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One year later, Harper majority not 
in sight 

[PoliticsWatch updated 5:50 p.m., January 19, 2007]

Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

OTTAWA  — Just 72 hours after the results came in from the January 2006 federal election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper walked into the House of Commons foyer to speak with reporters.  

It was a different Harper.   

The man many in the Press Gallery had written off as unelectable was now the prime minister designate. 

Harper had slain the political career of the mighty Paul Martin, the man whose ascent to the Liberal throne had so frightened Canadian Alliance types and federal Progressive Conservatives that the two parties merged within a matter of months for fear of being wiped out by a predicted Martin landslide. 

But not only was Harper's new title different, Harper seemed to emit even more confidence than he had in his years as opposition leader. 

And to underline the point that Harper was in charge, Press Gallery reporters had to submit their names to Harper's press secretary to ask questions in a press conference that was in control by PMO-in-waiting. 

While reporters didn't like having to submit their names to ask questions, Harper's long and thoughtful responses were a refreshing change from two-years of Martin, who had a habit of repeating talking points. 

After Harper's first press conference there appeared to be no shortage of story angles or stuff to write about for reporters from the soon-to-be PM. 

And even before Harper was sworn-in as PM reporters and columnists who frequent the afternoon political talk shows were already starting to make predictions that Harper was on the verge of winning a majority and keeping the Liberals out of power for at least five to six years. 

Their evidence for this theory were the number of high-profile veteran Liberals -- Frank McKenna, John Manley, Allan Rock -- who had decided to opt out of entering the Liberal leadership race to replace Paul Martin. 

"Important guys like Manley and McKenna could not be bothered with rebuilding the Liberal party and toiling in opposition while Harper won a majority," they all reckoned.  

Hopefully, the big name Liberals and even Harper himself didn't take these opinion leaders seriously. 

After all, it was these same people who had committed numerous cases of crystal ball malpractice over the last three years on the biggest leadership issues on the Hill. 

Among the chattering classes' errors were: Peter MacKay's political career was over after he inked his deal with David Orchard; Paul Martin would rule into his late 70s; the merger between the Alliance and the PCers was doomed to fail; and, of course, Harper can't win. 

If only Canada's paid, political-prognosticating class would make public their NFL picks every Saturday, one could make a substantial fortune betting the opposite way the following day. 

Canada's pundits had spoken and a Harper majority was in the waiting.  

And at first it looked like they could be right. 

Harper appeared to be a decisive leader, was focused like a laser beam on pushing through his five priorities and his poll numbers were rising.

On May 23, an Ipsos poll for Global News showed the Tories enjoyed the support of 43 per cent of Canadians, enough for a majority, six points higher than where they were on election night and 17 points ahead of the leaderless Liberals. 

Strong polling numbers and a strong leader  were making it a good time to be a Tory. As for the Liberals, the media coverage of the Liberal leadership race centred primarily on the fundraising antics of Joe Volpe and former bureaucrat Chuck Guite was attempting to drag the Chretien PMO into his trial for fraud in the sponsorship program. 

By the time the House adjourned for its summer recess, Harper had made a breakthrough in the softwood lumber dispute, allowed the House to vote on extending the mission to Afghanistan for two years, cut the GST, sent a monthly $100 cheque for parents with children under six and publicly vetted a Supreme Court justice nominee. And if that was not enough, the Liberals accidentally supported the government's budget due to a procedural error during the budget debate. 

"I'm very happy," Harper told CBC News on June 22. "We brought in a whole new government team. A whole new group of people ... And I think they performed remarkably well."

Five months after their election represented a high-mark for the government so far. 

No one knows for sure whether the PM's handling of the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah and the evacuation of Canadians from Lebanon was the real turning point, but shortly thereafter the Tories began to slowly fall in the polls, especially in Quebec. 

Before the House returned for the fall session, Canada suffered several fatalities in Afghanistan. NDP Leader Jack Layton spoke about Canada pulling out of the country for the first time and Liberal candidate Gerard Kennedy also made similar comments. 

Harper remained quiet on the subject for more than two weeks as support for the government and the mission for Afghanistan began to erode more. 

While Harper was in control of Parliament in the spring, events seemed to get the better of the PM by the fall. The Maher Arar controversy became a Tory problem after conflicting testimony given to a parliamentary committee by the RCMP commissioner. Canada's chief electoral officer all but accused the Tories of breaking the election law for not listing its convention fees as donations. 

And even things Harper was in control of were backfiring. A decision to cut spending $1 billion gave the opposition parties and a wide array of special interest groups all the ammunition they needed to accuse the government of being mean spirited. And the government's long-anticipated Clean Air Act was ridiculed by environmentalists, the opposition and media pundits. 

The PM then did further short-term damage with his base later in the fall by reversing a promise not to tax income trusts and then introducing a motion recognizing Quebec as a nation. 

By November 15, nearly five months after the height of the Harper empire, a Decima poll showed the Liberals were leading the Tories by two points with 33 per cent support compared to 31 per cent. The poll was all the more surprising given that the Liberals were two weeks away from choosing their new leader. In effect, Bill Graham was beating Majority Harper. 

"The trend here is pretty obvious and it's one that would be encouraging from our point of view and should be deeply troubling for the Conservatives because they are obviously disappointing a lot of Canadians," Liberal House leader Ralph Goodale said in an interview with PoliticsWatch at the time. 

Goodale was in London, Ontario, at the time campaigning for Liberal candidate Glen Pearson. It is there where the final chapter in Harper's first year begins. 

On November 28, Pearson won the riding, but the real headline was the strong showing in London by Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who finished second ahead of the Tories and the NDP. 

May's strong showing illustrated that voters in Ontario were taking environmental issues seriously enough to vote for May and the Greens. 

Less than a week later, a sea of lime green scarves could be seen on television screens from the floor of the Liberal leadership convention as darkhorse candidate Stephane Dion pulled off an upset win on a campaign centred primarily on the issue of sustainable development. 

By the new year, Harper had taken the green plunge and realized that his government had to become more environmentally friendly or else face a daily pounding on the issue from May and the three opposition leaders who are all trying to out green each other. 

The latest poll shows the Liberals and Tories in a deadlock with the Grits holding a one-point lead. 

While the polls are close, the biggest problem facing Harper and the Tories is that it is starting to look like the next election will be fought on the issue of the environment, an issue where the Tories do not have home-field advantage. 

A preview of the upcoming election campaign was seen during the second to last question period before the Christmas break when Dion said that he would "be very pleased to debate with the Prime Minister on his policy about the environment and our policy." 

Harper responded by saying, "I will say that on this side of the House we certainly look forward to debating the environmental record of the Liberal leader. The Liberal leader has a record on the environment that is no different from the record of Alfonso Gagliano on accountability."

And Harper has a point. 

The reason Canada probably won't meet its Kyoto targets by 2012 is largely due to inaction by the previous Liberal government over the last decade. 

Even high school kids who met with Dion in Guelph, Ontario, earlier this week gave him and the Liberals a rough ride for their lack of action on the environment. 

It's a rougher ride than Dion has been getting in Ottawa on his past performance on the environment. 

The national media is acknowledging that the Liberals failed on the Kyoto targets but they aren't prepared to allow that to be an excuse for the Tories for failing as well. 

On Friday, Tory MP Pierre Poilievre used a panel discussion on the Clean Air Act on CBC Newsworld's Politics to launch into a criticism of the "mess" that Dion and the Liberals left the new government on the environment, but host Don Newman put a halt to that line of talking points.

"Let's go forward and deal with it and not live in the past," Newman said. 

But Harper's environmental political strategy appears to be a mixture of announcements with reminders of the Liberal past. 

If the environment plays as big a role in the next election as government ethics did in the last election, then Harper and the Tories appear further from winning a majority than they did the day after last year's election. 
 

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