10/01/2011 11:30 EDT | Updated 12/01/2011 05:12 EST

For Stephen Harper, it's Not All Smooth Sailing

AFP/Getty Images

Monday, on the front page of The Hill Times--the weekly newspaper of Parliament Hill -- one read this headline:

"PM could be ensconced in power until 2020, say experts"

The 'expert' turned out to be a political columnist.

And, frankly, the scenario appeared far-fetched -- even to someone like myself who wrote in 2000 that Stephen Harper could one day be prime minister of Canada!

This is not to say that Mr. Harper is not in a strong position -- having brought his united party to a majority in the House of Commons and relegated the Liberals to third party status.

Yet, as has often been observed, a week is a long time in politics...

For one thing, Mr. Harper faces visceral media criticism. That said, measures disliked on the whole by journalists -- abolition of the long-form census for example -- tend to solidify his political base and clearly did not cost him his job in the last election.

Today the government's crime legislation is a matter of some controversy in Ottawa. The reality, however, is that many Canadians feel in their gut that punishment should fit the crime.

Nor do I think criticism of the Conservatives' Middle East policy will matter more in the next election than in the last.

True, that policy is lambasted by former diplomats who continue to press for Canada to side with the Palestinians.

However, Canadians shrugged off our loss of a seat on the UN Security Council -- a matter of deep concern to these former diplomats.

True, Mr. Harper was criticized in the media after the Deauville G8 summit for insisting that the communiqué not refer only to one element of President Obama's speech on the Middle East; viz., the 1967 borders. Rather, according to a report in Le Monde, Mr. Harper insisted that any such language be accompanied by a reference to Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Tellingly, that position was adopted last week by the international Quartet in their bid to re-start Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Mr Harper was careful at the Deauville G8 not to allow any breach to develop between himself and President Obama, continuing his exemplary handling of Canada-U.S. relations.

Wisely, he's refused to be drawn into U.S. domestic politics, even when pressed -- as in the debate over the president's health care law.

His handling of the Keystone pipeline has been astute -- explaining to Americans through U.S. media that it's in their interest to build the pipeline while reassuring them that Canada will never use the resource politically or as a strategic asset.

At the same time he's made it clear that Alberta's oil sands will be developed one way or another, with its product shipped to Asia if not to the U.S.

Right now, the biggest threat on Mr. Harper's horizon is the state of the economy.

In this regard, it's worth observing that his success at the polls in 2015 depends more on decisions at the upcoming G20 in Cannes than by what was spent on hosting the summits in Canada last year.

In part, Mr. Harper owes his re-election to those summits, which brought home to Canadians the international scale of the problem. But the global economy could get a lot worse between now and the next election and there's no assurance that Canada will be spared, even relatively.

Much will depend on whom the Liberals and NDP choose as their next leaders -- and, in particular, their economic credibility.

But even if everything goes right for one or both of the opposition parties, they still could split the vote again in the next election as they did in the last.

In Quebec, the routing of the Bloc Quebecois and uncertainty about whether the NDP can consolidate its hold, particularly after the passing of Jack Layton, creates an opening for Mr. Harper. As to claims that he's written off Quebec, there's no doubt that the province's political weight in the federation has declined. However, politics will always be a game of addition not subtraction, and no leader of a competitive party would ever write off a province as populous as Quebec.