Politics

WORK IN P ROGRESS

Stephen Harper is changing his image. But he’s also set himself another taskoverhauling the entire right side of the political spectrum, says JOHN GEDDES.

May 24 2004
Politics

WORK IN P ROGRESS

Stephen Harper is changing his image. But he’s also set himself another taskoverhauling the entire right side of the political spectrum, says JOHN GEDDES.

May 24 2004

WORK IN P ROGRESS

Politics

Stephen Harper is changing his image. But he’s also set himself another taskoverhauling the entire right side of the political spectrum, says JOHN GEDDES.

ROCH CARRIER’S classic hockey sweater story may have the sentimental edge, but Stephen Harper’s new version is more politically illuminating. It’s the tale of a politician whose staff, always on the lookout for a chance to loosen up their boss’s somewhat stiff image, try to get him to wear the Calgary Flames colours into the House of Commonsunder his suit jacket, of course. The Flames happen to be the Conservative leader’s hometown team, as well as the sole Canadian franchise left in the hunt for the Stanley Cup. Grabbing a piece of Canada’s team is too much for any good political handler to pass up. But Harper, not known for his populist instincts, isn’t sure. So he calls his sawiest old MP, John Reynolds, for advice. “I told him it’s not very dignified to wear it into the House,” Reynolds says. “Wait until they’ve won a couple of games, and then wear the sweater to caucus.”

That’s just what he did last week, scoring precisely the desired TV clips and news photos. Now for the post-game commentary. Here are two ways to look at this latest bit of Harper playmaking: further evidence that the former policy purist has surrendered entirely to corny, calculated politics, or another example of his growth from icy ideologue to electable leader. Liberals are worried enough about the latter impression spreading that they are making plans to launch the imminent federal election campaign with a barrage of negative advertising, using Harper’s own past comments to portray him as a right-wing extremist.

HE’S NOT just out to beat Martin, but to put an end to the Liberals’ status as the default party of Canadian politics

Naturally, the real Harper is neither the folksy guy in the Flames sweater nor the menacing character in a Liberal attack ad. But getting at the essence of this increasingly guarded politician is not easy. At 44, he’s a work in progress, far more adaptable than his critics used to claim. Once regarded as too aloof to be much of a politician, he’s learning to project a marketable family-guy image. Long pigeon-holed as a policy wonk,

Harper also showed he’s a slick deal-maker with his adroit brokering of last year’s AllianceTory merger. But a transformed public persona is not such a big deal compared to the real goal Harper has set: overhauling the entire right side of the Canadian political spectrum. “My goal is not only to win an election,” he says. “It’s to create a natural Conservative majority in this country.”

So he’s not just out to beat Paul Martin, but to put an end to the Liberals’ status as the default position of federal politics: the party that rules unless something weird happens. For more than a century, the Conservatives’ glory days have amounted to mere breaks between Liberal regimes. John Diefenbaker was a wild-eyed outsider whose charisma never fortified the Tories for the long haul. Brian Mulroney’s alliance of Quebec nationalists and alienated Westerners looked more promising, but it fell apart with the rise of Reform and the Bloc Québécois. Despite that dispiriting history, Harper contends that enough right-of-centre raw material exists—out there in the electorate—to cultivate something more lasting. “The task I’ve set out is what no leader since John A. Macdonald has done,” he declares. “Conservatives have won elections, but they haven’t created a permanent governing coalition.”

Until recently, few would have taken Harper seriously as a potential architect of such sweeping political change. He has never been the sort of spellbinder who inspires grand dreams. In fact, he has sometimes seemed to epitomize the frustrating fate of marginalized Canadian right-wingers. Harper appeared on the political stage in 1987 as a promising young policy thinker in Preston Manning’s new Reform Party. Yet they never quite saw eye to eye. Manning was a populist who often downplayed Reform’s core conservatism, talking up the need to reach out to disgruntled Liberals and New Democrats, and he was closely identified with Reform’s rural Prairie roots. Harper argued for courting urban, middle-class voters working in the private sector, to create a Canadian version of the more broadly based movements of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Yet Harper’s vision is no neo-conservative import. It emerged out of a uniquely Canadian journey. Born in Toronto in 1959, he grew up in its suburbs, where as a teenager he admired Pierre Trudeau. After high school, he moved to Alberta to work in the oil fields, and then studied economics at the University of Calgary. His anger at witnessing first-hand the damage Trudeau’s National Energy Program did to Alberta in the early 1980s was a turning point for him. By chance, he ran into Trudeau on a Montreal Street two decades later, and wrote revealingly about coming “face to face with a living legend, someone who had provoked both the loves and hatreds of my political passion, all in the form of a tired-out, little old man.” This from Harper, the cold fish.

After a stint as Manning’s policy chief, Harper won a Calgary seat in 1993. He was one of the highest-profile Reformers, but not a member of Manning’s inner circle. When he quit to lead the right-wing National Citizens Coalition in 1997, his political future was in doubt. He had married Laureen Teskey, a graphic designer, in 1993, and they went on to have two children. Family, he said, now came first. On paper, he remained an intriguing political package: M.A. in economics, fluent in French, sure of his convictions. But something else was on paper: a mounting record of provocative writings, speeches and reported remarks.

Harper often sounded too blunt for mass consumption. He once said the “biggest public policy problem of the coming generation [is] our government-controlled health-care monopoly.” Not exactly a measured critique of the system he must know most Canadian voters cherish. When Roy Romanow proposed expanding publicly funded care, Harper slammed him in no uncertain terms. “He fails to recognize that the system is at the breaking point,” Harper said, “and the talk of expansion raises the spectre of huge tax increases to pay for it.”

He doesn’t talk about medicare in such dire terms anymore. Today, Harper is the one proposing expanding the system: not only is he calling for public coverage of “catastrophic” drug costs, he even suggests that Ottawa run the new program. That’s a stunning departure from his long track record of arguing for containing costs, and leaving it to the provinces to take the lead in setting policy and delivering services. The change hasn’t gone unnoticed in Alberta. “I was surprised to see him advocating this sort of aggressive expansion coupled with a federal role,” says Roger Gibbins, president of the Canada West Foundation, an influential Calgary-based think-tank that promotes a Western policy perspective.

HARPER’S vision is no neo-conservative import—it emerged out of a uniquely Canadian political journey

Those closer to Harper are less taken aback. They say his priority is stopping the Liberals from stoking voter fears that if Conservatives win power, universal care will be history. Reynolds says Harper’s master stroke on the file came last year, when as Alliance leader he smothered his party’s reflex to criticize, and threw its support behind a five-year health accord struck between Jean Chrétien and the premiers. Harper’s idea was to line up so squarely with the Liberals that they would have trouble setting themselves apart on health. “He told us, ‘We’re going to support it, and we will kill this as an issue,’” Reynolds recalls. “It’s working. I’ve served under a lot of leaders, and he’s the best strategist I’ve ever met.”

Conservative insiders point to another decisive Harper move as proof of his determination to deny the Liberals easy targets. Last fall, he quickly fired Larry Spencer as Alliance family values critic, and the Saskatchewan MP was also forced to quit caucus, after he said in an interview that homosexuality should be outlawed. Spencer’s remarks were a reminder of the social conservative baggage often blamed for stopping Reform and the Alliance from breaking through in moderate Ontario. “Can you imagine if the Spencer thing had happened in the reign of Preston Manning or Stockwell Day? Stephen Harper killed it right away,” says Reynolds. Whether the Liberals agree the underlying issue is dead, though, is another matter: Martin advisers say they won’t raise religion in the campaign, but they view the so-con views that often go with evangelical Christianity as fair game.

If Harper can keep religion out of the campaign, and avoid being tripped up on big issues like health, is his dream of a governing Conservative coalition within sight? John Wright, senior vice-president of the polling firm Ipsos-Reid, says a Harper move into 24 Sussex Drive after the widely expected June 28 vote is all but “mathematically impossible.” The firm’s latest poll, conducted in early May, put the Liberals at 40 per cent, which would translate into a solid majority of about 175 seats out of 308. The Conservatives, at 24 per cent, could get around 60 seats—far below the combined 78 Alliance and Progressive Conservative MPs elected in 2000. (The poll projects about 55 seats for the Bloc and 20 for the NDP.)

Dig deeper into the data, though, and Wright finds a more complex long-term picture. He says polls tend to show only about one-fifth of Canadians are solidly conservative, although nearly half don’t rule out voting Conservative. The largest potential pool of new support is younger Ontario voters. Harper’s biggest problem: few Quebecers seem inclined to vote his way. He admits Quebec is the toughest long-term challenge in building his new coalition. This time out, barring a shocking turnaround, the Quebec dead zone is what leaves him facing very long odds against forming a government. Knocking the Liberals down to a minority might be within reach, but only if his popularity picks up dramatically in Ontario. Wright says an effective late-campaign signal to voters shaken by the sponsorship scandal might be: “Vote for us and we’ll hold Liberal feet to the fire—a minority ain’t so bad.”

Harper insists he’s playing for all the marbles. He talks of planning for the transition from opposition to government. And he says the Liberals’ reported plan to quickly trot out his more controversial quotes shows Martin is scared. “This is what you do when you’re behind,” Harper says. “They are conceding we are a threat in a way they haven’t had to concede to an opposition party in a long time.” The polls suggest that’s partly partisan bluster mixed with wishful thinking. But Harper has defied expectations before. And the Flames weren’t given much chance of making it so far in the playoffs either. lifl