By Pat Murphy
Paul Wells is one of the more astute commentators on Canadian politics, and his new book on Stephen Harper — The Longer I’m Prime Minister — is a good read. But while the book’s warts-and-all picture certainly isn’t hagiographic, it won’t satisfy the Harper-hating legions.
Wells, you see, thinks Harper’s success is neither an accident nor a trick. Rather he “wins elections because millions of people want somebody like him to be prime minister.” Oh dear, such heresy!
If you’re looking for a refresher on the Harper years, the book’s generally chronological structure does the job reasonably well. However, its real strength is the light it shines on personality and motivation.
And while it’s mostly about Harper, there are some pungent observations on others.
For those who’ve ever wondered about the Liberal affection and respect for Joe Clark, there’s an easy explanation. “Every Liberal loves a Conservative loser.”
And Stephane Dion? Well, he was a guy flexible enough to change his mind and take on board an idea that he’d initially rejected. However, there was a proviso. First, he had to persuade himself that it “was not only an excellent idea, but that it was his own.”
Then there’s Michael Ignatieff, a chameleon who made several careers out of being whatever it was he needed to be in order to get along and join the club. As Wells neatly puts it, Ignatieff was “a world champion shucker-off of old flesh.”
So what about Stephen Harper? Who is he, really?
To his credit, Wells doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. It would seem that few people do. Even as close a political associate as the late Doug Finley, former campaign director for the Conservative Party of Canada, drew a blank, telling Wells that he didn’t really know the prime minister.
But a penchant for privacy and inscrutability notwithstanding, a sense of the person does emerge. Much of it is well-known. Yes, he’s intelligent, combative, secretive, ruthless and vindictive. If you cross Stephen Harper, he’ll carry a grudge indefinitely.
There are also aspects that are less well-known, even surprising.
For instance, while Harper might be stiff and deficient in social skills, he’s someone you can have a real conversation with. If he engages you, he’ll actually listen to what you have to say. And unlike conversations with other recent prime ministers, it won’t all be about him.
As for Laureen Harper, she’s a key part of her husband’s political support system. She scans the media with him first thing in the morning, acts as a filter for his reading, and puts some added steel in his spine when required.
Most useful, though, Wells is particularly good at putting his finger on what Harper is all about politically. And contrary to some detractors, it’s not just about winning for its own sake. Harper wants to leave behind a government that meddles less in jurisdictions where it doesn’t belong, and that’s less able to devise costly schemes to dictate how people should lead their lives. To accomplish that, political longevity is critical.
Wells particularly notes two considerations. One is the concept of the New Class. The other is the simple fact that it’s tougher to spend money if you don’t have it.
The New Class — a concept first outlined by American journalist Irving Kristol in the 1970s — describes an informal alliance of educators, lawyers, social workers, et al. Or put another way, people who prosper “in the kind of society only an activist state could build and sustain.” And the source of their influence isn’t directly electoral, but rather depends on appointment.
In Canada, that has historically translated into an unelected establishment — such as the courts and the bureaucracy — appointed by Liberals. By staying in power, Harper can transform that into one appointed by Conservatives.
Then there’s the grubby matter of money. Policies like GST reductions and guaranteed fiscal transfers to the provinces upset the cognoscenti. Surely, they argue, federal policy could be more closely calibrated with informed social and economic objectives?
But there’s another way of looking at it. When the Liberals return to power — as they surely will one day — there’ll be less spare cash lying around for their New Class buddies to dream up ventures in social engineering.
If your politics are left-of-centre, that won’t thrill you. But don’t make the mistake of calling it stupid.