The war is on

Under attack from all sides, Harper’s cabinet shuffle hints at his plan to come back fighting

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on July 29, 2013

Under attack from all sides, Harper’s cabinet shuffle hints at his plan to come back fightingThis article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on July 29, 2013

The most important thing that happened this week in Canadian politics was that Stephen Harper didn’t quit. For a while in the spring, it was fashionable to predict he might. Chantal Hébert called the Prime Minister’s resignation before Labour Day “less and less far-fetched.” Her colleague Tim Harper said the Conservatives “might need fresh leadership.” It might be time for “change at the top,” Michael Den Tandt wrote. “The arrival of Justin Trudeau as Liberal leader has changed the political dynamic,” Lawrence Martin announced, “meaning there are new risks in Mr. Harper’s trying to go for another win.”

I counted eight such predictions in the print or web pages of reputable news organizations. What happened instead was that Harper overhauled his cabinet, promoting eight rookies to the ministry—thus winning their personal gratitude—and giving new homework to a dozen incumbents at the heads of new ministries, reducing the number of idle hands on Parliament Hill. To the rest of us, he promised a new Throne Speech in the autumn to outline a new, or at least tweaked, governing agenda.

After all that, I suppose he could resign at the Conservatives’ rescheduled Halloween policy convention in Calgary. But that’s not the way to bet it. The Conservative leader looks more like a man preparing to stay and fight.

“Fight” is the operative word. In a cabinet shuffle that sent new bosses to the departments of Justice, Defence, Industry, Immigration, Health, Canadian Heritage and Public Works, one of the most talked-about promotions was relatively minor. Pierre Poilievre, the 34-year-old MP for the eastern Ontario riding of Nepean-Carleton, entered the cabinet for the first time as a minister of state for democratic reform. This was noteworthy because “democratic reform” sounds as though it should embody the electorate’s fondest wishes for better politics, and Poilievre kind of enjoys being a jerk.

I’ve always enjoyed my occasional conversations with Poilievre, whom I find intelligent, funny and no more partisan than the opposition MPs whose daily attacks he takes great pleasure in blocking. But the reviews after his cabinet promotion were scathing. One columnist called Poilievre “thuggish”; another preferred “oily.” Together with Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan, who kept his job even though the papers were full of predictions that he’d be dumped, Poilievre’s new role suggests that, whatever Harper thinks his government’s faults are, a combative tone in Parliament isn’t among them.

This is not the first time Harper has sent Poilievre to fight when another leader might have sent someone else to make peace. In the spring of 2009, Michael Ignatieff was the new Liberal leader, enjoying a honeymoon in the polls and determined to make Employment Insurance eligibility a winning issue. Ignatieff met with Harper and they agreed to strike a “working group” to study EI reform. Each leader named three representatives. Harper appointed Poilievre. The choice showed he would rather see the whole process collapse than give an inch to the Liberals.

In the end, the working group failed to work, just as Harper had intended. When an election finally came in 2011, Conservative intransigence on EI had nothing to do with the result, which was better for Harper than for Ignatieff.

Nor, despite what you may read in the newspapers, is Harper the first prime minister who ever dug in his heels. Five weeks after he nearly lost the Quebec secession referendum of 1995, Jean Chrétien appointed a Montreal university professor named Stéphane Dion to lead his national-unity effort. Dion disagreed with just about anything the near-victorious “Yes” campaign believed in. Chrétien decided the key to victory wasn’t to agree with his opponents, it was to disagree with them more effectively. It’s always an option.

Harper also demonstrated the uses of creative immobilism this week when he kept Joe Oliver as minister of naturalresources. Oliver was the second-oldest man in this cabinet and, now that Gordon O’Connor has been given the heave-ho, its oldest returning member, at 73. Sending Oliver packing would have been an easy way to enhance the impression of a fresh start. He has been a beacon of belligerence, mocking U.S. Democrats and domestic environmental groups for their opposition to oil-pipeline expansion. But the only change Harper made on energy and the environment was to replace Peter Kent—a relatively spry environment minister two weeks short of his 70th birthday—with Leona Aglukkaq.

In more than four years as health minister, the soft-spoken Aglukkaq—the adjective is perhaps superfluous, as would be a reference to “the dusty Sahara”— made no memorable comment about Canada’s national health care system. By keeping a loudmouth at Natural Resources and appointing a mime to Environment, Harper ensures that the conversation between the two portfolios will come to resemble Penn and Teller’s stage act.

All of this is not to say Harper’s massive cabinet overhaul was an exercise in obstinacy. By moving Jason Kenney to a new jobs portfolio and James Moore to Industry, the Prime Minister promoted two ambitious activists to key economic posts. Kenney, in particular, is constitutionally incapable of holding a job without attracting attention, controversy and the enthusiasm of the Conservative base.

Between elections, of course, we usually hear more about the anger of Harper’s opponents than about Conservative enthusiasm. Yet every time Harper has led the Conservative party in an election—four times since 2004—the Conservative vote has risen from the day of the writ drop to voting day. That trend cannot be eternal, but it’s been pretty robust, so it’s always useful to listen to Harper’s speeches for clues about how he’d run a future campaign.

He was all set to drop a bunch of clues in his highly anticipated speech to the Conservative convention in June, but Calgary’s floods washed it out. Much of what he’d prepared seems to have found its way into his remarks to a Calgary Stampede barbecue in July. It’s a familiar script: Conservatives as pillars of responsibility, everyone else as the deluge.

“Their instincts, both of them, on these matters are all bad,” he said of the NDP and Liberals. “Tax-and-spend inclinations that are so extreme, if we took any of their suggestions literally, we would have a budget that would make the worst European budget look solid in comparison. They’ve got big-government inclinations to build bureaucracy at the expense of families and communities, and to always put the concerns and the welfare of the criminal ahead of the interests of law-abiding citizens.” Throw in the other parties’ “constant need to pit region against region in a game where, when they play the game, Alberta is always put at the very bottom of their little pecking order,” and to Harper, at least, the conclusion is obvious. “What I’m telling you, friends, is that with the Liberals and the NDP, what you see is what you get: dangerous ideas on the one hand, vacuous thinking on the other. And all of it would reverse the progress we have made.”

The hand-picked Calgary audience ate it up. The rest of the country will be a tougher crowd. The Senate spending scandal, still far from resolved, dealt Conservative confidence a body blow. Harper has decided the party’s best chance for a comeback lies in holding its ground and sticking to the style that got it this far. Will it work? I haven’t a clue. But this is the week Stephen Harper got tired of running and turned to fight.

Maclean's July 29, 2013