Harper's Agenda

Stephen HARPER learned the hard way not to revel in front-runner status.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on January 16, 2006

Stephen HARPER learned the hard way not to revel in front-runner status.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on January 16, 2006

Harper's Agenda

Stephen HARPER learned the hard way not to revel in front-runner status. When his Conservatives pulled ahead during the 2004 election, he rashly speculated about winning a majority, his aides discussed the transition team that would ease their way into office, and Tories generally talked big - spooking enough voters to help the Liberals surge back to victory. This time out, as polls last week showed him again edging into the lead, Harper and his advisers were a study in guarded optimism. No speculating about the size of their victory. No chat about managing their move into the Langevin Block, the imposing Second Empire-style office building across from Parliament that's home to the Prime Minister's Office. Instead, Harper spoke like a man too modest to easily absorb the idea of running the country. "My wife and I were talking a bit about this the other night," he told a group of journalists. "We've come a long way as a party, as a movement, in a fairly short period of time. So it's taken a bit of getting used to."

Shucks, folks, it's all kind of humbling. Except that Harper is not the type to be cowed by the prospect of power. He's a calculating, confident strategist who has surely run through the possibilities enough times to be very used to it by now. He leaves little doubt that he has mapped out a plan for taking over and getting rolling. In campaign speeches, he lays out his early priorities, like enacting a government ethics package and reducing the GST, in crisp detail. In an interview, he sketched tactics for pushing those first measures quickly through what might be a short-lived minority government - even arguing the Liberals would feel compelled to offer occasional support. But Harper conceded that fulfilling what's arguably his most ambitious promise - securing a deal with the premiers for guaranteed health wait times - will take more time. He links that policy to his broader aim of overhauling Ottawa's relations with the provinces. And it's this federal-provincial rebalancing act that stands to emerge as the defining thrust of a Harper government.

The Tory leader who polls show voters are warming to is the product of a complex personal evolution. Once known as a brittle right-wing ideologue, Harper has reinvented himself as a brokerage politician. Even some who clashed with him as he rose through the ranks of the Reform and the Canadian Alliance parties, on his way to creating and leading the new Conservatives, now regard him as a skilled coalition-builder. Rick Anderson, a former Preston Manning adviser who feuded with Harper back when they were both key players in Manning's Reform movement, says Harper appears now to see the need to avoid being "trapped in the pocket" of relying too much on a narrow group - his cluster of longtime Calgary loyalists.

If Harper does win, how much he manages to accomplish depends on the political lay of the land after the election. Based on polls from late December and early January, the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Polling last week projected 119 seats for the Conservatives, 104 Liberal MPs, 60 for the Bloc Québécois, and just 25 NDP seats. Those are the same kind of numbers that changed so dramatically last time around, but even so, few realistic scenarios give either the Conservatives or Liberals much chance of winning a majority. That means whatever they might promise is contingent on getting enough support from other parties to win votes in the House. Some observers say that turns NDP Leader Jack LAYTON into an automatic kingmaker - but Harper isn't buying it. "I wouldn't jump to the conclusion that a minority Parliament would mean the NDP would hold the balance of power," he said in a wide-ranging question-and-answer session with Rogers Media last week. "There are all kinds of other possibilities."

Among them is the chance that the NDP will return too few MPs to combine with the governing party to make up a majority in the 308-seat House. That would force Harper to seek the backing of the Bloc or, improbable as it might sound, the Liberals. Harper is surprisingly blunt on the likelihood that Liberals would throw him the necessary support on a case-by-case basis. "The Liberals will be the really big swing vote," he predicted. "The Liberal party is saying things on immigration, on income trusts, on health care, on taxes, that increasingly sound like a Conservative agenda." Harper also speculates that they might have political reasons for temporarily propping up a Tory regime. "I don't think the public would have much time for a Liberal party that was just defeated turning around and finding an excuse to defeat the government," he said. Harper didn't touch on the possibility that Paul MARTIN, if he's beaten, would resign, launching a leadership race the Liberals would need to finish before contemplating bringing down a Tory minority. But other senior Conservatives are speculating - longingly - about precisely that.

On other possible House strategies, Harper suggested finding common ground with the NDP, even though Layton last week took a harsher tone on the dangers of a Conservative win. "There are some things that we can work with the NDP on," Harper said. "Particularly, some of the democratic system reforms, some of the reforms to accountability." He was less forthcoming on working with the Bloc - understandable, given the way he is being painted by Martin as soft on separatism. But Harper did say he would count on Bloc support some of the time. "I won't hesitate to remind you that the Bloc and the NDP worked with us to defeat this government," he said. "I think the public would expect them to then make some effort to make our government successful."

If Harper is right about the potential for shifting House coalitions, he has to know that cobbling together enough MPs to win votes will depend on policies that the other parties can swallow. He lists five priorities. At the top is passing what he calls a "federal accountability act," which would impose tougher rules on lobbyists and tighten up election financing regulations. Harper pledges to ban entirely corporate and union donations, and cut personal contributions to no more than $1,000, down from the $5,100 now allowed. On this front, he expects NDP co-operation, and even refers approvingly to reform ideas proposed by Ed BROADBENT, the retired Ottawa MP, former NDP leader and revered elder statesman. Next comes tax relief, especially cutting the GST, first by a single percentage point, and then by another point later in the mandate.

Shootings in Toronto have turned gun crime into a high-profile election issue, and one on which Liberal and Conservative rhetoric makes the parties seem far apart. Martin's pledge to ban handguns was a bid to force the Tories onto the defensive on law and order. But on some other policies aimed at cracking down on urban violence, the two big parties sound closer. Both are emphasizing, for instance, longer mandatory sentences for firearms offences. Harper would impose mandatory minimum prison sentences of five or 10 years for major firearms crimes, while Liberals would double some of the current mandatory sentences. If Harper was leading a minority, finding enough common ground to win Liberal support on some version of get-tough sentencing isn't inconceivable.

On another campaign-defining wedge issue, child care, it's hard to imagine Harper securing Liberal votes in the House - or, for that matter, Bloc or NDP support. The signature Tory policy would give parents $1,200 a year for each child under 6. All three of the other parties favour funnelling money to the regulated daycare providers, not directly to families. Of Harper's top priorities, this one looks like the hardest sell to get through the House.

Even so, Harper lumps in child care with government ethics, a GST cut, and anti-crime measures as initiatives that he claims "quite frankly, we can do fairly quickly." He seems to have drafted that list with an eye to getting a few things done in a hurry in an unpredictable minority situation. He admits it would take longer to deliver on his fifth priority: negotiating a deal with the provinces for a wait times guarantee, which would include a commitment to help patients travel out of province if health care wasn't available quickly enough at home. Federal-provincial deals of this sort are notoriously tricky to hammer out. Harper further complicates the picture by linking his health care policy to a much more sweeping plan to reorganize FEDERAL-PROVINCIAL RELATIONS. For a would-be prime minister, his goal is a breathtaking one: to somehow leave Ottawa with less money and the provinces with much more.

Harper accepts the "fiscal imbalance" as a real problem. It's the notion, rejected by the Liberals, that since Ottawa balanced its books in the late 1990s, the federal government has been unreasonably flush, while the provinces (except oil-rich Alberta) are unfairly hard-pressed. But Harper goes further than agreeing that provinces need more money to pay for responsibilities like hospitals and schools. He contends that Ottawa would actually benefit by putting itself in a tighter fiscal position, "so the federal government is forced to adopt good management itself." Making this claim, he momentarily sounds like the harder-edged Harper of old, denouncing government as too fat for its own good. He's also trying to undermine the key Martin boast, featured in Liberal TV ads, that Liberals have delivered a string of balanced budgets, starting when he was finance minister. Harper fires back: "Multi-billion-dollar surpluses are not necessarily a sign of good management."

His willingness, even eagerness, to see Ottawa more financially constrained, the provinces less cramped, might turn out to be a unique feature of a Harper minority. More than any potential prime minister of recent memory, he nurtures an outsider's view of the national government. Perhaps the most politically reckless move in his public career came in 2001, when along with five other political and academic right-wingers, he signed an open letter to Ralph KLEIN, urging the premier to "build firewalls around Alberta, to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate jurisdiction." With that on his record, Harper is vulnerable to accusations of being fundamentally anti-Ottawa no matter how carefully he couches his bid to shift the balance in favour of the provinces. On the other hand, premiers eager to make hay while a rare decentralizing prime minister is in power might well rally behind whatever he proposes.

Much of his inner circle shares his Albertan perspective, but other voices are now being heard. University of Calgary political science professor Tom Flanagan is his closest aide, and Calgary business consultant Ken Boessenkool is a trusted policy adviser. Up until the past few months, many assumed long-time Calgary confidants would dominate any Harper PMO. Nobody doubts the likes of Flanagan and Boessenkool would remain powerful influences. But starting with a reorganization of his office last summer, and accelerating as he pulled together a campaign team, Harper has tapped Conservatives not closely associated with him before. Key players now include Hugh Segal, former chief of staff to Brian Mulroney and a member of the old Progressive Conservative establishment that a younger, more strident Harper once dismissed with the put-down that there were "only two kinds of Tories, Red Tories and yellow Tories."

Harper and Segal have been drifting closer for some time. Segal was to have headed the transition team had the Conservatives held on to win the last election. Would he play the same short-term role this time, a reassuring figure in the eyes of senior bureaucrats bound to be unsettled if Harper comes to power? Or might Segal even reprise his role as a PM's chief of staff? "Certainly Harper respects Segal and talks to him," said one Tory strategist. "Do you see him floating around? No. But does he need to be floating around to have influence? No again."

Another possibility is that Harper might stick with his current chief of staff, Ian Brodie. Like Harper, Brodie was born and raised in Toronto but studied at the University of Calgary. Unlike Harper, Brodie is credited with having cultivated extensive relationships with old-school Tories, many left uneasy by the Canadian Alliance-Progressive Conservative merger that Harper orchestrated to create the new party in 2003. "Brodie was the first Harper guy to really understand the whole Conservative party," said one campaign insider.

Well-connected Tories now expect Harper to build a PMO with the same regional and ideological range of his current campaign team. "There's a broader perspective, different people around him," said Rod Love, Calgary-based consultant and former chief of staff to Alberta Premier Ralph Klein. "It had to happen - he couldn't go on with just the true believers." Love compares Harper's outreach effort since losing in 2004 to the way Pierre Trudeau, after being reduced to a minority in 1972, broadened his Liberal machine for the 1974 campaign that won the party back a majority.

A key element in the new Harper equation is the influence of Ontario Tories. Among the important figures is Guy Giorno, who was chief of staff to Mike HARRIS when he was Ontario's premier. Giorno is a Toronto lawyer and expert on influence, co-author of the book Lobbying in Canada. Other Ontario Conservatives who have carved out major backroom roles in Harper's machine include Patrick Muttart, a strategist recruited by Harper last summer, and Doug Finley, the Conservative campaign director.

But the bigger impact of Harris government veterans could come in a Harper cabinet - if a handful of prominent former Harris front-benchers manage to ride a Tory wave to Parliament Hill. John Baird, Jim Flaherty and Tony Clement are all Harris alumni who are considered possible ministers. They bring experience - but also baggage. Senior Liberals say a TV ad they ran in Ontario in the last campaign, linking Harper to Harris, was as winner. Still, provincial veterans could lend a valuable ready-to-rule air to what might otherwise be an uncommonly young Harper cabinet with scant background in government. Among his star MPs, who would be expected to land cabinet jobs, are several in their 30s, including Rona Ambrose, Jason Kenney and James Rajotte.

Leading candidates for top posts - like Peter MacKay, a good bet for deputy prime minister, and Monte Solberg, touted by many as a finance minister - are more seasoned, but have also spent their political careers on the opposition benches. On-the-job learning, a high-risk undertaking in the federal fishbowl, will be unavoidable.

A more serious problem for Harper will arise if he is shut out in Quebec. Much rests on the candidacy of Lawrence Cannon, his Quebec lieutenant, who is far from a sure thing to win a seat in western Quebec. He might have to settle for an appointed role if he fails to get elected. Cannon, 58, was once an aide to Quebec Liberal premier Robert Bourassa, and is considered well connected in provincial Liberal and municipal politics circles. He is hardly enough on his own, though, to build a provincial operation around. Harper might look to Mulroney-era senators from Quebec.

Harper would also seek to establish credibility on Quebec by bonding with Jean Charest. The Quebec premier - a provincial Liberal but a former federal Tory leader - is overshadowed these days by André Boisclair, the flashy new Parti Québécois leader. Even though a Quebec election is likely more than two years off, Martin talks in dire terms of "the great battle in which we are engaged in as a nation." Harper argues he can defuse the threat of Boisclair winning and calling another referendum by strengthening Charest's hand. Charest welcomed Harper's offer to give Quebec its own voice alongside Canada's at UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and to fix the fiscal imbalance - both steps rejected by Martin.

But Harper would go further, linking what he's offering Quebec to a wider package for all provinces. He's asked the Council of the Federation, the club the premiers formed in 2003 to present a more united front in negotiations with Ottawa, for specific proposals to "develop an intergovernmental mechanism to allow the provinces greater formal input into the development of the Canadian position in international negotiations."

It's unusual for any federal leader to advocate a provincial voice in as core a federal jurisdiction as Foreign Affairs. What's even stranger is that Harper does so while, at the same time, promising that Ottawa will back away from provincial jurisdiction. Harper may devote more time on the hustings to talking up his more targeted proposals for ethics, tax relief and cracking down on crime, but his federal-provincial vision has far greater long-term implications.

So what sort of government might Harper lead? Parliament's arithmetic demands one of fluid coalitions forming and dissolving around issues. His platform suggests one with a few priorities soaking up most of his attention. His available talent pool points to one dominated by strangers to federal power. And Harper's personal convictions indicate one whose most likely history-making reforms could be in federal-provincial relations. If he wins, still a very big if, the question is whether what has looked like a sleek campaign can be converted into a fast-moving government. Minorities, after all, don't have the luxury of time.

Maclean's January 16, 2006