Everyone knows Harper is a strong leader. But where would he lead us?

ANDREW COYNE September 22 2008


Everyone knows Harper is a strong leader. But where would he lead us?

ANDREW COYNE September 22 2008


Everyone knows Harper is a strong leader. But where would he lead us?


On the Conservative party website, it’s all about

“Harper Leadership 08.” Tory campaign ads show us Sweater Steve, shyly revealing a fondness for veterans, immigrants and his kids. Party message-

trackers hammer home the point at every turn: this election is all about “leadership.” Or as an early campaign slogan has it: “Strong side.”

Everyone agrees Stephen Harper is a strong leader. He dominates his party as few other leaders have; he is more or less a one-man cabinet; he has manoeuvred adroitly through 2Vi years of minority Parliament, often through sheer projection of will; his personal strengths are undoubted. Leadership polls put Harper ahead of his nearest rival by 25 points or more. So overwhelming is his advantage that even other party leaders acknowledge it. An NDP ad suggests that, while “Harper is a strong leader,” so, too, is Jack Layton—surely one of the more bizarre attempts at borrowing an opponent’s clothes in electoral history.

The election, then, shows every sign of shaping up as a referendum on Harper. He is the issue, in a way that no other party leader is: the Tories by all accounts plan to unveil little in the way of a platform. When voters decide whether to vote for or against the Conservative candidate in their riding, they will in many cases be voting for or against Harper. Whereas a vote for or against the Liberals will have less to do with your feelings about Stéphane Dion. Or so the Liberals hope.

There’s nothing unusual about a party, especially a party in power, building its campaign around its leader. The leadership-driven campaign has a long and successful heritage in Canadian politics, from Sir John A. Macdonald (“The old man, the old flag, the old policy”) to Sir Wilfrid Laurier (“follow my white plume!”), Louis St. Laurent (“Uncle Louis”), Diefenbaker and Trudeau.

And there’s some legitimacy to it: we elect leaders, after all, not platforms. Ours is a system that places a great deal of power in the

office of the prime minister, even without the presidential-style aggrandizements of recent decades. The voters are not wrong to place great weight on who the leader is in their choice of parties, and it’s only natural that a party that enjoyed the advantage in leadership would seek to exploit it.

As cults of personality go, Harper’s is unusual. Generally when a party puts its leader in the shop window in this way, it’s because he enjoys an unusual rapport with the public, whether because of his warmth, magnetism, oratory, vision or sheer familiarity. Harper has none of these going for him. Even his admirers would acknowledge he is cold, vindictive, controlling, flinty, and just a little paranoid. He is a dull speaker and reluctant campaigner; the effort of smiling seems to cause him physical pain. Even

his strengths have an edge to them: he is often described as cunning, ruthless, or that dampest of political compliments, “cerebral.”

That’s not the whole picture, of course. Harper’s talents are obvious, and many. He is that rare double, a leader as comfortable with policy as politics: a tactician with a postgraduate degree, a wonk with a switchblade. He is serious, thoughtful, shrewd, and—usually—disciplined. It’s just that these are not conventionally thought of as the sort of qualities you win elections on. When people tell pollsters they think Harper’s a strong leader, they don’t mean he’s good at chess. They mean he kicks ass.

It is for his faults, not his virtues, that he is celebrated: the go-for-the-throat combativeness, the chilly stare, the calculation, the remorselessness. It’s all a little reminiscent of Vladimir Putin. His appeal, that is, is that

of the strongman: we wish to give him power because he so viscerally relishes it. Among the contenders in the ring, he alone displays the appropriate lust for battle. It is pure alphamale dominance. He wins because he wins. Because he is “a leader.”

But is that all there is to it? What do we mean by a strong leader? Strong in what sense? Leader in what sense? The word “leader” suggests someone who will lead us to some-

thing or somewhere. Yet Harper’s whole time in office has been spent reassuring the public he has no plans to lead them anywhere, that under a Conservative government nothing much would change—they would govern much like the Liberals, only without the corruption. His message so far in the campaign has been much the same. There’s been little sense of where he would take the country if re-elected, and little likelihood of one emerging. Indeed, he is at pains to emphasize his belief that the election will probably return another minority Parliament—the very one whose dissolution he had lately demanded.

We say he is bold and decisive, but he has been boldly and decisively all over the map. For all his rhetoric about controlling spending, he has in fact overseen a massive expansion of the federal budget. He talks of respecting provincial rights, but in some ways (the patient wait times guarantee, a national securities regulator, sales tax harmonization) he has been as centralist as any Trudeau Liberal. Where he has succeeded in advancing his


agenda, it has been less by persuasion than surprise: a tactical advantage based largely on a seemingly infinite capacity for abandoning long-held positions—breaking promises, in the vernacular—when expedient. He was against recognizing Quebec as a nation before he was for it, against taxing income trusts until he did, against bans on foreign takeovers that he was the first in our history to impose, against bailing out Big Auto until the week

before the election, and remains opposed to snap elections, if the legislation he passed is any guide, to this day. It is literally impossible to predict what he would do in any given situation. It all depends on the angles.

This marks him apart from Mike Harris or Margaret Thatcher, with whom he might otherwise be compared as leaders who were not necessarily liked but who nevertheless were admired as strong leaders. Harris and Thatcher had sweeping agendas for change which they pursued with singleminded determination, often in the face of massive institutional opposition. Generally it consisted of taking stuff away from peoplemoney, rights, privileges—who, rightly or wrongly, had come to feel entitled to them.

Harper’s achievements, by contrast, have consisted almost exclusively in giving people stuff. The main points of his agenda were chosen largely for being unassailably popular, whether broadly (e.g. a two-point cut in the GST, the tough-on-crime bills) or among carefully targeted interest groups (from those little micro-tax credits to the mega-expensive “fiscal imbalance” fix). The best of them involved little or no political risk (the Accountability Act) and required no investment of political capital. The most “statesmanlike,” such as recognizing the Québécois nation or apologizing for native schools, would more usually be described as pandering.

Where he has been most successful in asserting his will, it has usually been over subordinates (caucus, cabinet, the bureaucracy) or supplicants (the press). He dominates party and Parliament, but only by overturning everything he had ever stood for in opposition, from appointing committee chairs to deciding local riding nominations to decreeing that every vote should be a confidence vote. Where he has run into more powerful forces, on the other hand, he has proved not so strong as all that. The provinces, in particular, have easily rebuffed his advances: the patient wait times guarantee, like the national securities regulator and sales tax harmonization, has made little headway.

I understand the predicament Harper faces. He’s in a minority Parliament, in a country whose instincts remain preponderantly liberal, if not Liberal. Just to have united the right and hauled them into power was achievement enough. His defenders would say he needed time to show he could govern in a responsible and moderate fashion. His former adviser Tom Flanagan likes to say that as long as the direction is right, he won’t get too exercised about the pace. And when you put it like that, he’s right. Harris and Thatcher governed for their time and place; Harper is governing for his. There

is a time for revolution, and a time for incrementalism.

But he hasn’t been cautious in power, he’s been reckless. He hasn’t just failed to advance a conservative agenda, he has more or less eviscerated it. And the collateral damage to the national interest has been considerable. He has spent us to the edge of deficit. His tax credits have littered the tax code with all sorts of new and unwanted distortions, while

the GST cuts have made serious cuts in personal income tax rates impossible for years to come. Of the eventual price of his pandering to Quebec nationalism we can only speculate. He has made the Conservatives into legitimate contenders for power, in short, at the expense of conservatism. In its place he offers... himself.

So his reputation as a strong leader is almost entirely based on his ability to survive the cut-and-thrust in Parliament. His strength is tactical, rather than strategic, an ability to swerve and manoeuvre and keep his opponents off balance. This is not insignificant: Paul Martin, for one, had no such talent. But it’s an oddly pinched definition of leadership that does not seek to lead us anywhere, or nowhere we were not already prepared to go.

Which is perhaps the most interesting point to explore. What does it say about us, that we should be so impressed by such leadership-leadership that is, on the evidence, about nothing so much as preserving itself in power? I think it speaks to a profound hollowness in Canadian politics, particularly at the federal level. We just don’t expect much anymore.

The contrast with the election to the south is telling. The American presidential candidates are engaged in vigorous debates about


health care, education, foreign policy, serious issues that require serious answers—and where the criterion is not who is a “strong leader” in the brutish Canadian sense, but who can “get things done,” i.e. who can work across party lines. That’s in the nature of their system, of course, but it’s also part of their political culture.

Most of these issues are either off limits in Canadian debates (health care, education) or are things over which the federal government has little practical control. What would a “strong leader” do about the economy, for instance? I can think of lots of ways he could make it worse, but few that would make it better, at least in the short term. Afghanistan is a debate worth having, but when it’s all we can do to put 2,000 troops in the field, it’s hardly epochal. Global warming is a massive issue, but Canada’s impact on it is marginal: whether we impose a carbon tax or not will make little difference to the earth.

So in place of a real politics with real issues,

we are reduced by and large to being spectators at a cockfight. And we like the spirit of that bantam in the blue corner.

Perhaps I’m wrong about this last part. It’s intriguing that Harper’s overwhelming polling advantage over the other leaders has not translated into a comparable lead for his party. Even his personal leadership marks are not high across the board. He scores well for strength and determination, less so in the values-and-vision department. And his appeal declines markedly the further east you go.

When people say they think he’s a “strong leader,” in other words, they don’t necessarily mean they’re going to vote for him. When they acknowledge his strength, they may not mean it wholly as a compliment. They may worry what he would use that strength for.

For all his tactical mastery, Harper does not seem to have that other quality of leadership: the ability to inspire trust. Or perhaps people don’t trust him precisely because of all this tacking about. He has tried to engender trust by telling people what they want to hear, yanking his party this way and that in an effort to show that neither he nor they believe any of the things they once did. That’s one way to build trust. The other way is to be trustworthy: to behave in a reliable, predictable fashion, to act in a way that is consistent with your beliefs, to be authentically who you are.

The opposition would like to exploit that uncertainty in its usual way—by playing upon fears of a “hidden agenda,” yet again. But isn’t the darker possibility that there is no hidden agenda; that what you see is what you get; that power, for Harper, has become an end in itself? M