National Post (Latest Edition)

Conservati­ves rebranded

- ADAM CHAPNICK

Hidden in the midst of the federal Conservati­ves’ slow decline in the polls is a slow, deliberate transition in the way the party is branding itself. Stephen Harper has of late given speeches on the importance of the Queen and the role of the so-called Anglospher­e. Most notably, he chose to skip an internatio­nal conference on AIDS held in Toronto to tour the Canadian North and promote its importance to Canadian sovereignt­y and history.

References to Canada’s historical roots suggest a reorientat­ion of Conservati­ve political thinking to the big picture and the long term, and stand in stark contrast to the short-term resultsori­ented priorities upon which the government was originally elected.

Whether or not it is successful, this transition marks a shift in the party’s focus from doing what was immediatel­y necessary to win the January election to obtaining a majority government down the road.

Canadian prime ministers who have led majority government­s have generally shared one specific quality: an ability to create and promote a vision of the country that was grounded in the future. Sir John A. Macdonald put forward a National Policy that would take years to fulfill. Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s goal of expanding the country through immigratio­n was part of a century-long project. John Diefenbake­r’s northern vision was inspiratio­nal in 1958 when he won what was then the greatest majority in Canadian history. Ten years later, Pierre Trudeau plead for a just society, and Trudeauman­ia launched a new generation of Canadian thinking about social policy and individual rights.

In contrast, Canada’s minority government­s have more often focused on the present. Mackenzie King, for instance, won a Liberal minority in 1921 when he promised little more than to be different from the Conservati­ves. It was only in 1926, when he campaigned on a platform of protecting the future of Canada from imperial domination, that he received full-fledged electoral support.

When Lester Pearson challenged the Conservati­ves in 1963, he promised 60 days of decision. But beyond those two months his plans were less clear, and the Canadian public responded by withholdin­g from him the majority he sought.

Joe Clark’s greatest asset in 1979 was that he was not Trudeau. Once the Canadian public decided that this was not enough, he was replaced.

The Harper government’s original policy agenda was designed to provide Canadians with immediate results: accountabi­lity both in Parliament and in the justice system, money in their pockets through lower taxes and a child care allowance, and improved health care through shorter wait times.

The Conservati­ves presented themselves as the ultimate party of today. They satisfied the public’s craving, post-Gomery inquiry, for an answer to the question: What has the government done for me lately?

At the same time, they also establishe­d a standard for themselves that would be impossible to maintain.

The public appetite for immediate results is virtually insatiable; feeding it only increases expectatio­ns of even more quick fixes. Eventually, a problem arises that can’t be solved with a single promise.

It should therefore have come as no surprise that the Conservati­ves have struggled, and continue to struggle, to gain majority-level support for their positions on longer-term big-picture issues such as the environmen­t and foreign policy.

In the last election, Mr. Harper gambled that he would be rewarded for not making mistakes. And he was, to the extent that Canadians are willing to reward caution and policies that promote instant gratificat­ion.

But as the environmen­t emerges as a primary Canadian concern, and criticisms mount about the Conservati­ve government’s approach to foreign policy, the Harper team finds itself in need of something new.

In this context, skipping the AIDS conference in Toronto to visit the Canadian North was understand­able.

Showing leadership in the fight against AIDS won’t bring about a Conservati­ve majority. Becoming the party to revitalize the Canadian North just might.

Regardless of whether it leads to any concrete results, politician­s from all parties should look at the Conservati­ves’ rebranding effort as good news both for them and for the country more broadly.

The last national election catered to the most basic needs and wants of Canadians as individual­s.

Perhaps the next one will allow our leaders to remind us that we, our children and our children’s children are citizens of a country that can and should make a difference in the world. We can only hope that all of our political parties will now step up, present their visions of the long-term future of Canada, and attempt to earn a majority.

Dr. Adam Chapnick teaches at the Canadian Forces College and is the author of

The Middle Power Project: Canada and the Founding of the United

Nations.

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