CALGARY — Admit it – you'd love to see a federal election. Governments may be boring, but campaigning is so much fun. Sadly, this week's Quebec by-elections make a quick call for a national vote much less likely. After doing so badly, neither the Liberals' Stéphane Dion nor Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois will be in a hurry to pull the plug.
That's because the results were a dream come true for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Not only did the Conservatives gain a seat while their main opponents each gave up one, the Liberals' loss was right in their leader's backyard. Mr. Dion imposed his candidate on what had been the safest of ridings and then hyped the Outremont race by spending so much time there that he must have damaged his already shaky reputation.
As a result, political junkies waiting for Parliament to reconvene on Oct. 16 can forget about seeing the opposition parties defeat the government right after the Speech from the Throne and spark an election this fall – Mr. Harper's fifth campaign in six years. Much as he might like an early race, election dates are now fixed by legislation and he can't just ask the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament. The opposition must pass a no-confidence vote, and that just got a lot less likely.
And why would he want to go to the polls? Because Stephen Harper is trying to do what no Conservative leader since Sir John A. Macdonald has been able to do – build a viable, long-term political coalition with a broad enough appeal to win elections and, if it falls short, enough strength of character and self-discipline to avoid immolating itself on a bonfire of recrimination. In other words, he wants the Conservatives to replace the Liberals as the natural governing party of Canada.
By winning the last election, Mr. Harper's campaign team demonstrated its ability to learn from experience and to correct its mistakes. And there were plenty of them. When the team came together in 2001, its members were more like “friends of Stephen” than professional campaigners – although passionate about getting their man elected, they had a lot to learn.
For example, at the beginning, the Canadian Alliance campaign's organization was simply unworkable (too many people who didn't know each other in too many cities) and the plan for selling and processing of memberships was inadequate. In 2003, several months were wasted in the Perth-Middlesex riding's by-election (although the loss led directly to the merger with the Progressive Conservatives) and, in 2004, there was a failure to respond to negative ads, poor communication of the platform and the absence of an indigenous campaign in Quebec. As well, there was the late lapse that caused a Conservative slump and a devastating Liberal counterattack at the end of the race.
But the team learned – in politics you have to, or you won't be back – and the learning process has continued since the party came to power. For example, Mr. Harper has seen first-hand how difficult it can be to make good on some campaign promises.
But there are certain things the party still must do if it is to forge the political dynasty the Prime Minister has in mind.
I am no longer directly involved with the party's campaigns; after managing three of them and helping to organize a fourth, I've gone back to my day job as a political-science professor. However, from this tranquil perch, let me summarize what I learned before leaving – my Ten Commandments of Conservative Campaigning.
1. UnityThe party contains libertarians, social conservatives, populists, Red Tories, Quebec nationalists and Canadian nationalists, plus many people who don't care much about any of these “isms.” They all need each other. They can never win unless they try to understand each other and reach compromises that they can all live with.
2. Moderation Canada is not yet a conservative or Conservative country. The party can't win if it veers too far to the right of the average voter.