a matter of degrees.

  • 12 Mike // Apr 30, 2011 at 10:58 am

    @Peedeecee: Free trade agreements are always negotiated behind close doors. That does mean anything nefarious is happening. A common market with Europe will be an amazing opportunity for Canadian agriculture interests and other business interests. Also we Canadians are paying far too much for many European products, this will bring an end to that.

    If you’re so concerned you could look at DFAIT’s website and their model agreements. The resulting agreement will likely look similar to those.

  • 13 Woody Hastings // Apr 29, 2011 at 7:58 pm

    Pretty much wrong on the turnout issue. The goal was to surpress the Liberal vote. If it looks like the NDP could win, a lot of people will turn out in droves, and none more so than the Conservatives. Turn-out in this case helps the Conservatives (and the NDP), and hurts the Liberals.

  • 14 peedeecee // Apr 29, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    We also need transparency with regard to the new free trade deal with Europe, which is being negotiated behind closed doors. It affects us: we should know about it.

  • 15 Katherine // Apr 29, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Actually, Mike, from what Rick Mercer’s written about covering the three different campaigns, the Liberals and NDP have been less scripted than the Conservatives. Harper’s the only one who’s been saying word-for-word the same thing at every stop.

  • 16 Mike // Apr 29, 2011 at 11:50 am

    “Fifth, Harper, assuming Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals were his only real enemy, underestimated the NDP and misjudged the appeal of Jack Layton. Viewing Layton through a conservative ideological prism, Harper saw just another shallow socialist politician, and not what Layton really is: a smart, resourceful and focused leader that Harper needed to worry about. ”

    OK so Jack’s rise in the polls was unforeseen but now that it is occurring Stephen Harper is an ideologue and idiot for not seeing it coming. I remember in your Media and Politics class you always used to rail against basing all journalism on the polls, look at you now.

    “Sixth and final, Harper based his strategy on the assumption of a voter turnout as low or even lower than the record low of 58.8 per cent in the 2008 election. His campaign was designed to suppress public interest by avoiding controversy, minimizing exposure to media questioning, appearing in controlled settings (glorified photo-ops), and reciting the same set (and boring) speech at every stop.”

    Warning, warning logical fallacy. There is a difference, a very important one, between not wanting to draw negative attention and between wanting to suppress the vote. Also, every single federal leader used the same stump speech over and over again, that is how campaigns are won. They all choose certain issues and stressed them over and over again, kudos to Jack for picking the right ones.

  • 17 Cathy M // Apr 29, 2011 at 8:52 am

    The ‘law and order’ Conservative government has flouted the law and parliamentary procedure many times: the In and Out funding of their last campaign, the Aghan prisoner debacle and attempted discrediting of our own diplomat and latelg the contempt of Parliament issues over Bev Oda and the cost of their prisions and fighter jets.

    Why aren’t these coming up more often in the media?

    There is also the hidden issue in proposed bills C-46, C-47, and C-52 which if passed with Harper’s proposed omnibus bill (without debate), will allow online surveillance of anyone’s online activity by the government or by the police without a warrant or notice.

    A relatively unknown, but scary proposition.