October 20, 2015 10:30 am
Updated: October 20, 2015 12:55 pm

Federal Election 2015: How Harper’s greatest strengths became his biggest weaknesses

WATCH ABOVE: Global News election survey showed the voters really made this election a referendum on Stephen Harper's leadership and the desire for change.


The 2015 federal election saw Stephen Harper and his Conservatives turfed by a man they spent months painting as amateurish and “just not ready.”

Justin Trudeau and the Liberals are poised to form a majority government.

How did they pull it off? Where did Harper go wrong?

Why Harper hung on to power — and how he lost:

In many ways, the strategies that served Harper so well for years backfired on him, political observers say.

1. Divide-and-conquer

For nearly a decade, Harper did a good job of destabilizing his opposition, said University of Alberta political scientist Steve Patten.

“I think the mistake Harper has made over time is that he didn’t realize that playing to his base and playing divisive politics could only work when his major competition was destabilized or divided,” Patten said.

For a while, it worked: The Liberals were destabilized, whether by the sponsorship scandal or leadership changes. Even at the beginning of this campaign, Patten said, support was divided evenly between the Liberals and NDP.

WATCH: Conservative campaign co-chair says his party ran a good campaign, blames the collapsing of NDP vote on the Liberals winning a majority government

“But as soon as one party could capture the imagination and be seen as the vehicle for change … that leaves Harper with just his base.”

Harper should have reached out and tried to accommodate other types of voters, Patten said.

2. Centralize power

Harper unified warring factions of Canada’s right and herded them all in the same direction, thanks in large part to an approach that allowed him to have equally centralized control “over the machinery of government,” says Chaldeans Mensah, a political scientist at MacEwan University in Edmonton.

But defining the party as the “Harper Conservatives” hurt it, Patten explained.

“There’s no doubt that over time Harper became a liability for his party.”

“There has been general disquiet about Harper’s centralization of power, and the sense that he has not allowed the Conservative members of Parliament to express themselves and also bring the concerns of their constituents into the decision-making process,” Mensah said.

Harper’s efforts to control his caucus meant many of them became completely incommunicado, to the point where they missed all-candidates debates and forums.

“While there have been many policy disagreements with his opponents on issues such as [Bill] C-51, approaches to foreign policy and the economy,” said Mensah, “it is the overall sense that Harper’s style of government was too controlling and corroding the political principles of liberal democracy.”

READ MORE: Conservative groups’ last minute plea to Harper: stop C-51

3. Terror and terrorism

In poll after poll, Harper’s Conservatives came out on top when it came to security and countering terrorism.

But playing up global instability and fear of extremists rubbed some people the wrong way, says University of Alberta political scientist Lois Harder.

“Many Canadians understand the national identity in terms of a positive profile on the world stage – a voice of social justice and principled stands on war and peace and the environment,” she said.

“Harper took the country in a very different direction that has not aligned especially well with these values. During the election campaign, that was really brought home in his response to the refugee crisis.”

Photos of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lifeless on a beach, and concerns that Conservative interference had slowed Canada’s refugee acceptance process, put renewed scrutiny on Canada’s record, Harder said.

“It’s pretty hard to see the exhausted faces of all of those people desperate for safety and a better life and see terrorism — and for many Canadians, the experience of being a refugee or immigrant isn’t very far away in their own or their family’s histories.”

WATCH: Political strategist panel weighs in on refugees, niqab

At the same time, she added, the emphasis on ‘foreign terror’ was seen by some as an unfortunate and even dangerous distraction from serious issues at home — “like the shocking numbers of murdered and missing Indigenous women.”

Many felt that the niqab debate, as well, should not have become as big as it did.

READ MORE: Reality check —  Zunera Ishaq says niqab should not be an election issue

4. Communication and obfuscation

From a “strong, stable majority” to “a plan for jobs and growth,” Harper became a master of managing messages.

But he garnered flak for too tightly controlling his message and clamping down on many forms of data dissemination and data-driven decision-making. His decision to axe the long-form census, for example, angered many otherwise non-partisan people who depended on that information.

“Some Canadians,” Harder said, “are especially concerned with the Harper government’s disregard for evidence-based policy, as witnessed by the cancellation of the long-form census, the muzzling of scientists, and the denigration of expert knowledge.”

WATCH: After years of saying they’ve been muzzled by the Harper government, the union representing scientists and researcher asked for scientific integrity to be enshrined in their collective agreement earlier this year.

Jason Kenney, who served as defence minister in Harper’s cabinet and cruised to an easy victory in his Calgary riding Monday night, said where the party went wrong “was on tone.”

“We have to take collective responsibility for that.”

How did Trudeau pull off his win?

“I think it came down to the fact that people wanted change,” said Patten.

“When Justin Trudeau announced his plan to spend aggressively on infrastructure, he differentiated himself from Harper in a way that Mulcair wasn’t doing.”

“I think that was an important turning point.”

It seemed to inspire voters, which in turn may have added some spark to Trudeau’s fire.

“When audiences are excited, the person on stage seems to have charisma. I think he’s a fairly charismatic guy but I think the process of seeming like he had momentum sort of added to it in a sense,” said Patten.

“The last few days, the nature of the photos and video clips were about people wanting their picture with him – reaching out, touching him, him in the crowd – which is very different than the photos of the other leaders.”

What happened to Mulcair?

Aside from exhibiting less charisma than Trudeau, what sealed Mulcair’s fate?

Was it his stance on the niqab, his equivocation on pipelines, the promise of a balanced budget? Did he pander too much to the right and lose support from his core base? Or were strategic voters the reason Mulcair lost half its caucus?

Patten thinks the key problem was his relatively cautious approach, at least compared to Trudeau.

WATCH: A senior adviser to the NDP talks about where the party went wrong during the campaign

Typically, for the NDP, making Canadians less nervous about its fiscal policies would be a good thing, Patten acknowledged. But this time, the safe strategy seemed to backfire.

“You had all sorts of Canadians wanting change,” Patten said. “And that [caution] undermined his capacity…to be seen as the vehicle of change.”

With files from Anna Mehler Paperny, Global News

© 2015 Shaw Media

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