We’re now almost five years into Stephen Harper’s rule, so what do we know about this man? The short answer is disturbing: not much more than we knew five years ago.
A few days ago I uncovered some notes I made as he was about to accede to power in February 2006. I headed the notes “Stephen Harper’s Character” because I thought it was his character that signaled the most important issues around him, given that he had a minority government and Canada was therefore not going to see much implimented policy from him. I wrote—and then abandoned as too preliminary—the following:
*A decent but not especially nice man.
*unclear whether he’s self-involved and impatient of others or simply private and introspective.
*He seems unwilling to communicate on form, which is a quality you’d probably admire in a friend, but not necessarily in a political leader.
*He likes power for its own sake, and we can expect him to wield it, occasionally with arrogance and prejudice, but with just enough intoxication that he’ll get his ass in a sling.
I think I nailed him on all four, but glancingly, and without much nuance. So let’s add the nuance we now have, based on his actions over the last five years.
*In private life, Harper is a pleasant but not warm man, and in public he is utterly incompetent at projecting himself as anything other than a man with a private agenda he is itching to impose. This is curious, because what we see of that agenda, while conservative to the point of Thatcherism, remains cloudy. As much as anything (other than Liberal leader Michael Ignatief’s grimacing political and physical awkwardness) this sense that he’s harbouring a harsh private agenda is what has kept him from acquiring the political means to impose it.
*Harper manages to be self-involved and impatient and private and introspective. He possesses considerable and even formidable calculative intelligence, but it is offset by a chronic and unattractive emotional woodenness that borders on Aspergers: you can always see what he loathes and it is uncertain whether he loves anything very much.
*He’s likeably terrible at kissing babies and at glad-handing, but he is also a vindictive micromanager who prevents his own key people from communicating anything except on form. The degree to which he’s consolidated power in the PMO is predictable and politically dangerous, and yet he has done nothing with his promise to increase the accountability and transparency of the federal government, and worse, is openly neglectful and contemptuous of portfolios he dislikes, and almost Hitleresque in his savaging of his own people he believes have not shown sufficient loyalty.
*He enjoys power a little too much for comfort, and he’s more than willing to exercise it. He wields his power arrogantly, with prejudice and (happily for those who dislike him) with occasional intoxication, as witnessed by the recent billion dollar boondoggle of the G-8/G-20 fiasco in Toronto, which accomplished nothing other than some photo-ops of him with world leaders, and to present Canada to the world as an amateur police state.
What is perhaps most disturbing of all about Stephen Harper is how little else anyone has learned about this man’s true character. We can see the iron will, sure. We can see his hardness when someone goes off message. But he’s so secretive and close-mouthed that even this is often hard to parse. Is the visible cold shoulder Peter McKay is currently getting to do with his public affair with Belinda Stronach, or was there some back-room shoot-up no one but a few taped-over mouthed insiders were witness to?
About as close to comedy as it ever gets with Harper (aside from the alleged affair wife Lauren is supposed to have had with a female security staff member) is that he has Bill Clinton’s populist aspirations without any feel for populism, which has raised a suspicion that, when it’s 3:00 AM and he’s had a couple of drinks, he turns into Neil Diamond—except that we don’t actually know if he’s ever stayed up that late, or if he’s ever even had “a few drinks”. I suspect that if Stephen Harper ever did either and it became public knowledge, it would do him more political good than a truckful of baby blue sweaters, and that a lot of us would be relieved.
It has also become evident that, after a half decade in power, Harper is developing a serious and surprising taste for the global stage and that he’s beginning to see himself as one of the good old boys of globalization even as the movement is being discredited by its excesses and built-in injustices. When he isn’t simply embarrassing himself and Canada with his eagerness, it’s fairly entertaining to watch him in those venues, trying desperately to look comfortable and failing utterly to get past the “who the hell is this guy” looks from other world leaders, who seem to mistake him permanently for someone’s aide who’s mistakenly wandered into the group photo ops.
And since he’s probably pretty much who and what he’s always been—Margaret Thatcher in a business suit and with smaller testicles—let’s hope no one, including the world leaders, gets used to him being in the group photos.
Let’s also hope that Canadians don’t ever get to find out what he’s really here to do to us.