After almost four months in office, we’re just now beginning to be able to understand what sort of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is going to be. His prime ministerial character, so assiduously camouflaged by campaign slogans and the party’s stick-to-the-message media handlers during the election, has begun to emerge.
There are things to like about Harper, and others to be nervous about. We already knew about his cold-fish arrogance, his dislike of gladhanding and gladhanders, and the private sense of mission he holds that makes him the most opaque of national political figures in decades. Now we’re seeing some of that translate into action. The good is that we’ve got someone who knows what he’s about. The bad is that a majority of Canada ’s voters isn’t going to like what he’s about. Beyond that we’re seeing how much of a control freak he is, and that he’s unlikely to deal well with the inevitable contingencies of geopolitical reality and/or the Herd-O’-Cats constituencies he’s inherited from his party’s disparate components: the fag-kicking rural reactionary pragmatists, the Calgary neocon ideologues, the religious right, and the red Tories of central and eastern Canada, who have a loyalty to and affection for Canada’s institutions and traditions he doesn’t appear to share. He went through a series of communications directors his the first month or so in office, and then found one willing to go along with shutting out the media beyond virtually everything except “have a nice day” and cramming a gag on both his cabinet and the civil service. That provided some entertaining slapstick, but the deafening silence since is ominous.
There’s been a lot of talk—some of it from Harper himself—that suggests that he’s an evolved man, and that the institutions of national politics has filed off his ideological rough edges. Maybe. But I’m not about to forget where Harper’s political incubation took place—with the National Citizen’s Coalition, which was for 20 years both the most Libertarian and American-style anti-taxation political pressure group in Canada—and arguably the most successful political lobby in recent history, along with the Fraser Institute.
That said, only a fool would deny that Harper is already a more attractive and convincing figure than his predecessor, Paul Martin Jr.. Martin’s chief failure—aside from surrounding himself with political thugs who were more interested in exercising their power than promoting ideas—was his inability to attach his character convincingly to the issues he chose to pursue. Martin’s attempts to defend cherished Canadian institutions like Medicare and cultural sovereignty were clumsy and fatuous, and it made him appear indecisive and overly eager to please. The reality was likely that he was perfectly sincere about these issues, but he was undermined by a badly-framed campaign strategy, and some physical idiosyncracies –body English that telegraphed “don’t beat me up” instead of firm intent, and a stutter that made him sound as if he didn’t know his stuff and couldn’t think on his feet. The best political speech of Martin’s career was his announcement, on election night, that he was packing it in. This is not quite a shame, because ultimately, he was a corporate nancy-boy, and the marble-mouthedness was the result of a very large silver spoon lodged too close to his soul.
Harper has none of those sorts of faults, and most of the physical flaws he’s displayed—his sartorial geekiness, and his stiffness in public—are difficult to parody, and barely worth the effort. But his cabinet choices deserve some scrutiny, because they’re legitimately controversial.
That he selected newly retreaded Ontario MPs Jim Flaherty and Tony Clement for key cabinet posts shows questionable judgement. The pair were Abbott and Costello shitkickers in Mike Harris’ Common Sense Revolution, and are unlikely to attract Ontario Liberal voters Harper needs if he’s going to gain seats in the province. Everyone in Ontario knows exactly who these guys are and what kind of politics they practice, and very few Ontarians want to go back there even if they’re pissed off at the Liberals. Harper’s subsequent public necking sessions with Quebec premier Jean Charest, and the snubbing of Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty may indicate either that his pollsters have a theory about how to split the left-right vote in Ontario, or that Harper is snuggling up to Charest simply to put the electoral fear of God into the Bloc Quebecois while warning Ontario that if they don’t cooperate, he’s going to screw them.
Another troubling cabinet choice was to entice the impossibly thick-headed David Emerson to stumble across the floor so he could continue with the International Trade portfolio. Presumably Harper did this to avoid derailing the softwood lumber negotiations, now successfully concluded, sort of. As a vote-getter that agreement is unlikely to work, because anyone living in the lumber-producing areas of the country will wake up quite quickly to the reality that Emerson negotiated the treaty on behalf of Canada ’s post-national forest-wacking corporations, who just want to go back to producing 2x4s and exporting logs the way they prefer—which is relatively worker-free. One of the interesting and ill-understood side-effects of Bush’s softwood lumber tariffs was that they were forcing the lumber industry to develop alternate and value-adding applications for wood. That will now more or less instantly cease, and more economic and social demoralization of the hinterlands will follow.
Harper’s silliest cabinet choice is that he clearly believes that Rona Ambrose is both an intellectual and a looker, even though no one can seem to find a photographer who doesn’t make her look like a tow-truck driver in drag. Beyond this, unfortunately, is a person without any more qualifications than a tow-truck driver, and an issue—how to respond accurately to global warming—that transcends national and partisan political values. I’d prefer someone with more common sense than ideology to deal with this delicate issue, but aside from Chuck Strall, I can’t think of anyone in the Conservative caucus who has that. The general lack of talent within the caucus is clearly playing to Harper’s control-freak instincts anyway, and provides at least a partial explanation for bringing in Emerson and Senator Margory LeBreton, whose chief qualification is that she was still licking Brian Mulroney’s boots after the other 93 percent of Canadians had wised up. Ambrose and LeBreton have so far teamed up on the ludricrous attempt to convince us that Mulroney was an environmentalist, an attempt that was justly met with giggling disbelief.
It also accounts for his increasing the level of control exercised by the PMO, albeit without really justifying it. It is a dangerous course of action given his promise of more transparent government, and the presence of a well-fed and confident lunatic fringe within the Conservative network. One indication that he can’t—or isn’t choosing to—control his lunatic fringe is the appearance of a private members bill to prevent “fetal homicide”, which is apparently the new code the anti-abortion lobby is using to bring back that ugly and unpopular Reform Party obsession.
In the end, the key items in the Harper watch are two things. The first is whether or not he governs on behalf of the country’s interests, or whether he’s going to govern simply to win a majority in the next election. Which way he goes on this will likely determine both his karma and his political fate (they’re not going to be the same thing for the next few years). The karma has already been sent to a dark place by his intention to strangle the Liberal’s daycare program in favour of a $1200 annual bribe to parents with pre-school children. That long-overdue program was the one intelligent thing the Martin government came up with, and its destruction may, and don’t laugh at this, have him facing a passionate Ken Dryden in the next set of election debates.
The second item is whether he betrays the presence of a secret agenda, something he’s been taking pains to suggest he simply doesn’t have. If he’s telling the truth about this, he’ll likely win his majority, and we’ll get four years of nominally civilized government that stays within the social democratic framework the majority of Canadians clearly want to retain, and without the schmarminess Brian Mulroney brought to Ottawa while he was selling us out to globalization. But if Harper is merely keeping the secret agenda hidden within that cold exterior, we’re in deep trouble—and so is he.
1371 words May 22, 2006