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Happy 50th Birthday, Mr. Harper

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As if on cue, former Stephen Harper adversary Garth Turner has published a new book, Sheeple, a tell-all that reveals the Prime Minister’s dark side. A conservative Prime Minister in name only, he has stumbled his way through three and a half years of government, but his days seem numbered now.

"Win Quebec, and you could be on your way to a majority government." That’s the old adage heard in political circles when spin doctors get together to discuss the electoral chances of federal parties in Canada. It is true that a party needs to have a good showing in Quebec if it wants a shot at forming the federal government -– not because the province is so important or has magical powers, but because of the size of its population.

Stephen Harper eked out a minority government in the 2006 election because of an unexpected increase in Conservative seats in Quebec. In 2008, he failed to win a majority because his numbers in the province had dwindled. But he didn’t seem too worried then because, despite the slide in the Conservatives’ popularity, the Liberals were doing even worse under Stephane Dion’s leadership. Between late 2006 and the end of 2008, the Liberals were scraping the bottom of the barrel in Quebec, thanks to Dion; with the separatist Bloc Quebecois, Conservatives and the social-democratic NDP doing much better than the Liberals.

But Quebec AD 2009 is quite a different place, and this is due in no small measure to a new Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff. While Dion was despised by most Quebeckers, Ignatieff has that elusive je ne sais pas quoi that makes him popular, even though he has been extremely noncommittal on what he plans to do should he become prime minister one day. Probably, just being himself and not being Dion is all it takes for the Liberals to recoup some of their former strength.

The tables have indeed been turned on Harper. A new poll puts the Liberals in the lead in Quebec at 37 percent, ahead of the Bloc Quebecois (31 percent), with the Conservatives trailing badly and far behind at just 15 percent. The NDP, at 12 percent, could easily push the Conservatives down to fourth place over the coming weeks and months.

The Ignatieff factor plays a key role in this latest development. But it’s not all about Iggy. The main reason for the Conservatives’ sudden cratering is that voters feel that Harper has let them down. Contrary to what many outsiders may think, there are many conservatives in Quebec who have always wanted a truly conservative alternative to the same-old Liberals and Bloc. The Conservatives’ inroads in 2006 were an expression of Quebec’s conservatives' hungering for conservatism.

This sudden drop in numbers comes at a time of a growing realization among conservative Quebeckers that they have been had: Harper has not governed as a conservative, but as one of the worst Liberals one could imagine. Government spending had ballooned by 14 percent well before the global recession and stimulus spending, and conservatives are still waiting for long-overdue tax relief in this country where the tax burden on the average family amounts to 45 percent. Instead of a smaller and more efficient government, they are now faced with an even bigger government behemoth than before. Harper’s silly budget in early 2009 was simply the last straw. Derided by some as a Liberal or even socialist budget, it was simply one that violated every basic principle of common sense and fiscal conservatism.

So, Harper has only himself to blame and no one else. He can’t pin this on Ignatieff or other opposition parties. He presented himself to the people of Canada as a conservative, but once he had won, he quickly returned to his original roots of being a Liberal. (Harper got his start in politics with the Young Liberals.)

In Quebec, as well as elsewhere, many conservatives have resigned themselves to being governed by the Liberals again, saying that if Canada is to have a Liberal government, it might just as well go to an actual Liberal, rather than Harper, the imposter. Ignatieff can’t be any worse than Harper -– at least, that’s what they keep telling themselves.

There is no way for Harper to turn this around in time for the next election, expected later this year or early next year. He has lost the trust of conservatives across the country. He could travel the entire nation between now and election day and hand deliver pledges signed in his own blood that he would adhere to conservative principles from now on, but people wouldn’t buy it anymore. To the real conservatives in Canada, Harper has come to symbolize the betrayal and selling-out of conservatism. This is something that no true-blue conservative could ever forgive.

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