He finally learned to understand this country. That's why he won.
Peter C. NewmanFebruary62006
STEPHEN HARPER, BORN-AGAIN CANADIAN
He finally learned to understand this country. That's why he won.
ELECTION SPECIAL 2006
PETER AC. NEWMAN
In James Michener’s evocative history of Hawaii, he uses a telling phrase to describe a particularly dramatic moment in the island’s turbulent past. “It was,” he wrote, “the time that the gods changed.”
Okay, so there was no puff of white smoke when Stephen Harper toppled the Liberals, but even if he only won a minority mandate, this week’s epic vote created a new political reality equivalent to a new state religion—or at least the humbling of an old one. If the Earth didn’t move on Jan. 23, at least it trembled.
The tainted record of the Liberals who have ruled this country for all but one of the last four decades finally caught up with them. Paul Martin’s lame brand of Liberalism was rejected because voters sensed that he had lost touch with his better self and had become more desperate than deserving. He was the victim of his self-imposed superiority complex, behaving as if he was destined to govern. The Liberal attack ads treated the Conservatives like a case of mumps, an unwelcome disease that you put up with, get over, and never want to experience again.
Harper wasn’t playing that game. What was so impressive about the man was his calm zone of self-confidence, most starkly on display during the four leaders’ debates. Having spent most of his career in public life as an angry agent of rejection, the Conservative leader had at last found the peace that comes with comprehending the complexities of our national psyche. Somewhere along the way, he realized that Canadians are a regional people who have always felt like strangers in their own land, without feeling at home anywhere else. Politically, Canadians have learned not only to believe in the tactic of governing by muddling through, but have come to rely on it. Harper’s epiphany brought home the fact that Canadians’ pragmatic attitude precludes political leaders who want to succeed from tackling issues on the basis of preconceived ideologies. Each situation demands a new set of pragmatic decisions: “Be strong only in moderation,” the historians have advised, “this is a country governable only by compromise.” Being right or left wing in Canadian politics has come to mean as little as being leftor right-handed for a tennis serve, or eating beans with a fork. Stephen Harper became a threat to the Liberals only when he acted on his new-found wisdom by joining the struggle to dominate the political centre, then shaping his party’s policies and personal attitudes accordingly.
Elections are peculiar phenomena; they freeze the political landscape of a nation at a given moment in time, as heritage fights impulse and the tug of the past competes with the pull of the future. The portrait of Canada as painted by the voters on Jan. 23 was that of a nation digging for its soul—and finding no reassuring panacea in any of the competing leaders. They decided to entrust the country to Mistah Harper because he seemed to be the lesser of the available evils. The campaign, characterized by sandstorms of half-truths, added up to more noise than substance. But the Conservative leader kept his cool and served up common sense instead of hysteria, and that was recommendation enough. By describing his policies in boring detail, including a $l-billion plan to combat the mountain pine beetle plague in B.C. forests, Harper raised the status of his party above that of the Liberals, who couldn’t break out of the public perception that they were a disorganized gang of opportunists with an appetite for power, and little else. Comparing the two mainstream party platforms was like being at a synchronized swimming contest. The differences were mostly stylistic and psychological. But that mattered.
The voters delivered one important message to the politicians: it wasn’t the economy, stupid. Canada is experiencing a boom unprecedented since the 1950s. The Conference Board predicts a 3-1 per cent growth rate for this year and next, among the highest for any G8 nation. Favourable economic climates usually help re-elect governments, but this time Canadian voters were not inspired to cast their ballots solely on the basis of their self-interest. Their political instincts were otherwise occupied. They opted, even if hesitantly, for a new administration that wasn’t blemished by corruption and had not endangered its moral right to govern.
Paul Martin exhausted his welcome with voters who were predisposed to like him because he never understood that waving your arms (“doing his windmill thing,” as Harper described it) does not constitute a belief system. He should have taken the American feminist Gloria Steinem’s advice: “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” Because the Liberal leader failed to focus credibly on the troubling verities that affect our everyday lives, but started rattling on about such obscure devices as notwithstanding clauses, he pissed us off. At the same time, the Natural Governing Party’s tight ring of advisers, who retained exclusive access to the leader
and stage-managed his every pratfall, set new levels of self-destructive staff work. But the onus for the Liberals’ defeat was ultimately Paul Martin’s alone. He tried too hard to become prime minister instead of acting like one when he made it. He had the brains and the decent instincts, but picked the wrong praetorian guard, who ultimately did him in.
There was a kind of sweaty desperation about Martin’s every pronouncement, and his forensic style produced echoes of the past but no call on the future. The politician who made his reputation as finance minister by wrestling the deficit to the ground in the 1990s became the irresponsible spendthrift of his own government. According to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, during the nearly 24 months between his assumption of office in December 2003 and the start of his second election campaign, Martin pledged $48.5 billion in spending from surpluses that may never materialize. That was before the campaign—with its avalanche of even more expensive promises-had started. It was not a performance worthy of a former minister of finance tending the national pocketbook. The Martin government went to the edge on only one economic issue: fighting the American lobbies that had imposed illegal duties on our exports of softwood lumber, an item that few Canadians worry about or can even identify, beyond suspecting that it’s probably the soggy part of the dock at their summer cottages.
If politics is a fever in the blood, arrogance is the Liberals’ genetic code. I witnessed this trait first-hand in the mid-1960s when I was an Ottawa columnist and happened to be within earshot of a brief exchange between Prime Minister Lester Pearson and Keith Davey, then executive director of the Liberal party. Pearson was a great prime minister
but a lousy campaigner. He had marched his party backwards through four campaigns, never earning a majority mandate. Late in the evening, on election night in 1965, when it was clear this would be Pearson’s final attempt, I overheard Keith (later senator) Davey apologizing to the PM for another Liberal minority. “We let you down,” he lamented.
“Oh, no, Keith,” Pearson replied. “The country let us down.” I felt, then and now, that this fragment of dialogue was a defining moment in capturing the essence of the party’s inbred arrogance. Pearson was really saying that the Liberals had tested the Canadian people, and found them wanting.
HE CAME TO RECOGNIZE THE BALANCING ACT REQUIRED TO BUILD AND MAINTAIN A NATIONAL COALITION
In contrast, Harper’s newly acquired sense of moderation has established him as an outwardly humble politician, willing to learn. His ultimate self-deprecating twist was to reassure voters, terrified of the possibility of a Tory majority, not to worry because a Liberal Senate, a Liberal-appointed judiciary and a Liberal-tinged public service would provide the necessary “checks and balances.” That
was a dumb proposition, since these same Liberal institutions had failed to prevent or clean up the Adscam scandals. But the fact that Harper felt he had to issue such a lamebrain, pre-emptive apology signalled that he had learned a great deal about federal politics, and Canadians’ hesitant hunger for change.
During his time in Ottawa, Harper recognized the precarious balancing act required of a prime minister to address regional priorities as he builds—and maintains—a na-
tional coalition of voting interests needed to govern this large land. Not surprisingly, Harper’s new attitude reflects the sea change of his core constituency. During the ancient past (the mid-1990s), when he was a rabid Preston Manning Reformer, Harper was among the most dedicated of the policy wonks who wanted to rebuild Canada in their own reactionary image, even at the risk of never being given the chance to govern it. Now, Harper feels at home as the flag-carrier of the new brand of western conservatism that’s sweeping Alberta’s Wild Rose Country. Most Albertans no longer follow the regressive impulses of Myron Thompson and his ilk, who could be counted on to say something silly, like declaring their intention to hire gays only for the backrooms of their shops, or to advocate the banning of turbans from Legion halls. Harper is much more in tune with urban Tories like Jim Prentice, who represents modern, sophisticated Calgary.
The Conservative leader—and so many others—came to Alberta as adults from Ontario, Newfoundland and B.C. They’ve never regarded the National Energy Program as original sin, haven’t memorized the rants of Adam Smith, and enjoy a much wider and broader view of life—and of the Conservative party—than their predecessors. It’s no accident that Jim Dinning, a prototypical middle-ofthe-road politician, has emerged as heir presumptive to Ralph Klein.
Watching Stephen Harper going through his penitent paces, trying to convince Canadians that he has become a harmless mugwump (with his mug on one side of the political fence and his wump on the other), it occurred to me what a remarkable achievement it was that he had managed to revive the Conservative party’s fortunes in French Canada. (Preston Manning solved his Quebec problem by not running any candidates in the province in 1988 and 1993.) It took considerable courage for Harper to enter that unfamiliar arena, largely bare of Tory representation since Brian
Mulroney’s sweeps of 1984 and 1988. In the last poll before the vote, Harper had increased Tory popular support to 27 per cent, compared to the Liberals’ 19. In the end, he won 10 seats-a major triumph.
The great quandary raised by Monday’s election result is whether Stephen Harper, who followed John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney, the two other Tory leaders who in the past half-century rode a popular wave into power, will watch his fragile coalition break up on the shoals of regional tensions and policy disputes—as they did. Boris Johnson, editor of the British Spectator, might have had Canadian Tories in mind when he compared Britain’s modern Conservative party to “a Papua New Guinean cult obsessed with ritualistic leader sacrifice.” The cool Mr. Harper could be the exception. His first big test will be renegotiation with the Americans of the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD ) treaty, which has to be completed by May 26.
At another level, the election proved yet again that the NDP, no matter how ably led, seems fated to retain its deterrent function as a conscience-driven movement. It will gain office only if the mainstream parties stop stealing its platforms. The Bloc Québécois is in no way a Canadian political party, and ought not to be recognized as such. They have a long overdue date with oblivion. Since destruction of the sheltering country where they live and prosper is the only reason for their existence, why endow their members with the legitimacy of a parliamentary sanctuary they don’t deserve? Besides, its members have by now earned out their generous parliamentary pensions, so there is no reason for them to stay.
The election campaign was fought at a time when Canadians sensed that history was accelerating. Their world was changing faster than their comprehension of it. They felt dispossessed, rootless and angry. Part of that understandable trauma was their shock that the peaceable kingdom they inhabit might be filled with wonders, but it provided no sanctuary from violence, domestic or imported. Toronto’s record of 52 gun murders last year was the most dramatic example of an urban society grown unrestrained by the obedience to law and order that was once Canada’s first commandment. (The deteriorating situation brought to mind the wry comment by Marion Barry, when he was mayor of the U.S.’s crime-ridden capital. “Outside of the killings,” he boasted, “Washington has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.”)
The tumultuous 2006 election campaign had few highlights, but there was one great mo-
WITH HIS NEW SENSE OF MODERATION, HARPER CAN PRESENT HIMSELF AS SOMEONE WILLING TO LEARN
ment of truth. During the first television debate, a lady from Lac-Simon, Que., called in to ask a simple question: would the participants be willing to swear on a Bible, or whatever was dearest to their hearts, that they would keep their promises. Instead of replying, the quartet of blue-eyed sheiks went off in their own directions: Stephen Harper said that he didn’t understand the question; Paul Martin pointed out that he had balanced the budget; Jack Layton rhymed off his party’s platform; Gilles Duceppe used the opening to talk about softwood lumber. The correct answer was an unadorned “Yes.” Now is the time for the party leaders to make good on that simple but essential pledge. M
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