CALGARY — Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has emerged from the election campaign as a much more powerful prime minister and will lead a majority government with four years to change the country.
“This has been a long five weeks,” Harper told supporters.
“There has been much passionate debate and a tremendous amount of work on all sides,” he added.
“And Canadians can now turn the page on the uncertainties and the repeat elections of the past seven years and focus on building a great future for all of us.”
Conservatives cheered and celebrated as the results rolled in from across the country, confirming that Canadians, in large numbers, had given Harper the trust he had sought in the five-week campaign.
As the evening wore on, Harper’s party was coming within striking distance of reaching the benchmark threshold — 155 seats — required for a majority. When the Tories crossed that threshold, a great cheer erupted in the hall where supporters had gathered to celebrate.
In his speech to the crowd of about 1,700 people, Harper paid tribute to the voters of Canada.
“They chose hope, unity of purpose and a strong Canada. We can now begin to come together.”
For his part, Harper said he is deeply honoured to win another mandate and promised to bring the same principles of “listening” that he used in his minority governments to the new majority government.
“We shall be faithful to the trust that you have reposed in us,” said Harper. “The government you elected today will be a government that keeps these principles at its heart, at its very core.”
The Conservatives’ success came as the NDP made historic gains at the expense of the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois, which saw their seat counts plummet.
In recent days on the hustings, Harper had portrayed the election as having historic consequences for the country. In addition, his own personal future was at stake. It is now clear that with a majority victory, Harper will be regarded by historians as a political success story.
He will have a four-year mandate to implement significant change in areas ranging from tax policy, to the criminal justice system, to foreign affairs.
The victory is a historic one for Harper’s Conservatives.
It is only the third time in Canadian history the Tories have won three successive elections (John Diefenbaker won three in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and Sir John A. Macdonald won four straight elections in the 1800s).
As well, the last time a Conservative party won a majority in Canada was in 1988, at the end of a historic campaign in which then Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney fought the Liberals and NDP over the free-trade issue.
The historical significance of the result is all the more important considering that just a decade ago Canada’s political right was divided — between the Reform/Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives — and it seemed the Liberals would easily govern without competition for many more generations.
Harper helped lead the movement to unite those parties, won the leadership of the new Conservative party, claimed two minorities in the 2006 and 2008 elections and finally achieved his goal of a majority on Monday.
If there is, however, one disappointment for the Tories, it is that they fell Monday from holding 11 to six seats in Quebec — a fact that will pose a challenge for Harper as he moves to craft his next cabinet.
Mulroney said in an interview on CTV that the Tories were re-elected because of their “economic competence.”
“I think that he deserved it,” said Mulroney, of Harper’s victory.
Mulroney said this campaign reminded him of the one in 1988 — just as the Liberals and New Democrats leaned far left in this campaign, both parties were struggling for the same votes back then.
That helped him in his campaign so many years ago, and also helped Harper.
“It’s always easier when you’ve got two or three opponents on the other side splitting the vote,” said Mulroney.
Earlier in the day, Harper appeared confident and relaxed as he waited for Canadians to deliver their verdict on his “urgent” appeal for a majority government.
In the last 24 hours of the campaign, which he ultimately described as “unusual,” Harper spoke more forcefully about how the country was on a “precipice” and the outcome of the election could have long-term consequences for the future destiny of Canada.
And although his increasingly fierce attacks on the NDP were a clear sign he considered Jack Layton’s party to be a threat, Harper gave no outward clues of personal anxiety at the end of the race.
Harper cast his vote in the gymnasium of a school in his riding, Calgary Southwest, and then decided to exit through another door into the school’s playground. He was mobbed by children and roamed through the schoolyard under warm and sunny skies, shaking hands and chatting with the crowd of about 200 kids.
Harper was accompanied to the school by his wife Laureen, who also voted, and their children, Ben and Rachel.
As he made his way back to the street and departed St. Augustine School, Harper turned to reporters clustered around his vehicle and briefly answered a question about how he was feeling.
“Really good. It’s a great day. A great democracy. The sky is blue.”
It was an ironic end to the campaign.
Harper’s minority government was defeated on March 25 by the opposition parties on the grounds that the Tories had repeatedly run afoul of democracy and were in contempt of Parliament.
The opposition — particularly Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals — had hoped to make Harper’s approach to democracy a central issue of the campaign. Despite their efforts, however, the issue fizzled.
By comparison, Harper’s strategy from Day 1 was to define the race with a single question: Should Canadians opt for the stability of a Conservative majority government, or risk the emergence of a “coalition” or “alliance” of opposition parties that would ruin the economy and impose massive tax hikes?
It was a theme that Harper hammered away at on the hustings, evoking the image of a chaotic coalition hundreds of times.
Harper boasted that under his leadership, Canada had become the closest thing in the world to “an island of stability.”