OTTAWA — Stephen Harper begins his third term as Canada’s prime minister the same way he began his second: With soothing promises to govern conservatively and reach out to his political opponents.
But will the third time really prove the charm after a five-year parliamentary donnybrook?
With his long-sought Conservative majority finally safe in his pocket, the question of where Harper leads the country was on everyone’s mind Tuesday.
“One thing I’ve learned in this business is that surprises are generally not well received by the public,” the prime minister said at a news conference in Calgary, hours after winning 167-seats in the 308-seat House of Commons.
“And so we intend to move forward with what Canadians understand about us and I think what they’re more and more comfortable with.”
Some of those elements are abundantly clear:
— Ongoing cuts to corporate tax rates.
— Ongoing increases to provincial health-care transfers.
— Many more felons behind bars for longer terms, in more prisons.
— An end to the long-gun registry.
— An end to the per-vote taxpayer subsidy of political parties.
— New laws targeting group refugee arrivals by boat.
— Relaxation of rules for the telecom industry and foreign investment.
But other elements of the Conservative agenda are clouded in ambiguity.
Will there be deep cuts to government program spending to balance the books?
What direction for the country’s federal broadcast regulator, the CRTC?
Will the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly be broken?
Will Canada attempt to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets?
And what kind of candidates will be appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada when three of the nine justices reach mandatory retirement age over the next four years?
“We will have to govern well, govern in people’s interest,” a relaxed, gravel-throated Harper told a morning-after news conference.
“Even as a majority you have to, on an ongoing basis, keep the trust of the population.”
The Conservatives won 167 seats with 40 per cent of the popular vote, while the NDP will form the official Opposition with 102 seats. The Liberals were reduced to 34 seats, while the Bloc Quebecois is left with only four.
It was an election night of surprises. And for Harper, the lesson of unwelcome surprises, if he indeed learned it, was hard-won two years ago.
After claiming his second straight minority in the election of October 2008, Harper called it “the time for us to all put aside political differences and partisan considerations and to work co-operatively for the benefit of Canada.”
Then, as now, the economy was to be the “No. 1 priority.” Then, as now, Harper said he was humbled by the victory.
Barely a month later the Conservatives delivered an economic update laden with partisan booby traps that pitched the country into a constitutional crisis that still, in its way, reverberated on the hustings this election campaign, to Harper’s benefit.
This time around, the per-vote party subsidy that was to be slashed without notice is right there in the Conservative platform — with a three-year phase-out period.
There’s no more talk of inhibiting public-sector bargaining rights or restricting pay-equity settlements. The reality of budgetary deficits, at least in the short run, is no longer concealed.
Jack Layton, the newly minted NDP leader of the official Opposition, repeatedly stated Tuesday that his bulked-up party will influence the Conservative majority.
“We will try to convince Mr. Harper to do what he should do,” Layton said at a news conference in Toronto. “With the mandate we received, he has an obligation to listen to us.”
It seemed wishful thinking at best, given the Conservative minority track record.
But long-time Conservative party observers believe Harper — with his eye on the long game — may just prove more malleable as a majority prime minister.
“I would expect he will govern as though he wants a second majority,” said Faron Ellis, a political scientist at Lethbridge Community College.
Goldy Hyder, a well-connected Tory lobbyist in Ottawa at the firm Hill and Knowlton, says Harper will be able to plan “for the long term” without fear of immediate electoral costs.
“Under a majority government you have a lot more leeway to make some of the tougher decisions than you ever did under a minority. That is a significant difference.”
Hyder says issues such as government spending cuts, reform of public pensions and the future of some Crown corporations may now be addressed.
But he’s convinced that after five years in office, Harper is wedded to incrementalism and unlikely to take a “go big or go home” attitude.
“There are many of us who would actually like to see a number of things go big, but I don’t think we’re going to see it just yet,” said Hyder.
“One successful election doesn’t mean you have a free pass on anything and everything.”
Harper received congratulatory phone calls on Tuesday from U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
But his day was not all triumph.
Harper acknowledged he’s disappointed by the result in Quebec, where the Conservatives lost three cabinet ministers and five of the 11 seats they held there before the election.
But he took solace in the even more devastating losses of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, which imploded from the provincial majority party to a sad regional rump of four MPs.
“Despite the fact that we did not make any gains, of course as a Canadian and a federalist I am encouraged by the collapse of the Bloc,” Harper said.
While the NDP, with 58 of Quebec’s 75 seats, played the key role in slaying the Bloc dragon, Harper said “I do think we deserve some of the credit.”
And in a final hint of what may be a new Harper 3.0 in this, his third mandate, the prime minister was twice lured back to the microphone at his Calgary press conference.
Harper, after playfully checking with his aides, confided that he’d been induced to “guzzle” champagne straight from the bottle as part of his majority victory celebrations late Monday night.
The bottle, he added, contained only a heel of bubbly in the bottom.
“So much for my wild side.”