On the surface, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and NDP MP Bill Blaikie don’t have much in common. Blaikie, 55, is an NDP veteran who for 27 years has represented Elmwood-Transcona, a Winnipeg riding near where he once worked as an outreach minister with the United Church. Across the floor, and on the other end of the political spectrum, sits Harper. At 47, a youngish Conservative prime minister with a background in economics who once headed the right-wing think tank, the National Citizens Coalition. But both men share a reputation as intellectuals in a profession where many have built careers on theatrics and charisma alone. Their success comes in large part from their keen understanding of the issues of the day. And along with Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, they finished in a three-way tie for most knowledgeable parliamentarians.
Harper is often described, by critics and followers alike, as a policy wonk. To some, he comes across as rigid in his thinking; to others he is rational and uncompromising. “My strengths are not spin or passion,” he said during the last federal election. Harper reads history and economics (and is writing a book on the history of hockey), and his intellectual rigour translates into his political life. According to biographer William Johnson, he once told a friend, “I think about strategy 24 hours a day.”
Blaikie shows a similar dedication, spending long hours reading just about everything that comes across his desk. As the longest-serving MP and dean of the House, he’s seen many issues come and go and resurface all over again. “I think from time to time I’m a resource,” he says, “an institutional memory.” Much has changed since Blaikie was first elected in 1979, and not all for the better, he says. In part, because of the emphasis on Question Period, “there isn’t a political premium put on a day-to-day basis on knowledge.” But Blaikie, Harper and Goodale’s success shows there’s still a place, and a need, for big brains on the Hill.
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