COLUMNS

The strong, silent type

An insightful study of Harper’s style based on one appearance

PAUL WELLS March 13 2006
COLUMNS

The strong, silent type

An insightful study of Harper’s style based on one appearance

PAUL WELLS March 13 2006

The strong, silent type

COLUMNS

An insightful study of Harper’s style based on one appearance

PAUL WELLS

When Parliament returns at the beginning of April, Ottawa will be such a circus nobody will be able to keep up. But for the moment, the House of Commons is silent, ministers are locked in their offices behind stacks of briefing books, and if you must know, it’s making reporters antsy. Quiet disturbs us because we earn our bread from noise. This new guy Stephen Harper is not much for small talk.

He won’t remain a hermit forever. But his one big news conference of last week drew a lot of attention because it offered still-rare insights into the Harper style. Hints, no more, about where he will go in the spring, and the rest of the country with him.

The Prime Minister does not like the press theatre where all his recent predecessors since Trudeau met reporters. In the press theatre, he has to sit down. In his preferred venue, the lobby of the House of Commons, he can stand—he’s taller than you might think—and the House of Commons behind him offers a dignified background. You can actually hear the Prime Minister editing himself as he talks. His lines emerge from his mouth carrying a red stamp that reads CLEARED BY CENSORS. “Let me just say the following things...” he said, and “Je peux dire seulement...” and “I can simply tell you...” and “Let me just say.”

But what escapes is not entirely anodyne. When he improvises on his feet—his preferred posture for improvising—the new PM works hard, not to say nothing, but to say something specific. Almost all his answers last week carried some meat on their bones. Here are some highlights.

On Ralph Klein’s plan for chequebook queue-jumping in the Alberta health care system: “I can say we plan to publish a complete response in the future but first I want to study the document with considerable attention.” Which is not quite the same as a fancy refusal to answer. “This government is committed to the Canada Health Act.” In fact, so is Klein’s: “My understanding is that the Alberta government is not just committed to the Canada Health Act but... has enshrined the Canada Health Act in Alberta’s own legislation.” He came back to that last point, calling it “what’s interesting here.”

So it might be Alberta’s own laws that give Harper his stick. To what end? “Luckily, the Quebec government has proposed major reforms, but reforms that respect the Canada

Health Act.” He encouraged “all provinces to follow the Quebec example.” So Quebec’s proposals, which permit private delivery of services but don’t allow payment for quicker service, start to look like the outlier against which other provinces will be judged.

On his financial planning: Don Drummond, a bank economist who used to work in the Finance Department, said Harper will have

His lines emerge from his mouth carrying a red stamp reading CLEARED BY CENSORS

to achieve “heroic” savings to stay out of deficit. True? No, Harper claims—and here, his answer sounded distinctly like soft-pedalling, or wishful thinking. “Outside of priority areas we intend to hold the Government of Canada to a general rise in spending that’s no greater than inflation plus population growth,” he said. “I don’t see it as a major exercise. It will simply be part of an ongoing exercise to ensure that Canadian tax dollars are used wisely.”

Well. “Priority areas” can get awfully big awfully fast. And the more they do, the more it will be a major exercise to put enough limits on non-priority spending to keep the bottom line healthy. Not that it can’t be done, but that it won’t be carefree.

Onward. The firearm registry? “We’re opposed to the long gun registry. It costs a lot with no concrete results.” But. “The minority

situation limits our ability to act. I have no intention of holding a vote we are not sure of winning. So there are limits.”

How did his first meeting with the premiers go? “I was glad I didn’t have my chequebook there because there were a lot more potential bills being talked about than certainly I could possibly afford to pay or that the taxpayers of Canada could afford to pay.” How about a royal commission on Canada’s finances? “My own inclination would be probably not to have another commission but would be to proceed with some proposals, at least federal proposals—and see if we can get any kind of buy-in from the provinces.”

Afghanistan? A warning to wavering Liberals who might forget they were in power when the soldiers packed and left Canada. “You do not send men and women into harm’s way in a dangerous mission with the support of our party and other Canadians and then decide once they’re over there that you’re not sure you should have sent them. That’s not the way this government’s going to behave. We are fully behind this mission.”

Senate elections? “Sooner rather than later. I would expect that no later than the next federal election we will have a senatorial election process in place.” With provincial help? Not necessarily. “That’s something we believe we can do from Ottawa.”

One doesn’t want to take a quarter-hour’s chit-chat as a preview of the next year or two. But since we are temporarily short on other evidence, what the heck. Harper’s little speech tic—let me just say, I’ll just say this—starts to look like a proxy for his entire governing style. The new guy moves forward warily, with a constant eye on constraints. But he absolutely intends to move. M