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The Conservative fork in the road

Posted by cwaddell under All, Election 2011, Election 2011 Faculty links, Post-election

Christopher Waddell

Lost in the post-election commentary about the future of the Liberal party and the challenges Jack Layton will face in managing his new caucus is the dilemma that Stephen Harper must now confront.

Monday’s results demonstrated that two groups of voters who had no obvious home in this election – fiscal and social conservatives and fiscal conservative/social liberals – both cast their lots in with Mr Harper.

The former group has always supported the Conservatives but had plenty of reason to be disappointed with the past two minority governments, particularly as it pertains to controlling government spending and reducing the size of government. They have also chafed at the Conservatives’ unwillingness to implement a social conservative agenda on issues such as abortion.

They stuck with Mr Harper partly because they had nowhere else to go but also in the expectation that things would change in a majority government. That time has finally come and they will now raise the pressure on Mr Harper for a return on their investment.

If Mr Harper responds positively, he risks alienating the fiscal conservative/social liberals that delivered the Conservatives their big election night surprise – the strength of their support in Ontario. That’s the voters he needs to consolidate as Conservatives if he is to finally achieve his goal of burying the Liberals precisely because many of them can best be described as John Manley-Frank McKenna-Paul Martin Liberals.

On Monday that group of voters in Ontario faced a stark choice. With NDP momentum building during the campaign’s last week, they had to decide what was more important to them. If they really wanted to defeat Stephen Harper there was only one way to vote – NDP. That meant abandoning their fiscal conservatism and risking repeating at the federal level the economic upheavals of the Ontario NDP Bob Rae government from 1990-95.

That’s something they simply were unwilling to do and it is important to note that in the context of the post-election talk of a Liberal-NDP merger. Any such move seems destined to split the Liberals as it will be resisted ferociously by the fiscal conservative/social liberal wing of the party.

It is true that the Conservatives won seats on election night coming up the middle in ridings where Liberal and NDP candidates spit their vote almost evenly. Its the same formula Jean Chretien used to win three majorities on the back of vote splits on the right in Ontario between the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives.

But that is just part of the story. Equally important is the fact that the fiscal conservative/social liberal Liberals went for Mr Harper. That boosted the Conservative share of the vote in the province to 44.4 per cent from 39.2 per cent in 2008 and meant Liberal MPs such as Martha Hall Findlay in Willowdale and Glen Pearson in London North Centre among others lost to Conservatives.

Now Mr Harper stands at a fork in the road.

One path satisfies the party’s traditional social and fiscal conservative backers but alienates the new converts from the Liberals and also certainly condemns the Conservatives to oblivion in Quebec while possibly helping the NDP shore up gains in that province.

The other path offers the benefits of splitting the Liberals, consolidating the Conservatives’ new-found urban and suburban base in Ontario and taking another step towards a left-right split in national politics that Mr Harper believes will permanently advantage the Conservatives. That risks further angering the fiscal and social conservatives.

The dilemma Mr Harper faces in so less challenging than those facing the Liberals and the NDP. He can’t take both roads.

Christopher Waddell is director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. He is a former reporter, Ottawa bureau chief for the Globe and Mail and a former CBC-TV parliamentary bureau chief and executive producer-news specials for CBC TV News. You can follow him on Twitter @cwaddell27