NATIONAL

CONQUER THEN CONTROL

Surging in the polls, Stephen Harper is still spoiling for a fight—provided he makes the rules. The sometimes prickly PM can't seem to relax

JOHN GEDDES June 5 2006
NATIONAL

CONQUER THEN CONTROL

Surging in the polls, Stephen Harper is still spoiling for a fight—provided he makes the rules. The sometimes prickly PM can't seem to relax

JOHN GEDDES June 5 2006

CONQUER THEN CONTROL

NATIONAL

Surging in the polls, Stephen Harper is still spoiling for a fight—provided he makes the rules. The sometimes prickly PM can't seem to relax

JOHN GEDDES

Power is not mellowing Stephen Harper. Rarely has a new prime minister enjoyed such a string of early success, garnering positive reviews for everything from a high-profile visit to troops in Afghanistan, to the softwood lumber deal with the U.S., to a tax-cutting budget. Across the aisle in the House, the leaderless Liberals put up mosdy token resistance. Even when he loses, Harper seems to win, as he did when a chorus of pundits attacked the opposition parties for the way they rejected oil-patch icon Gwyn Morgan, Harper’s choice to head a new federal appointments board. No wonder the Conservatives are soaring in the polls. Yet as Harper’s command of the national political scene appears to grow more secure, he looks increasingly combative—lashing out at the media, firing back at premiers who hint at trying to force his hand, and generally sounding like a politician congenitally unwilling to let his guard down.

It doesn’t quite add up, if you believe the usual account of Harper’s methodical plan for vaulting from minority to majority. Conventional wisdom holds that his scheme is fairly simple: accomplish all or most of the now-familiar five priorities set out in the last election, then cruise into the next one, likely in the spring of 2007, running as a reliable promise keeper. There’s no doubt that checking off the items on the list—cut the GST a point, pay parents $1,200 a year per child under six, pass anti-crime and federal ethics laws, and somehow provide a health care wait times guarantee—remains key. If that was all there was to it, Harper could surely afford to relax a bit. But in interviews, senior Tories suggest his strategy is far more complex, forward-looking, and politically demanding-enough to keep him on edge.

His government is poised between fulfilling that short list of promises from the last election and devising new messages to carry it into the next. It’s an uneasy moment of transition. Legislation to fulfill four of the five pledges must still be passed over the final three or four weeks that Parliament is expected to sit before its summer break. Any not enacted will remain nagging worriesunfinished business when the unpredictable minority House reconvenes next fall. And if the first four look manageable, the fifth and most ambitious promise—a deal with the provinces to guarantee health wait times—remains a potential minefield. Provinces will almost certainly want more money, but Health Minister Tony Clement starts from the premise that then-prime minister Paul Martin put enough new federal money on the table in his $41billion 2004 health deal with the premiers.

Some Conservative strategists warn against letting attention drift away from the core commitments prematurely. Others, though, are casting ahead. Insiders aren’t sure if that

means another short list of precise aims will be drafted, or if Harper might try redefining his government around broader aims. One possibility, being explored by Industry Minister Maxime Bernier, is an economic policy push around big themes like productivity and innovation. Another is updating Canadian democracy, after Harper announced that this week he will table a law that would set fixed election dates every four years, along with Senate reform measures.

Whatever the tack, deciding how much to reveal as a government, and how much to hold in reserve for the next election, will be tricky. Harper kept most of his platform under wraps in the months before the last election to use as fresh ammo during the campaign. But he was in opposition then—now he needs to govern. “They don’t want to give the opposition much to steal,” says Ipsos Reid pollster Darrell Bricker. “The worst thing is when the opposition gets to just say, ‘Us, too.’ ”

While sorting out his government’s next

phase, Harper must make sure his adversaries don’t grab the chance to set the agenda. That means keeping the opposition parties off balance, especially on issues like Afghanistan and Kyoto, where polls suggest public opinion could swing against the Tories. On Afghanistan, Harper forced a vote in the House on May 17 to extend Canada’s Afghan mission to February 2009, exposing a deep rift in the Liberal caucus. The motion passed by a narrow 149 to 145 margin, with 24 Liberals siding with the Conservatives. The split makes it hard for those Liberals who argue the mission has evolved into too much Taliban hunting and too little peacekeeping to keep up pressure on Harper.

On global warming, Harper has incrementally backed away from the Kyoto agreement, denying his opponents a day of decisive news—Tories ditch climate change deal— that might have galvanized environmental groups and piqued public concern about Canada’s international image. Rather than

risking that head-on clash, he’s promising a still-vague “made-in-Canada” replacement for the Liberal Kyoto plan.

When his Tories lack a crisply defined message, they strive to stay under the radar. On immigration, rather than proposing potentially controversial new goals for the number or type of new Canadians, Immigration Minister Monte Solberg’s innocuous first move was to streamline rules for overseas adoptions. On Aboriginal affairs, since walking away from the $5-billion-plus First Nations accord Paul Martin struck last fall in Kelowna, B.C., Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice has avoided sweeping pronouncements. Instead, he’s targeted money for Aboriginal housing and reserve water systems. Prentice says the Liberal way left too many details to be hammered out after the big splash. “That’s not how we do business,” he told Maclean’s. “We need to understand what we’re investing in. We need to then measure progress.”

Invest only when you know exactly what you expect to get for it—that’s Harper’s way of doing business. It’s an approach that doesn’t leave much room for spending on anyone else’s priorities. Last week, Harper pushed back against premiers who have been promoting their view of the so-called

fiscal imbalance. Harper accepts in theory the notion that Ottawa is too rich compared to harder-pressed provinces. Part of the solution might involve revamping the equalization system, to funnel more money from rich provinces to poorer ones, a prospect that worries wealthier Ontario and Alberta. But Harper claimed unfettered authority on the issue. “Equalization is not an Alberta program or an Ontario program,” he said. “Equalization is a strictly federal program.” In any case, he added, it’s “increasingly obvious” the premiers will remain divided on the issue, leaving any decision up to him— just the way he likes it.

If Harper seems somewhat dismissive of the premiers, he’s downright disdainful of the national news media. Many in the Ottawa press corps are objecting to his demand that reporters put their names on a list controlled by his aides before asking him questions. Labelling the leadership of the Parliament Hill press gallery “anti-Conservative,” he griped that a Liberal prime minister would never face the same sort of flak. Yet Harper has enjoyed broadly positive coverage, in sharp contrast to the media siege Paul Martin weathered for much of his short run as PM. Harper’s us-against-them posturing could be read less as a rebuke to journalists than as a reminder to Tories that he won’t tolerate any relaxing of his government’s extraordinary discipline when it comes to media messaging.

So far, it’s working. The latest Ipsos Reid polls puts Tory support at 43 per cent, far above the Liberals’ 25 per cent. Opposition

politicians can only hope Harper’s toughguy image begins to wear thin. “There is a deep-seated petulance in the demeanour of the government,” said Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale. “Sooner or later, the public is going to say, ‘Wait a minute here.’ ”

His fans, of course, don’t see Harper’s style as a point of vulnerability. “For the Prime Minister right now, it’s not image stuff that counts, it’s the ability to deliver,” says Toronto political consultant Leslie Noble, who was campaign manager in Mike Harris’s winning election runs in Ontario in 1995 and 1999. Bricker agrees that Harper is “wearing well with Canadians” mostly because he’s delivering what he said he would. To maintain momentum based on making good on promises, though, he’ll need a fresh batch of top priorities, probably by next fall. The outline of that new agenda has barely begun to come into focus. But the edges on the image of the Prime Minister who’s determined to shape it are sharper than ever. M