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Harper's Aussie Advisor

Lessons from the hardliner down under.

Richard Warnica 16 Jan

Richard Warnica is a free-lance journalist and former senior editor at The Tyee.

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The Globe and Mail reported last Saturday that Stephen Harper's campaign team is borrowing ideas and getting regular advice from their opposites in Australian Prime Minister John Howard's camp.

The report startled me.

Howard is best known outside of Australia for joining the invasion of Iraq, dropping the Kyoto Protocol and keeping hordes of migrants locked in harsh detention camps; hardly policies you'd think the evolved Harper wants to be associated with.

Less well known outside of Australia - but fiercely debated when I was there last August - are Howard's labour market reforms. Passed in December, the reforms will gradually eliminate collective bargaining rights and make it much easier for Australian employers to hire, fire and negotiate with their workers.

Winning formula?

Of course, just because Howard's team is advising Harper doesn't mean a Harper government would be a mirror image of those led by the Aussie PM.

But our countries are so similar that I can't help wondering how Howard has done it. He's won four straight elections and been in power for 10 years, something no Canadian conservative has ever done. It's not that Australia is more conservative than Canada; Australian Labour, a party arguably left of the NDP, dominates state politics down under. So if Harper really is following Howard's model, could this be the beginning of a new conservative dynasty in Canada?

To find out more about Howard's rise, I called Australian political scientist Campbell Sharman. The correlation, Sharman told me, isn't perfect. Since the Bali bombings in 2001, Australians have had to contend with terrorism in a way Canadians simply haven't. And when it comes to security, Sharman said, Australians consistently prefer Howard to the left-wing Labour Party.

Australia also doesn't have an equivalent of Canada's Liberals. There's no real centre party, so Australian elections are more like contests between Stephen Harper and Jack Layton, than between Harper and Paul Martin.

But three things Sharman pointed out about Howard struck me as being pretty similar to Harper.

Wooing 'the mortgage belt'

In Australia, the competitive seats are in the suburbs, what Sharman called the "mortgage belt" that surrounds the major Australian cities. Howard wins elections by winning those voters.

Ditto for Harper. If Harper becomes prime minister on January 23, it will be because he picked up seats in the vast burbs that surround Toronto. In B.C., too, the competitive seats are in suburbs like Surrey, Burnaby and Richmond and not in the opposite polls of urban Vancouver and rural Prince Rupert. If the suburbs permanently abandon the Liberals, Harper could be living on Sussex drive for a very long time.

The second thing Sharman told me is that Howard consistently follows his own advice even when everyone else has thought it was political suicide. (Howard ran his second election campaign promising to introduce a Goods and Services tax, not what you'd call the prototypical vote-getting policy.)

The same is true for Harper. In his 20-year rise from graduate student to probable prime minister, Harper has been written off more times than I can remember. He has always been considered too right-wing, too radical, too cold and too un-charismatic to win the country's biggest prize. But it looks like he'll do it, anyway.

Just think back to the first day of the campaign. When Harper's first press conference included a promise of a free vote on same-sex marriage, pundits galore called him an idiot, and predicted a campaign dominated his social policy views. Hasn't happened; by getting same-sex marriage out of the way early and bombarding the media with a policy a day, Harper has set the agenda. I read most major Canadian papers every day and for most of the campaign they've all had at least a story a day on a new Harper policy.

But the one thing Sharman told me about Howard that struck me as being most similar to Harper wasn't the his dominance in the burbs, or his confidence in his own judgment. It was that Howard has continued to win largely because his opponents continue to lose.

Bumbling opponents

Australian voters have endorsed Howard again and again, even while poll numbers show they don't support a lot of his policies, because his rivals in the Australian Labour Party have yet to manage an effective campaign against him.

It doesn't take a political genius to see the correlation with Harper. Sure the Tories have run a good campaign. But I'd bet lots of Conservative voters next Monday won't be voting for the Conservatives so much as they are against the Liberals.

Last Friday alone, the Liberals had to dump a candidate in a riding for allegedly trying to bribe one of his opponents, had a senior minister implicated in a shady real estate deal, and had the Deputy Prime Minister, a constitutional scholar, admit that Paul Martin hadn't told her about his plan to dump the Notwithstanding Clause before announcing it during the leaders' debate. That's enough bad news for an entire campaign; what's sad is that Friday was no worse really, than any other day that week.

So, like Howard voters in Australia, many of Harper's supporters won't be expressing support for the Conservative agenda, or even a rejection of the Liberal one, when they tick the Tory box, they'll just be expressing distaste for the Liberals themselves.

Of course, if Harper wins next Monday, people aren't likely to care much if he did it by campaigning like John Howard. They might care, though, if he starts governing like him.

The question is, when the next election comes, will the Liberals have done enough to make it about Stephen Harper's policies, and not about their own incompetence?

Richard Warnica is managing editor of The Tyee's Election Central.  [Tyee]

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