How the control freak lost control | The Canadian Encyclopedia


How the control freak lost control

As a five-alarm gong show threatens to swallow Stephen Harper’s Conservatives whole, party faithful wonder if he’ll ever regain his grip

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on July 8, 2013

Just for a change of pace, let’s start with the good news for Stephen Harper’s government as his Conservative party prepares to gather in Calgary June 27-29 for its biennial policy convention.

May was the best month for job creation Canada has seen since 2002, with 95,000 net new jobs, all in the private sector. Unemployment fell to 7.1 per cent. The economy grew by 2.5 per cent in the first quarter. That’s almost triple the growth rate for the last quarter of 2012. It’s the best quarterly growth in a year and a half. And it is well ahead of federal budget projections. If this kind of growth continues, Harper should have little trouble eliminating the deficit before a scheduled 2015 election. He could then bring in a new round of targeted tax cuts designed to buttress his argument that smaller government is better government.

Harper will surely mention this good economic news in his keynote speech to Conservatives on June 27. It will be one of the most important speeches of his career, a curtain-raiser for the second half of his majority mandate, a rallying call to the troops delivered at ground zero of the old Reform party movement. On May 3, six weeks ago, a source in Harper’s office told me Harper had already been working on the speech for some time.

But of course the speech and the convention matter much more now to Harper than he knew when he started writing. Since mid-May, Harper has lost two senators, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, to an expense-account scandal, and an MP, Brent Rathgeber, to internal party discord. His longest-serving chief of staff, Nigel Wright, resigned in disgrace for allegedly writing a personal cheque to cover Duffy’s outstanding expense bill. The RCMP has launched a criminal investigation into Wright’s cheque.

So how’s the mood in the party? “It’s s--tty,” one long-time Conservative political staffer, now recycled in the private sector, said the other day. “I’m a Conservative, and I don’t know what the government stands for.”

The mood this Conservative described—on condition of anonymity, like other party members who spoke for this story—was a long way from despair. “The grassroots of the party is overwhelmingly behind the PM. I don’t think that will ever wear off.” But the five-alarm gong show around Wright, Duffy, Wallin and the rest has made a lot of Conservatives angry and nervous. “If your whole message is that you’re competent people,” this former staffer said, “it is harmful to seem incompetent.”

For several days after Harper accepted Wright’s resignation on May 19, the government could offer no coherent explanation for what had happened. Right up to the end of May the government seemed unsure how to handle the mess.

The chaos led at least one old PMO hand to offer his assistance. Several Conservative sources say that at the beginning of June, Dimitri Soudas, a former PMO communications director who now works for the Canadian Olympic Committee, telephoned the PMO to offer communications advice. Whatever Soudas told his former colleagues would have been mixed in with all the other signals a government receives from its members and supporters, but by last week the Conservatives were offering a more unapologetic defence of Harper’s behaviour, coupled with sharp digs at the opposition parties. The implied message was: If we’re going to be in trouble, we won’t be the only party in trouble.

The news of the day fades from memory. Between the 2008 and 2011 elections Harper endured a steady stream of allegations and missteps, including the controversy over proroguing Parliament, the allegations about abuse of Afghan prisoners, and former minister Bev Oda’s clumsy doctoring (“NOT”) of a memo from her department. Very little of it mattered on election day in 2011, and the Conservatives won a majority of seats in the Commons for the first time.

But Conservatives know the Harper government isn’t eternal, and they have begun to wonder what it will feel like when Harper loses his grip on power for good. They hope the feeling they’ve had this spring isn’t it. “You’re associated with a certain quality, like good government, for a long time and it holds up under wear and tear,” the former Conservative staffer said. “And then one day it tips over. And once it tips, you’ve just lost it and you can’t get it back. You’ve just lost that characteristic.”

Those earlier uproars from 2008-11 often shared common features: they were of interest mostly only to people who work in Ottawa, and they tended to anger people who had never voted Conservative anyway. Conservatives were pretty sure a sitting prime minister should be allowed to ring up the governor general and shut down Parliament now and then, as indeed Jean Chrétien did on more than one occasion. It was no skin off their nose if Harper exercised the same prerogative.

But this business with Wright, Duffy, and a Prime Minister who seemed oblivious and has since seemed deeply rattled is different, another former Hill staffer said. This one described getting an earful about the Senate and about Harper’s associates during a trip through rural British Columbia. The people complaining “were our demographic, in our geography,” this source said. “More than anything else it’s our people who are upset. It kind of comes across as a feeling of betrayal.”

Rural B.C. probably isn’t going to stop voting Conservative this month. But it’s an energized, motivated voter base that has always been the source for the party’s funding. The Conservatives routinely raise far more money, most of it from small individual donations, than the other parties. The latest returns from Elections Canada aren’t recent enough to capture any Wright-Duffy effect, but many Conservatives are worried the demoralizing events of spring will have an effect on party members’ willingness to send the next cheque. All the more so because some Conservatives worry that the Senate scandal is part of a larger malaise facing the Harper government. Seven and a half years into the Harper era, some in the party worry that he’s lost the tune.

“It’s been largely—with some clear conservative trappings, mostly having to do with crime and law enforcement—a caretaker government,” the former staffer who got an earful in rural B.C. said. “His legacy, so far, is on the party side. Not on governance.” Translation: The simple fact of keeping the Conservatives in power—for close to a decade by 2015—is a feat. But it’s less clear what Conservatives would have to show for it all if Harper were to retire next Tuesday.

“I don’t know what word you’d use, but there’s something settling in,” one MP said in an interview in his office this week. “We’re getting a lot done, but that’s not the perception. And it’s primarily the fault of people within our own tent, in our own party.”

This MP is skeptical of the notion that Harper needs to cast about for some fancy legacy accomplishment. “The two greatest prime ministers are generally regarded as Laurier and Macdonald. What would you say are Laurier’s three greatest achievements?” His visitor paused, although I would have gotten around to mentioning the entry of Saskatchewan and Alberta into Confederation. But the MP’s point is that longevity is its own reward, if you can do it.

But even this MP is not happy with recent events. “We have to think about our tone, going forward,” he said, referring to the constant counter-accusations Conservatives are flinging at Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau for accepting speaking fees from charity clients, and at NDP Leader Tom Mulcair for a minor run-in with Parliament Hill security as he drove to work the other day. “Our voters don’t like the explanation, ‘Well, we’re not as bad as the Liberals.’ They want to be proud of the government.”

What should Harper do? Like many Conservatives, this MP puts a lot of stock in the speech the PM has already been preparing for more than a month. “There was speculation that it would be his farewell speech,” the MP says.

You hear that around Ottawa this spring, but no Conservative I have spoken to gives the notion any particular credence. “The Stephen Harper I know is a very competitive guy,” a former senior PMO adviser said. “With 30 new seats in Ontario and Western Canada for the next election [due to a redistribution of the electoral map to match population growth], and Justin Trudeau as one of his opponents—I would see zero space for the Stephen Harper that I know backing off at all.”

The MP I interviewed said he’s now expecting “a major policy speech that resets things for the next two years.” A substantial cabinet shuffle would accompany the speech, either just before the convention begins or soon after it concludes. The new cabinet will, rumour has it, have a lot of new members drawn from MPs who have been elected since 2008. Michelle Rempel, Chris Alexander and Kellie Leitch are among the young MPs most frequently mentioned for a promotion.

But fresh faces in cabinet are not particularly useful if the message they convey hasn’t changed. Another MP put Harper’s convention challenge this way: “The Prime Minister needs to show that he has a clear agenda and the fire in the belly to deliver it. That’s what our party members want to see and hear. The caucus feels we have achieved a great deal to be proud of, and we haven’t communicated our successes well. But looking forward, we need a new agenda, new energy and a new focus.”

This MP identified some encouraging news for the party. “There’s a growing sense that while Justin Trudeau is a celebrity leader, he is flopping in the House and is weak on substance. And the Prime Minister has the absolute support of caucus. That’s one issue that has never been in doubt. Even Brent Rathgeber has said he still supports Stephen Harper continuing as Canada’s Prime Minister—and he has been the most outspoken critic of our government.”

But like others, this MP said Harper must unveil “a clear conservative agenda around which to rally.” Again and again, Conservatives this spring are delivering a version of that message to Harper. They want Harper to “pick fights over things that we can win on,” in the words of one.

That’s actually not far from the message Harper delivered a decade ago at a meeting of the conservative social group Civitas. At the time Harper was the leader of a struggling Canadian Alliance, waiting for the Progressive Conservatives to pick a successor to poor Joe Clark. Conservatives still refer to Harper’s Civitas speech today. It’s the one where he said social conservative stances on crime and family policy could more strongly distinguish his party, to greater electoral advantage, than economic preoccupations like lower taxes.

But Harper also devoted much of his speech to a warning that today’s Stephen Harper probably needs to hear from someone close to him. The younger Harper of a decade ago said parties prosper when they stand for something besides keeping busy. “Our party,” he said, referring interchangeably to the Reform and Canadian Alliance parties through the 1990s, “underwent one period in which it was policy-driven, and another period in which it was process-driven. In the policy-driven phase, the party emphasized what it stood for. It took stands on a litany of issues, from its fight against the Meech Lake-Charlottetown constitutional agenda, to the battle for deficit reduction, lower taxes and fiscal responsibility. This was the period in which the party grew from nothing to become an important electoral and parliamentary force.”

But beginning around 1998, “the party moved into a phase in which it emphasized process. Specifically, the party focused its energies on a process by which it could garner greater electoral success . . . In practice, this amounted largely to making existing policy stands vague or simply invisible. Whatever the electoral potential of this approach promised by the polls, the results were clearly going in the opposite direction.”

In brief, Harper was saying you don’t sell more soup by watering the recipe down but by spicing it up. He proceeded to prove his own point by creating a new, strongly conservative party and building to a majority by keeping his partisan base engaged and passionate.

Harper has recovered from crisis before, often in spectacular fashion: after he became Alliance leader in 2002; after the opposition coalition crisis of 2008; and when he rose to a majority in 2011 after a rough year in Parliament. Most Conservatives I spoke to expect he can do it one more time. Most think he’d better.

Maclean's July 8, 2013