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Harper breaks free of the minority bridle

CALGARY - Prime Minister Stephen Harper has finally pushed the party he stitched together eight years ago to majority status — breaking free of the minority bridle that kept him from completing the cultural shift he sought to bring to Ottawa.

CALGARY - Prime Minister Stephen Harper has finally pushed the party he stitched together eight years ago to majority status — breaking free of the minority bridle that kept him from completing the cultural shift he sought to bring to Ottawa.

Harper stopped to clasp the hands and even hug a few of the 1,200 revellers at the Telus Convention Centre as he strode into the room beaming, his wife Laureen and children at his sides.

He began his speech Monday night with a jubilant exclamation of the phrase that had carried him through so many stops during the five-week campaign: "I have to say it: a strong, stable, national Conservative majority government!"

The crowd reacted with cheering and waving of campaign signs. A large letter C that hung over the stage in blue lights pulsed like a strange sort of celebratory spaceship. Laureen Harper, who sparkled on the campaign trail beside Harper, wiped away a tear as he mentioned her.

"I don't know how you do it, by my side, holding me up day in and day out for all of these years. I can never adequately express my love," he said.

It was a twin victory for Harper — not only did he win a majority, but he also helped cripple the Liberal party he has disdained for so long. He's long sought to destroy the notion that the Liberals are Canada's natural governing party, that their principles and policies are somehow the most linked to the national heritage.

He tipped his hat to all opposition leaders, particularly the NDP's Jack Layton for his stunning ascent to official Opposition status.

"I think I can speak for the entire country, in recognizing the determination and tenacity of Mr. Layton and his remarkable campaign," Harper said to applause.

"This is a day for which the NDP has long worked. Mr. Layton should be proud and I look forward to working with him in Ottawa."

With the often nasty federal campaign behind him, Harper tried to reach out to those who cast votes against him.

"Because Canadians chose hope, we can now begin to come together again, as we must, as fellow Canadians, fellow citizens, friends and neighbours.

"For our part, we are intensely aware that we are and we must be the government of all Canadians including that of ones who did not vote for us.

"Hear me on this, all the lessons of the last few years, holding to our principles but also of listening, of caring, of adapting those lessons that have come from a minority government, we must continue to practise as a majority government."

But make no mistake, Harper was ecstatic to be leaving the constraints of a minority government behind him.

His first order of business will be to pass the budget the opposition had rejected at the end of March.

Harper said his government would get to work immediately on Tuesday, and has already laid out a series of priorities. He'll also have to begin piecing together a fresh cabinet.

In advance of expected talks among the provinces about funding for the health-care system, he has committed to maintaining six per cent annual increases in federal transfers to the provinces and territories.

And Harper has vowed to bundle together any outstanding law-and-order bills and get them passed through omnibus legislation.

He'll also begin dismantling government subsidies for political parties, something he has been unable to do in a minority situation. The change will make it even harder for the Liberals to rebuild after their staggering loss Monday.

The Conservatives will also begin making changes to the Senate, moving toward the elected model that Harper has wanted to achieve incrementally.

Other pieces of legislation on human smuggling and copyright will also find a clear path to royal assent. The long-gun registry will soon disappear.

"This has been a long five weeks, there has been much passionate debate and a tremendous amount of work on all sides, but it is done and Canadians can now turn the page on the repeat elections of the past seven years and focus on building a great future for all of us," Harper said.

Even before media outlets proclaimed the majority win, the mood in the Calgary convention hall had shifted from cautious optimism to outright celebration once results began trickling in from Ontario.

Campaign staff that had been on the road with Harper embraced each other in victory, their faces unable to conjure up anything but a Cheshire-cat smile.

Alberta MP and cabinet minister Jason Kenney pumped his arm and jumped as he learned that longtime Liberal Joe Volpe had lost in his Toronto-area riding.

"You know how much time I spent in that riding? Oh, man!" yelled Kenney, who spent most of the campaign near Toronto.

Harper began showing signs that he knew his majority was in hand the night before the election. He was at his most cheerful at the rally in Abbotsford, B.C., smiling broadly and shaking more hands than he would normally in an entire week.

When he cast his ballot Monday morning in his riding with his family at his side, his unusually sunny demeanour betrayed what his team had begun to realize for more than a week — the NDP surge and his message would spell victory for the Tories.

Harper's central campaign message has been a grim one, a tale of impending doom were a potential NDP-Liberal-Bloc Quebecois coalition to ever take power from a Conservative minority. He warned supporters repeatedly that the only way to ensure the continuation of the economic recovery is through a "strong, stable majority Conservative government."

The speeches were short on optimism and hope, but never wavered, just as the Conservatives never let up their attacks on Michael Ignatieff's leadership since he took the position in 2009.

And so Harper plodded along with his message and strong base of support, watching as the opposition parties swung up and down in the polls.

Campaign chairman Guy Giorno said the election was won on two tracks.

"A lot of Canadians, more than before and in more places than before, said, 'Stephen Harper, we want you leading the government, we want you with your hand on the economy,'" Giorno said.

"On the opposition, those who weren't supporting us said, 'You know what, we actually have problems with the Bloc Quebecois, problems with Ignatieff,' and wanted Jack Layton to be their primary spokesman."

But with a majority government also comes expectations from the base that Harper has tried to keep happy over the past five years.

"For years, we've kept our mouths silent because we knew it was a minority and we didn't want this hidden-agenda label to come out," said Craig Chandler, a businessman and long-time supporter of the party in its various incarnations.

"But the reason we chose a westerner is because we wanted the Canadian Alliance-Reform agenda, and now that he has won a majority, he won't be afraid to show his true colours."

 
 
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