OPINION

Stephen Harper: the man who would be King

PAUL WELLS May 19 2008
OPINION

Stephen Harper: the man who would be King

PAUL WELLS May 19 2008

Stephen Harper: the man who would be King

OPINION

PAUL WELLS

If life gives you lemons, tell yourself that life wanted to give you watermelons but that you were too clever and you tricked life into giving you lemons. This is how Liberals are responding as Stephen Harper’s term as

prime minister grows longer. “He sure looks like he wants an election,” one Liberal strategist—there are many—told me. “So we’re not gonna give it to him!”

Of course this is precisely backwards. Harper will enjoy an election when it comes but he doesn’t want one. He wants to be prime minister for a long time. He tells anyone who will listen that he wants to be prime minister for a long time. His friend, Tom Flanagan, wrote a whole book about how Harper wants to be prime minister for a long time. Just about the only thing I know about Harper for sure is that he wants to be prime minister for a long time.

Pride is part of it. Every day Harper has the job is another day longer than anyone expected him to have it. Human nature is part of it too. Why put the best job you will ever have at risk? Liberals should get this. For most of 2005 they were desperate to avoid an election, panicking each time their grip on power was threatened. When Belinda Stronach crossed the floor and gave them a few more months’ grace they danced on loudspeaker stacks and decorated her as a hero of the people. Having the big job is so much better than not having it. Who was the prime minister of Canada yesterday? Do you suppose Stephen Harper is pleased with the answer? You bet he is.

But to truly understand Harper’s ambition, you need to take the long view, a lonely vantage point in Ottawa. He is compared all the time to Bush or Mulroney because they are both close at hand. But neither rises to the level of what he is trying to accomplish. George W. Bush operates in what was already a func-

tioning two-party state where the Republicans win about half the time and have a strong voice in their national debate. Brian Mulroney broke into the house Canadian Liberalism had built through 21 years (less Joe Clark’s inconsequential nine months) of Liberal hegemony, and the way he governed virtually ensured the Liberals would get another 13 years to run things after he finished.

Harper is aiming far higher. He wants to be William Lyon Mackenzie King. Or to undo what King wrought.

King was older when he became prime min-

King effected change not by revolution, or even really evolution. More like erosion.

ister than Harper is today, but he held the job for a total of 21 years in three separate terms. When he was done, he handed the keys to Louis St. Laurent, who gave them to Lester Pearson, who gave them to Pierre Trudeau. Few of them had to spend much time outside power looking in. None except the last made any sudden moves. Together they gave Canada what was essentially a Liberal century.

King’s style is taught in political science classes, never approvingly, as “muddling through.” But if you muddle for 21 years you can get through a lot. King introduced oldage pensions and created the CBC, TransCanada Airlines and the National Film Board. He went far toward transforming the massively industrial wartime state into a massively social postwar state. The Canada he left behind would have been unrecognizable to anyone

in 1921, when he set to work. And yet when he finished, Canadians were willing to let his successors continue along his path.

Look, I’m not trying to make King a saint here. He was eccentric and uninspiring at best, creepy and soul-destroying at worst. But he effected massive change in the only sure way it has ever been done in Canada: through sheer endurance. Not revolution, nor even really evolution. More like erosion. Harper wants to make change on a similar scale and with similar patience. He will creep, not run, as far down the field as he can, then do what it takes to win again. And then, whether with a majority or minority, he will so govern as not to put Canadian conservatism’s long-term viability at risk. Often he will not even look like a conservative. We have Andrew Coyne on hand to tell you all about it when that happens. In the meantime, what matters to Harper is that he does not look like a Liberal.

Two examples. One is obvious. A Liberal government might have extended the Canadian Forces’ mission in Kandahar once, but they would not have extended it twice. Harper did. And if some Liberals manage to convince themselves he’s the one who compromised, whatever. It is the result that counts.

The other example is the

safe-injection site for Vancouver heroin addicts. Harper let its licence be extended, but since then his government has pressured, selected, distorted and denied the science that says the site is good for addicts’ health. Harper simply doesn’t like it. He may yet be backed into letting the Vancouver site survive. But in the meantime Ken Dryden and Ujjal Dosanjh have not opened injection sites in every province. Multiply that difference by the thousand decisions a prime minister makes in a month. Now multiply that by dozens, hundreds of months and you have the scale of his ambition. By denying him an election he doesn’t want, the Liberals have made themselves his most stalwart allies. M

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