Harper, Alliance to set game plan for the fall
Caucus meeting must find way to improve standing
Tonda MacCharles
OTTAWA — Canadian Alliance Leader Stephen Harper's "to do" list is shorter now than it was last spring when he was elected leader, thanks to a summer of internal party housekeeping.

Mend party fences? Check. Put the books back in shape? Check. Reorganize the leader's office? Check.

But other big items on the list are going to be a lot tougher to check off.

Set priorities for fall session. Hmmm — should it be farm aid or Kyoto? Corruption or the economy?

Bump up polling numbers. Hmmm — how to crack Ontario, where the Alliance wallows at 8 per cent, or woo those "defeatist" Atlantic Canadians, as Harper called them?

Grab some positive headlines, for a change. Hmmm. There's a stumper.

The Liberals are likely to keep dominating the news as Prime Minister Jean Chrétien governs in search of a legacy, and Paul Martin lurks in search of a government.

For Harper, 43, a summer of low-key housekeeping may have reassured party members, but it did little more than earn him the moniker of invisible leader from pundits.

Harper was unavailable to comment last week on either the recent dismal ratings for the party — an EKOS survey showed the Alliance slipping nationally, trailing the Tories and NDP across the country — or on strategy for the parliamentary session starting Sept. 18. Harper was busy moving his family from Calgary to Ottawa, his spokesperson said.

But conversations with MPs, observers, and the party's own pollster show there is little consensus on what the Alliance's priorities should be, and how Harper should go about improving its position before the next election, possibly in 24 months.

Much will be hammered out at a three-day caucus meeting that starts tomorrow in Barrie — a key planning session before Parliament resumes.

The caucus will review results of the Tory convention in which all prospects of a coalition were yanked off the table, and hear a report by Dimitri Pantazopoulos, president of Praxicus Public Strategy, the party's pollster, who has been sounding out public opinion on the party.

Pantazopoulos insists the Alliance is doing fine out West, and says all parties other than the Liberals are polling poorly in Ontario — a trend he chalks up to voter apathy, a desire to tell opposition parties to "get your act together," and the need to focus on Ontarians' key issues.

Pantazopoulos believes the Alliance will do better when it gets back on a positive policy agenda. He says focusing attention on Liberal flaws, such as corruption charges, doesn't translate to votes, merely parking votes in the undecided category.

"People have to know you stand for something as opposed to always against something," he said in an interview last week. "It's a very similar phenomenon to negative advertising," he said. Negative campaigning doesn't appear to work as well in Canada as it does in the U.S. two-party system because "it doesn't give people an alternative," he said.

But some MPs, like public works critic Gerry Ritz (Battlefords-Lloydminster), are eager to get back to Parliament and chase more questionable sponsorship and ad contracts.

"We're having so much fun with it, why would you abandon it? We're finally making some inroads," he said in an interview.

Still, Ritz acknowledges the party does better when it talks policy.

Alberta MP John Williams, chair of the public accounts committee that delved into the scandal-plagued sponsorship program, says government accountability will be a priority, but first should come drought and the lack of aid to Western farmers.

As for Harper's low profile during the summer, Williams says it was the right thing to look after party business above all this summer.

"You always have to ensure that your own house is in order first."

Williams believes Harper doesn't necessarily have to do anything to counter the expected focus on the Liberals and Martin.

Martin, many Alliance members hope, will stumble or flame out in the next 18 months under close scrutiny.

Industry critic James Rajotte, who is close to Harper, says the job is going to be tough because the Liberal infighting "is a bit of a soap opera" and hard to bump off the front page.

The biggest challenge for the Alliance, he says, will be to focus on the Liberal government and convince people things are not as rosy in Canada as the Liberals claim, with a growing gap in productivity, disposable income and the weak dollar.

Focusing on scandals in the sponsorship program is "part of weaning people away from the Liberal party" but that's not enough, Rajotte said.

"There is skepticism about all politicians out there and so you can't just rely on simply negative attacks to wean people because you may just wean them into apathy or cynicism."

Lethbridge Community College political scientist Faron Ellis says the Alliance's big task in the upcoming parliamentary session is "to demonstrate depth of policy." It was the party's biggest weakness coming out of the 2000 election when the shine came off Stockwell Day's leadership.

"They had no policies, they had no substance as backup," Ellis said.

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