Harper's Campaign Stumbles at the Outset

There are no rules about this, but it is not uncommon for a political leader to kick off a national campaign by going home. These men will be rootless and rushed for weeks; it's only natural to prepare for their ordeal with a visit to the place where they feel most comfortable.
There are no rules about this, but it is not uncommon for a political leader to kick off a national campaign by going home. These men will be rootless and rushed for weeks; it's only natural to prepare for their ordeal with a visit to the place where they feel most comfortable.

Harper's Campaign Stumbles at the Outset

There are no rules about this, but it is not uncommon for a political leader to kick off a national campaign by going home. These men will be rootless and rushed for weeks; it's only natural to prepare for their ordeal with a visit to the place where they feel most comfortable. So before sundown on the first day of the 2005-2006 campaign, Paul MARTIN had hurried to Montreal. Jack LAYTON had flown to Toronto. And Stephen HARPER had made a beeline to Controversy.

I decided to follow the Conservative leader for the campaign's first week because my hunch is that when it's over, this election will turn out to have been about him. Paul Martin hasn't failed yet, precisely, but he stirs no particular loyalty or excitement in the electorate. The voters who will decide this thing are looking right past a man who seemed so mesmerizing only two years ago. Which means they're looking at Harper now. If it seems that he might do as prime minister he'll get the job. If not, not.

For much of the week Harper clearly understood this. He worked hard to seem calmly prepared for the rigours of office. But first he had to take care of some unfinished business. Or remind everyone of it. Or something. It was all a bit baffling.

The Conservative leader's unerring homing instinct for trouble kicked in on Tuesday morning, less than an hour after Paul Martin had emerged from Rideau Hall and announced that the combined efforts of a united opposition had put the country on track to a Jan. 23 election. The Liberal leader took a few questions, and then the networks switched their coverage to the House of Commons lobby for Harper's own election launch.

It was all very brisk and tidy. Time for a change, Harper said. An end to corruption. A brighter future. Check. Check. Check. It wasn't until the questions that Harper went looking for trouble. The topic, of course, was same-sex marriage. Harper could easily have dodged it. One reporter asked about it, another almost simultaneously asked about a less thorny topic. Harper took the second question. That could have been that. But after the news conference seemed to be over, Harper made a point of coming back to the same-sex question that had been left hanging.

"We were committed at the time of the [party policy] convention and through the last debate to put a free vote to the next Parliament on this issue," he said. "Cabinet can vote as they want. We will simply ask the House, through a motion, whether they want the government to table legislation on the marriage issue, to change the definition of marriage. If that motion is defeated we won't proceed. If it is passed, we will proceed." Gay couples who have been married in Canada wouldn't be un-married, he added.

Now, I'm not going to dwell over the substance of these remarks. We will all have the rest of a long campaign for that. And indeed that seemed to be Harper's aim: deliver the divisive news right away, to get as much distance as possible between his comments and voting day.

Harper had to know his gay-marriage comments would eclipse anything else he had to say that day. Still, he pressed on to his first campaign rally in the west-end Ottawa headquarters of John Baird, a granite-jawed young former Ontario Tory cabinet minister who's running for the Harper Conservatives.

It was a classic rally, and for the rest of the week we would attend one like it every afternoon. Three hundred people crammed cheerfully into a room built for 200. Banners and cheering. Genuinely atrocious beat-heavy electronic music piped through big distorting loudspeakers. And the leader's stump speech - in Harper's case, because of the element of surprise it contains, an unusually interesting stump speech. At its heart, his campaign message is about changing the channel.

Harper's endless pre-campaign harangue against Liberal corruption was now reduced to a paragraph or two. But what really riled him about the Grits, he said, was that "when they stole your money, they not only broke your trust - they failed to deliver on your priorities." Oh-ho. A segue. "Now this election will not only be about Gomery," he said. "Judge Gomery looked at the past. We are looking toward the future now."

In succinct sentences Harper sketched out a plan for government, or at least a plan for the plan. A Tory government would "clean up corruption," but it would also "reduce your taxes for real"; "make your streets and communities safe"; "give parents choice in child care and provide patients with the health care they need when they need it"; "strengthen our federation and our democracy"; and "stand up for Canadian interests at home and around the world." After some of us had urged him to do it for months, Harper was talking about the Conservative government he wants, not just the Liberal government we have had. "A hopeful future," he said. "A bright future."

Or not. Wednesday morning, the Jacques Cartier room of the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac in Quebec City. The local reporters arrived in a foul mood. "I called six people yesterday trying to confirm that this event was even happening," one told me. "I finally got confirmation - after 7 p.m. If these people wanted an election, why aren't they ready?" The scribes on the press bus had been wondering, too. It was far easier to get information about where Layton and Martin were going than about where Harper was going. Even though we weren't travelling with Layton or Martin. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Harper was in Quebec City, we finally learned, because the Conservatives actually hope to get some MPs elected in the area. One candidate, Josée Verner, managed to win 30 per cent of the vote in her riding last time. So Harper took to the podium while eight local candidates stood attentively in two rows of four behind him.

Oddly, the theme was corruption again. But at least Harper was announcing something new: an independent "office of the director of public prosecutions." A full-time prosecutor appointed "with input from all parties in Parliament," to make "final, binding decisions about federal prosecutions." Why? Because of Adscam, of course. "The independent director of public prosecutions, not a politician, will decide on prosecutions arising from the sponsorship scandal."

Hold that thought. We'll get back to it. Of more immediate interest was why none of the local candidates was speaking. Or, for that matter, moving. "Who are the potted plants?" one of my colleagues asked, sotto voce.

Finally Harper's event ended and the little knot of taciturn Toryism dispersed. Reporters leapt up to ask further questions. A distinguished grey-haired man who had been in the audience attracted a sizable scrum.

"Who's this?" I asked a colleague who was holding a microphone under the fellow's nose.

"I don't know."

He turned out to be Gilles Bernier, the former Tory MP for Quebec's Beauce region. His son Maxime, running in the same riding, was one of the potted plants. Reporters asked: did Bernier père mind coming to watch the leader stand in front of his mute son? Bernier made non-committal noises. A Harper staffer leapt forward for some damage control. "I want to emphasize that Mr. Harper's meeting all those candidates in private right now. Mr. Martin may mention his candidates' names, but Mr. Harper meets with them in private."

Later Harper posed with the candidates for a photo opportunity. Somebody asked him to name them for us. "My staff will get you that information," Harper said. And indeed they did. Four hours later.

In Halifax, we were met by Peter MACKAY, one of the two big draws, along with Nova Scotia Premier John HAMM, for a rally at the Westin. MacKay, Harper's deputy leader, used to be a criminal prosecutor. So we asked him about Harper's plan for a director of public prosecutions. Fabulous idea, MacKay said, and indeed Nova Scotia's Public Prosecutions Service was one of its models.

Great. So a federal public prosecutor could crack down on Adscam crooks? MacKay blinked. "There's no way that this office, being set up after the fact, is going to have anything to do with the sponsorship program." Hmm. Maybe future prosecutions, if not current ones? No. MacKay insisted. "It doesn't involve provincial jurisdictions because this office wouldn't deal with Criminal Code offences." The Criminal Code is administered by provinces. A federal prosecutor would have no jurisdiction over such cases. Canadian federalism being what it is, his ambit would actually be quite limited. Although, as Greg Weston would cheerfully point out in the next day's Sun, if an illegal immigrant happened to contravene any grain transport regulations, the federal prosecutor would be on the case.

So Harper's first full day of campaigning had entailed two events. At the first, he had shown that he didn't know his candidates. At the second, his party's most senior prosecutor had corrected him on the topic of prosecutors. A banner day.

And more to come. In the bus to Halifax airport, the TV reporters learned that Harper had snuck off to give an interview to ATV without telling us. And that in the interview he had apologized for the comments he once made about a "culture of defeatism" in the Atlantic provinces. If you really want to make a bus full of reporters angry, tell them their news organizations are paying the Conservative Party of Canada $2,000 a day so they can cool their heels while the candidate sneaks off to give away news for free to someone else. Show us the tape, we told the Harper staff. Give us a transcript. They protested that they couldn't.

It was time for desperate measures. So I asked the Liberals. "Your assignment," I typed into my BlackBerry as we strolled onto the airport tarmac. "Get us a transcript of Harper's interview with ATV before the Harper campaign can." Twenty-three minutes later, as the Harper jet warmed up to fly to Toronto, my Berry buzzed. Two Liberals had sent transcripts of the Harper interview.

That night at the Pearson airport strip outside Toronto, we stayed at a hotel where some of the rooms were so smelly that several reporters decamped for more survivable accommodations down the street. In fevered conversation with our bosses, a half-dozen of us proclaimed that the Harper campaign was already a disaster. But our autopsies may have been premature.

The next morning at 2001 Audio Video in Mississauga, Harper wandered in, slapped a blue "GST/TPS 5%" sign over the green "GST/TPS 7%" sign on the cash register, and announced the Conservatives' big-ticket economic plank: a two-stage reduction of the hated tax. There have been rumours for five years that somebody would try to beat the Liberals with such a ploy. For five years, economists have been saying it's bad tax policy because it encourages consumption instead of investment. I asked Harper about that and he argued, in effect, that this wasn't a bug, it was a feature.

"If your purpose is to have a broadly based, progressive reduction that will stimulate consumption, I challenge any economist to say there's any better way to do it than this." As he spoke, I noticed that from where I stood Harper's face was perfectly framed in the clear plastic screen of the TelePrompTer he now takes everywhere. The Conservative leader appeared to be speaking to me from inside a fish tank. So I asked whether I looked as weird to him as he did to me.

"Let me just say - take it as you will - you look no different than usual," he said.

"Now, I'm not going to claim that the way to get your political mojo back is to turn me into your straight man. But from that moment forward the Harper campaign seemed to have found a shambling but serviceable groove. The GST announcement got good reviews. On Friday, Harper announced a health care policy inspired strongly by the Kirby Senate report on health care - that would force provinces to transport patients to another jurisdiction if they couldn't deliver timely care - and broadly similar to the Liberals' own health policy. Ujjal Dosanjh, offered up by the Grits, had no killer rebuttal. After running the 2004 campaign on the theme of "this man will destroy medicare," it seemed a bit pallid now to resort to "Hey, he stole our plan."

By the end of the first week, Harper had driven the news every day. He had made his way from Halifax to Vancouver - hopping over Alberta - in an unheralded near-repeat of the St. John's-to-Vancouver marathon that Paul Martin used to cap the 2004 campaign. Martin, meanwhile, had schlepped around Quebec and Ontario, waiting for Harper to speak and then saying it was bad. That's probably the Liberal plan: play rope-a-dope while the challenger boxes to the end of his stamina. But for good and ill, Harper made some early yards in the crucial task of defining himself.

And yet he remains a hard guy to put your finger on. At the Halifax rally, Harper delivered an extended critique, in genuinely anguished tones, of Paul Martin's newfound passion for warning André Boisclair, the new Parti Québécois leader, against a unilateral act of secession. "I think one of the most negative things yet in this campaign is the incessant talk from Mr. Martin and the Liberals, the incessant talk about a referendum in Quebec. A referendum that no one has called. A referendum that nobody wants. We don't even have a PQ government in Quebec City. We have, in Quebec City, Premier Jean Charest."

Got it: no talking about secession while good federalists are in office in Quebec. Except that's not what Harper used to believe. In 1994, Daniel Johnson was still the federalist premier of Quebec. Jacques Parizeau wasn't elected until September of that year. But already in June, Harper, who was the Reform party's national unity critic, had no patience for the idea that straight talk might put Quebec federalists' nose out of joint. "Unfortunately we have to face the reality we have here," he said. "We have a party in the House which, day after day, is talking about the most dramatic and wide-ranging constitutional change possible" - Quebec secession.

Later, weeks after Parizeau's election, Harper said the government should "make clear to the people of Quebec that when they are being told that separation can be achieved unilaterally that this is legally untrue." He made himself a lot of fans for taking those stands when they weren't popular. Now Harper seeks political advantage in arguing the opposite. Paul Martin's isn't the only record the Conservative leader finds himself running against.

Maclean's December 12, 2005