Tory Insider Reveals PM Harper's Pragmatism

Revealed at last, the hidden agenda. And it's not Liberals who will be scared. "Triangulation," Tom Flanagan writes in his new book Harper's Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power, "is a genuine act of statesmanship.
Revealed at last, the hidden agenda. And it's not Liberals who will be scared. "Triangulation," Tom Flanagan writes in his new book Harper's Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power, "is a genuine act of statesmanship.

Tory Insider Reveals PM Harper's Pragmatism

Revealed at last, the hidden agenda. And it's not Liberals who will be scared. "Triangulation," Tom Flanagan writes in his new book Harper's Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power, "is a genuine act of statesmanship."

Clearly we're through the looking glass. Flanagan, the U.S.-born Calgary political science prof who has been Stephen HARPER's closest political associate for nearly 20 years, has almost always been depicted as the Dick Cheney of the Harper brain trust. Guardian of orthodoxy. Channeller of dead conservative thinkers like Hayek and Strauss.

Yet here's Flanagan lauding "triangulation" - pollster Dick Morris's name for Bill Clinton's habit of swiping his opponents' policy stances so he could whup them at the polls - and lauding it, not merely as a tactical bauble but as a moral good. "The leader has to recognize that democratic politics requires acceptance of deeply rooted popular views," he writes, "even when they were originally associated with opposing parties." Voilà : doing what you don't believe is the heart of democracy.

This argument is one of the recurring themes in Flanagan's book, which is otherwise a straightforward chronicle of Stephen Harper's rise from ex-Reform MP to leader of the ramshackle Canadian Alliance, then of the merged Conservatives, and finally as the campaigner who put paid to 13 years of Liberal hegemony on Jan. 23, 2006.

Published by a university press, Flanagan's account is no barnburner. But it details the techniques that allow a modern leader to run a tidy office, plot strategy, recover from setbacks and take the fight to his enemies. It should be required reading for anyone interested in moving from opposition to power.

For other readers, the running subplot of pragmatism vs. ideological purity offers the book's most illuminating moments. In chronicling Harper's journey, Flanagan presents his own as one that began in leaden certainty and ends in artful vagueness.

Near the beginning of that transformation, Harper and Flanagan get into one of the defining fights of modern conservatism: Reform leader Preston MANNING's half-hearted and belated decision to oppose the Charlottetown constitutional reform of 1992. Harper and Flanagan were famously furious at their leader for even contemplating a constitutional accommodation with Quebec. Flanagan quit a party position in protest.

And now? "Were my concerns justified? I thought so at the time, but 15 years later they look to me more like run-of-the-mill intra-party factionalism based on youth and inexperience," Flanagan writes.

It takes a lot of work to become this blasé about fundamental questions like the nature of Canadian federalism, and on the way Flanagan often finds himself a few steps behind Harper. In his first book, in 1994, Flanagan castigates Manning for preferring populist calculation over conservative principle. He gives the manuscript to Harper for suggestions, and gets a surprise. "Stephen tended to see Preston's twists and turns as pragmatic attempts to get more votes for the Reform party."

Still, Harper persists in calling them as he sees them for a while yet. In a 2002 speech at a Nova Scotia university, Harper criticized the whole apparatus of federal transfers to the Atlantic provinces to prop up declining industries. "The incentives created by equalization," he said, "make it more difficult for provincial governments to make decisions in the best economic interests of their population." Encouraged by such bracing thinking, Flanagan writes a paper for the Fraser Institute. He warns conservatives that they won't get anywhere except by "supporting parties with a consistent free-market outlook" instead of "submerging themselves in 'big tent' parties that may sometimes win elections but have no clear agenda." This sentiment explains why Harper and Flanagan worked for Reform and against the Mulroney Tories in the first place.

And it got Flanagan into trouble. Two Calgary oilmen, fond of big tents, almost didn't show up for a Canadian Alliance fundraiser, thanks to Flanagan. Well then. No more blathering about consistent free-market outlooks for him. "It was a good lesson in the dangers of expressing your views independently when you are working closely with the leader of the party," he writes.

From that epiphany onward, Flanagan is as flexible in his thinking as Winston Smith at the end of 1984. Harper gives his famous 2004 interview about regional development, the one in which he discerns an Atlantic "culture of defeat." In that interview, Harper said: "Traditional regional development programs are not very successful. They grossly distort the market and they not only fail to develop a lot of profitable enterprises, but over a long period of time they have detrimental effects on potential opportunities."

That interview, Flanagan writes sternly, "remained an impediment to his attempts to build support in the Atlantic region at least until the beginning of the 2005-06 election, when he finally offered an apology on radio." Perfectly accurate. But was Harper right? Are traditional regional development programs successful? Do they not distort the market? Do they not cause recipients to miss opportunities?

If so, then what was he apologizing for? And if he was simply hiding his anti-regional-development light under a bushel to get elected, then shouldn't Atlantic voters and the rest of us know what he actually thinks about the programs for whose delivery he is now responsible?

To Flanagan, the answer is obvious. His book is a longer version of an argument he has been making here and there since about 2003: that winning elections is better than being right all the time because power gives you more real influence than the affections of the Fraser Institute would. "Canada is not yet a conservative or a Conservative country," Flanagan writes in his last chapter; "neither the philosophy of conservatism nor the party brand comes close to commanding majority support." The best way to change things is to keep and hold power. "If you control the government, you choose judges, appoint the senior civil service, fund or de-fund advocacy groups, and do many other things that gradually influence the climate of opinion."

What you mustn't do, however, is say why you are choosing one judge over another, or what you want your civil-service appointees to do, or which criteria should determine interest-group funding. Students of management theory like to say it's easier to seek forgiveness than permission. At some point, Harper and Flanagan got tired of asking us whether they could transform Canada and decided, in another term from management seminars, to JFDI (three of those letters stand for Just Do It).

This preference for teeny steps becomes the lens through which Flanagan views everything that happened in the Conservative movement after Harper became Alliance leader in 2002. A candidate in an Ontario by-election writes a letter decrying the "unthinking masses in Ontario" for supporting the Kyoto accord; Flanagan frets that the party "had no strategy for blunting the letter's bad effects." One strategy might be to have a candidate who didn't hold these beliefs, but that's not what Flanagan has in mind. He just wishes she could be kept from expressing them.

By that standard, Flanagan views the Conservatives' 2004 platform as great progress. Its "silences ... spoke volumes. There was nothing about bilingualism, multiculturalism, abortion, and capital punishment."

Yet recklessness still allows a few tendrils of cursed meaning to escape. The Conservatives get bad headlines after a party staffer writes a letter reiterating Conservative policy on bilingualism at Air Canada and Paul MARTIN, inevitably, demagogues the issue. The Harper team's response is not to change the policy or to stick up for it, but to take "stronger steps in 2006 to ensure that correspondence staff didn't create issues during the campaign." And indeed, almost nobody on earth today can ascertain Conservative policy on any issue. That's not a bug, it's a feature.

If triangulation is statesmanship, Harper is often Lincolnesque. After the Conservatives lost British Columbia seats the Alliance used to hold in 2004, "Harper fought back by mimicking Liberal stands" on West Coast issues "and, after the 2006 election, recruiting David Emerson into his cabinet." In the spring of 2005, Harper was ready to offer a "10-year plan" on health care wait times. By the time the real campaign started in the fall, the plan had become a "Patient Wait Times Guarantee." And what could be more delightful. "Unless they have no faith at all in the source, voters will take a guarantee over a 10-year plan any day," Flanagan writes.

Never mind that the only remaining trace of that promise is knowledge that patients are still guaranteed to face wait times. It worked, didn't it? They won, didn't they?

And that's hard to argue with. It's not as though Jean CHRÉTIEN campaigned in 1993 on a promise to legalize gay marriage and legislate the rules of Quebec secession. Governments improvise more than they can ever plan, and it is natural for conservatives to prefer that a Conservative get to do the improvising.

But there is something limiting about the tone that results. Not just when measured against some naive ideal of Socratic dialogue, but in the day-to-day reality of a government that doesn't dare trust itself or us to have the real conversations. I wonder whether last November's by-election in the Ontario riding of London North was a warning sign. It was run utterly by the Harper Team playbook. The Tories found a flaky candidate who was willing to hide in a cave, avoiding all contact with microphones, while they bought ads making fun of the Liberals. And she came in third. The Harper-Flanagan method may increase conservatives' chances of victory, but it ensures that when they finally lose, they don't even get to have fun doing it.

Maclean's October 1, 2007