Stephen Harper's Political Maturation

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on November 6, 2006. Partner content is not updated.

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on November 6, 2006. Partner content is not updated.

Stephen Harper's Political Maturation

Stephen HARPER is hard to know. Ever since he became the young policy director of the REFORM PARTY after its founding convention in 1987, and especially after he and 51 other Reform candidates won their tickets to Ottawa in the 1993 election, Harper had been like those floaters that appear in your field of vision on a bright sunshiny day. What are those things, anyway? Dust motes? Blood vessels? No way to tell. You never stop seeing them, but every time you try to actually stare at one, it scoots off to the side.

Every reporter on Parliament Hill soon learned to call Harper for intelligent, quotable commentary on any number of topics. The lovingly catalogued failings of Jean CHRÉTIEN's Liberal government were a favourite subject, but he was also good on economics, the subject he had studied at the University of Calgary, and on Quebec SEPARATISM, the file he had been assigned by Preston MANNING, Reform's founding leader.

Reformers weren't the most urbane bunch. One of them, a tiny, black-eyed Saskatchewan farmer named Lee Morrison, dedicated his maiden speech in the Commons to the proposition that he was a "redneck" - his word - and proud of it. (Morrison was actually one of the best-read, funniest, and most well-travelled MPs in the Commons. But he kept it well hidden.) Art Hanger was oddly fascinated by corporal punishment. Darrel Stinson would, at intervals, leap across the Commons floor and challenge his political opponents to fisticuffs.

Harper was different. More approachable. He'd been born in Leaside, a Toronto suburb, in 1959 and moved west - first to Edmonton when he was 19, then to Calgary two years later. He was with this crew of Reformers, but not really of them. His suits weren't flashy or custom-tailored, but they did fit his lean and slouchy frame like real clothes, not like somebody's idea of a joke. He didn't make a show of being folksy and down-home. Didn't make any show at all, really. He spoke passable French.

Best of all, Harper was capable of insight, which is better than mere book learning and at least as rare on Parliament Hill as anywhere else. Once, in the run-up to the 1995 Quebec secession referendum, I called him to discuss the PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS' glib assurance that the rest of Canada would offer up an economic association on terms favourable to a seceding Quebec. Harper called this evidence of "the profound unilateralism of the Quebec separatists": the belief that the rest of the world would gather round to cheerfully help the separatists on their way when the great day came. It wasn't just a tactic, Harper said, they actually believed the world was supposed to help them with their little project. It was as compact a critique of separatist logic as any I'd heard.

All of these characteristics made Harper the first-call Reformer for most Ottawa reporters during the first Chrétien government. And when we called, Harper wasn't stingy with his opinions. In fact, when Harper shows up in Manning's autobiography, Think Big, it is often because Manning is complaining about what a flap-jawed gossip his young charge could be. Harper didn't like Manning's choice for national campaign director in 1993, Rick Anderson, and he "was prepared to air his objections in the media," Manning writes. In 1994, Manning came under fire for alleged abuse of his expense account. Harper joined the chorus of critics. "Even though procedures existed for handling any complaints about the use of party funds," Manning writes, "Stephen went to the media."

Today, almost no MP serving under Harper would dare mouth off to reporters as freely as he did. If it's any defence, Harper's impatience wasn't contrived. It was real. When he quit the Reform caucus in 1997, he was genuinely frustrated with electoral politics. And if the truth be told, he was getting pretty good at quitting by that point.

In fact, in trying to understand Harper's career, it helps to split it into two parts, with the dividing line running through 2001, when he decided to take a run at the CANADIAN ALLIANCE leadership. A play in two acts.

Every once in a while throughout the first act, the young Harper quits, storms out, shuts down, or complains about how everyone else is such a disappointment. In the second, he decides to do the work - and impose the discipline and, yes, make the compromises - that will advance his goals in an uncertain world. The Harper of Act II is less acerbic, less biting, less grandly weary of every other political actor in Canada, so in many ways he's a lot less fun. But he is also incomparably more mature, sophisticated - and much more politically formidable.

The odd thing about Stephen Harper's early days as leader of the Canadian Alliance is this. Here's a guy who campaigned hard against the idea of any merger with Joe CLARK's Progressive CONSERVATIVES. In his victory speech, on the night he won, he called the Alliance "a permanent institution that is here to stay." But apparently that was all pretty much for show. Because it turned out that Harper's first order of business was a serious attempt to reach out to Clark's PCs.

He becomes Alliance leader on March 20, 2002. Not quite three weeks later, on April 9, he's sitting down with Clark himself to talk co-operation between the Alliance and Tories. It's a short meeting, a spectacular failure, but it is not enough to dissuade Harper. Three weeks after the meeting, Harper writes an op-ed article urging Progressive Conservatives to reconsider. And three weeks after that, on May 28, he's up in the House of Commons giving his maiden speech as Alliance leader. And what's the speech about? In large measure, it's all about what a swell guy Brian MULRONEY was.

Clearly the party Stephen Harper resigned from in 1987 was much on his mind, 15 years later. But then, the written record shows that it had been for a while.

When he won the Alliance leadership, Harper said he didn't expect the party would keep him around long unless he could get it to a place where it could "contend realistically for power." And a consistent theme of his writings in exile was that Reform-style populist conservatism couldn't realistically contend for power on its own. Which meant that reaching out to Progressive Conservatives, one way or another, would be inevitable. And not only to them.

"Along the Trans-Canada Highway from Calgary to Banff lies a prominent mountain called the Three Sisters," Harper and Tom Flanagan had written in a 1997 article for Next City magazine. "Legend has it that an Indian chief placed each of his three daughters on a separate peak to keep them away from unworthy suitors. The strategy succeeded so well that the three daughters died up there."

To Harper and Flanagan, Canadian conservatism was also a tale of three sisters: Prairie populism; the more urbane Toryism of the Progressive Conservatives; and the bleu strain of Quebec nationalism - which, "while not in itself a conservative movement, appeals to the kinds of voters who in other provinces support conservative parties." The mood of Harper and Flanagan being what it was in 1997, they found the prospects for getting conservatism's three sisters down from their assorted mountaintops "bleak at the moment," a Reform-PC merger "out of the question," a rapprochement with the Quebec sister even harder to contemplate.

But now Harper was full-time chaperone to one of the sisters. He had to give unity a try. His immediate problem was that the sister he coveted most, Toryism, was guarded day and night by Clark, who viewed Harper as a most unworthy suitor.

In hindsight, there's a genuine doggedness to Harper's attempts to find some accommodation with the Tories. You could hear it in that maiden speech to the Commons as Canadian Alliance leader. It began as an attack on the Chrétien government's performance in trade disputes with the Americans over farm subsidies and softwood lumber. Harper rehashed a familiar complaint, that Chrétien hadn't bothered to build the sort of close personal relationship with George W. Bush that would give Canada any leverage at all. Then Harper took a surprising turn indeed. "Where do we go from here?" he asked. "On this I will make a very controversial observation. When it comes to United States-Canada relations, the government has much to learn from former prime minister Brian Mulroney."

The Alliance leader, the man who had quit Mulroney's party four years after Mulroney became its leader, made it clear he was offering only a partial endorsement. "I can critique his fiscal record, I can critique his social priorities, and I can critique his approach to government reform and national unity," he said. And yet. "Under Mr. Mulroney, Canada-United States relations were infinitely better than they are now."

Of course it was a toweringly self-serving argument. It neglected the obvious ingredient of party affiliation: Canada-U.S. relations had been quite good when Chrétien's friend Bill Clinton was president. Nor had the presence of a Conservative in the PMO done any good for Canada-U.S. relations when the Conservative was John Diefenbaker and the president he faced, John Kennedy, was a Democrat. But so what. Harper's goal was to smoke a peace pipe with Mulroney's party as much as it was to urge closer relations with the Bush White House. "Frankly," he told Maclean's reporter John Geddes afterward, "I'm making a political point."

And he found a taker. John Herron, the young PC MP for Fundy-Royal, New Brunswick, jumped up to put a question to Harper. "A very solid speech," Herron said. Would Harper be willing to concede "that some of the vitriolic and visceral language utilized by members on that side against the Mulroney administration ... might have been just a little over the top?"

Harper didn't disagree. There were indeed things to like about the Mulroney legacy. And then he perched Herron on the horns of a dilemma. "I challenge the honourable member to embrace this legacy by walking away from the party that has now embraced David Orchard and the extreme anti-free trade position. I challenge him to walk away from that kind of coalition and instead embrace our offer of a full coalition here."

It's worth remembering that this was May of 2002. The deal with Orchard that would cement Peter MacKay's leadership of the PCs was almost precisely a year in the future. So Harper was rehearsing his ultimatum to the Tories - stick with Orchard or stick with me - long before it made any real sense. You can see this happening, later, in his overtures to Quebec voters. He starts making his pitch so early that he looks a little silly. But that means only that when the moment really comes, he has already laid serious groundwork.

By late summer the following year, rumours about merger talks had leaked to the newspapers. Geoff Norquay, a veteran PC strategist who worked for Mulroney, Kim Campbell and Clark, couldn't believe what he read one morning. Merger talks? It was news to him. Norquay had a regular gig as a talking head on Don Newman's afternoon show Politics on CBC Newsworld. To his astonishment, he got a call from Stephen Harper shortly before heading over to the studio. Norquay barely knew Harper. He'd spent less than five minutes of his life talking to him at that point, mostly in elevators. Now he was saying: "Geoff. It's Stephen Harper. These rumours of negotiations? Please don't dismiss them out of hand." Uh, sure. Whatever. When Newman raised the question, Norquay ragged the puck for a few seconds but managed not to say anything conclusive.

In fact, the first discussions had progressed far more quickly than Harper and MacKay expected. The tone was set at the first meeting. Don Mazankowski, Brian Mulroney's former deputy prime minister and MacKay's lead emissary, suggested that the two sides dispense with rickety vote-splitting mechanisms and simply merge into a single party. As Harper biographer William Johnson has written, Harper was taken aback. But only for a few days. Then he realized that Mazankowski was offering what Harper had long thought was the ideal situation, but had never believed possible. If this was a bluff, he would call it. If it was a serious offer, he'd take it.

Just before Labour Day, Harper held a conference call with several Alliance staffers. "This was like, 'Okay, we're going to do it. So strap yourselves in,' " one person on the call remembers. " 'And let's just make sure that we're setting the agenda as far as the media goes.' "

What followed was an extended game of orchestrated media leaks, almost exclusively from Harper's team, designed to hold the Progressive Conservatives to their word. An element of Harper's negotiating style was becoming evident. He had picked a bottom line. Nothing was sacred if pitching it overboard would help advance the basic goal. Neither side had the luxury of pretending they didn't need each other. They both needed a deal to survive.

This was far more obvious to the Alliance than to their skittish dance partners. "Harper in a lot of ways was playing catch-up to the caucus," a former staffer says. "The majority of the caucus had already gone through this once with the Canadian Alliance. So there were a lot of people in the caucus who wanted to make some sort of a deal. In a lot of ways, they were way more bullish on a deal than Harper was. So they would have voted for any deal."

MacKay had far less leverage. He was an untested leader. He'd won the job in a seriously weird way with the Orchard deal. His caucus and party membership were about one-fifth the size of Harper's, his party's debt hole far deeper. And he had a veritable Greek chorus of prominent Tories publicly second-guessing his work. "This does not even deserve to be called opportunism," Senator Lowell Murray wrote in the Globe and Mail when Harper first came courting MacKay in June. "It's political fantasy."

With Murray's and similar appeals to realism ringing in his ears, MacKay was a difficult negotiating partner. So Harper herded him, with the help of a few border collies in the parliamentary press gallery. Just as Harper had once used leaks to newspapers to make clear his distance from Preston Manning, now he used them to strengthen his bargaining hand with the MacKay Tories. "The point all the way along was to hold them to it," someone who was involved in the negotiations for the Alliance said. "To avoid backsliding. Or to force them to take a position that they thought we would never accept." So if the Conservative negotiating team edged closer to a deal in a closed-door session, or hinted at a principle that might make bargaining easier, they'd read about it, to their astonishment, in the Globe or the Post a few days later. "It's sort of the way that Stephen generally operates. So he would muse a little bit about how one-person, one-vote was important to him, and it was a hallmark of the Reform party, and everything else he stood for." That position would promptly appear in a newspaper or television report. "So then the Tories would go, 'No no, we absolutely insist on some sort of regional vote.' And he'd go, 'Yeah, okay, fine, I'm good with that.' And trap them, right?

"So we would either leak something to hold them to it, or Stephen would float an idea that they would try and hold him to. But part of his strategy was, they would come back and say, 'Well, it'll have to be this,' thinking he would never accept it. Which of course he would. Because the caucus quite frankly would accept anything."

It almost failed a dozen times before it succeeded. In October, the talks nearly collapsed over the toughest issue: how to choose the new party's leader. In the Reform-Alliance tradition it was assumed that each party member should have a vote. That would have meant the much larger Alliance membership could have chosen a leader over the objections of every single former Tory. MacKay wanted each riding to send an equal number of delegates, so Tories could leverage their organizational edge in the Atlantic provinces and Quebec. There was deadlock. Harper suggested they take Thanksgiving weekend off. Then he leaked a memo to the media complaining of MacKay's "lack of any spirit of compromise." MacKay promptly heard from another wing of his party - the wing that included Mulroney and wanted him to do a deal - urging him to get back to the table and be serious about it this time. On Oct. 16, the two leaders announced they'd made a deal. Five years after Harper had mused about merging the parties, it was going to happen.

Flash forward. Now Harper is Canada's prime minister; his early months in power have been marked, among many more significant accomplishments and disappointments, by an extraordinarily chippy relationship with the parliamentary press gallery. We could argue all day about who to blame for the frosty relationship between Harper and the journalists. But even though the days when he could enjoy a cozy, leaky relationship with the scribes would seem to be over, his current behaviour, like his early manoeuvres, reveals aspects of the Harper mind.

First, he can be stubborn and vindictive. Note that these are hardly unique traits. Indeed, they're almost endemic to the political leadership class, not just in Canada but anywhere: you do not win consistently over time, as a rule, unless you get out of the habit of backing down and into the habit of making your opponents hurt for the sin of crossing you.

Second, and more idiosyncratically, Harper is convinced that forces in Canada are stacked against Conservative success. Today it is reporters. Not so long ago it was the people of Ontario. After Stockwell Day lost the 2000 election, Harper wrote a barely coherent harangue for the National Post, its thesis being that Ontario would always reject an Albertan and that Alberta must give up on Ontario and the rest of Canada. Within five months of that diatribe, Stock Day was the least popular politician in Alberta. In hindsight, the lesson of the 2000 election is that just this once, Ontario was a little quicker on the uptake because it was not distracted by native-son pride. But Harper couldn't see that. He was too busy looking for someone to blame.

Finally, and most importantly, Harper is less frequently motivated by vindictiveness and a victim complex than his opponents would like to believe. In fact, if his first five months as prime minister were a success - and they were more than that, they were not far from a triumph - it's because he kept his darker instincts in check. No, not just in check. He overwhelmed his darker instincts with some of the finest instincts any Canadian leader has shown in a generation: strategic genius, careful planning, discipline, a constant desire to expand his coalition and to reward voters' faith with concrete and demonstrable results.

So why did it turn a little sour near the end of that remarkable run? I believe for the same reason he blew his lead in 2004 and then nearly blew it again in 2006. He ran out of scripting.

Five priorities - taxes, parents, crime, clean government, health care. All, except health care, checked off by May. Two bigger themes, federalism and foreign policy. Both on the road to substantial realignment by May. A few files hanging fire, especially environmental policy, with no progress likely before autumn. Suddenly, and probably only temporarily, Harper had no big story to tell the Canadian people. This had happened before, and he reacted the same way.

With less message, he became fixated on the messengers. With less momentum, he became certain great forces stood in his way. With less control, the control freak in him started to freak out. Fortunately for Harper none of this was a permanent state of affairs. By June he was telling people privately he was ready, after two leadership races and two national election campaigns in less than five years, to take some serious downtime. His staff would have the summer to prepare a fall agenda, complete with new scripting. The agenda would be his again in the fall. But when his control and concentration had flagged, Harper had given vent to impulses that had hurt him before and might yet - who knew? - bring him down.

Or not. The Conservatives still stood strong in the polls, though still short of the majority Harper coveted. Unemployment was near record lows, the dollar near record highs. Harper had inherited that good news from the Liberals, but he'd take it, thanks very much. Except in Afghanistan, far from the concerns of most Canadians, the country faced no grave crisis. Harper had united two of Canadian conservatism's three sisters and was pursuing the third, the cutie with the French accent, with an ardour and a chance of conquest no one could ever have expected. His opponents were in disarray, their odds of rallying only so-so. He was well positioned, which was good to know, because the way he saw things, the real work had barely begun.

The assault on the history books lay ahead.

From Right Side Up: The Fall of Paul Martin and the Rise of Stephen Harper's New Conservatism by Paul Wells. Reprinted by permission of Douglas Gibson Books, McClelland & Stewart Ltd.

Maclean's November 6, 2006