Harper Overhauling the Political Right

ROCH CARRIER'S classic hockey sweater story may have the sentimental edge, but Stephen HARPER's new version is more politically illuminating.

Harper Overhauling the Political Right

ROCH CARRIER'S classic hockey sweater story may have the sentimental edge, but Stephen HARPER's new version is more politically illuminating. It's the tale of a politician whose staff, always on the lookout for a chance to loosen up their boss's somewhat stiff image, try to get him to wear the Calgary Flames colours into the House of Commons - under his suit jacket, of course. The Flames happen to be the CONSERVATIVE leader's hometown team, as well as the sole Canadian franchise left in the hunt for the Stanley Cup. Grabbing a piece of Canada's team is too much for any good political handler to pass up. But Harper, not known for his populist instincts, isn't sure. So he calls his savviest old MP, John Reynolds, for advice. "I told him it's not very dignified to wear it into the House," Reynolds says. "Wait until they've won a couple of games, and then wear the sweater to caucus."

That's just what he did last week, scoring precisely the desired TV clips and news photos. Now for the post-game commentary. Here are two ways to look at this latest bit of Harper playmaking: further evidence that the former policy purist has surrendered entirely to corny, calculated politics, or another example of his growth from icy ideologue to electable leader. Liberals are worried enough about the latter impression spreading that they are making plans to launch the imminent federal election campaign with a barrage of negative advertising, using Harper's own past comments to portray him as a right-wing extremist.

Naturally, the real Harper is neither the folksy guy in the Flames sweater nor the menacing character in a Liberal attack ad. But getting at the essence of this increasingly guarded politician is not easy. At 44, he's a work in progress, far more adaptable than his critics used to claim. Once regarded as too aloof to be much of a politician, he's learning to project a marketable family-guy image. Long pigeon-holed as a policy wonk, Harper also showed he's a slick deal-maker with his adroit brokering of last year's Alliance-Tory merger. But a transformed public persona is not such a big deal compared to the real goal Harper has set: overhauling the entire right side of the Canadian political spectrum. "My goal is not only to win an election," he says. "It's to create a natural Conservative majority in this country."

So he's not just out to beat Paul Martin, but to put an end to the Liberals' status as the default position of federal politics: the party that rules unless something weird happens. For more than a century, the Conservatives' glory days have amounted to mere breaks between Liberal regimes. John Diefenbaker was a wild-eyed outsider whose charisma never fortified the Tories for the long haul. Brian Mulroney's alliance of Quebec nationalists and alienated Westerners looked more promising, but it fell apart with the rise of Reform and the Bloc Québécois. Despite that dispiriting history, Harper contends that enough right-of-centre raw material exists - out there in the electorate - to cultivate something more lasting. "The task I've set out is what no leader since John A. Macdonald has done," he declares. "Conservatives have won elections, but they haven't created a permanent governing coalition."

Until recently, few would have taken Harper seriously as a potential architect of such sweeping political change. He has never been the sort of spellbinder who inspires grand dreams. In fact, he has sometimes seemed to epitomize the frustrating fate of marginalized Canadian right-wingers. Harper appeared on the political stage in 1987 as a promising young policy thinker in Preston Manning's new Reform Party. Yet they never quite saw eye to eye. Manning was a populist who often downplayed Reform's core conservatism, talking up the need to reach out to disgruntled Liberals and New Democrats, and he was closely identified with Reform's rural Prairie roots. Harper argued for courting urban, middle-class voters working in the private sector, to create a Canadian version of the more broadly based movements of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Yet Harper's vision is no neo-conservative import. It emerged out of a uniquely Canadian journey. Born in Toronto in 1959, he grew up in its suburbs, where as a teenager he admired Pierre Trudeau. After high school, he moved to Alberta to work in the oil fields, and then studied economics at the University of Calgary. His anger at witnessing first-hand the damage Trudeau's National Energy Program did to Alberta in the early 1980s was a turning point for him. By chance, he ran into Trudeau on a Montreal street two decades later, and wrote revealingly about coming "face to face with a living legend, someone who had provoked both the loves and hatreds of my political passion, all in the form of a tired-out, little old man." This from Harper, the cold fish.

After a stint as Manning's policy chief, Harper won a Calgary seat in 1993. He was one of the highest-profile Reformers, but not a member of Manning's inner circle. When he quit to lead the right-wing National Citizens Coalition in 1997, his political future was in doubt. He had married Laureen Teskey, a graphic designer, in 1993, and they went on to have two children. Family, he said, now came first. On paper, he remained an intriguing political package: M.A. in economics, fluent in French, sure of his convictions. But something else was on paper: a mounting record of provocative writings, speeches and reported remarks.

Harper often sounded too blunt for mass consumption. He once said the "biggest public policy problem of the coming generation [is] our government-controlled health-care monopoly." Not exactly a measured critique of the system he must know most Canadian voters cherish. When Roy Romanow proposed expanding publicly funded care, Harper slammed him in no uncertain terms. "He fails to recognize that the system is at the breaking point," Harper said, "and the talk of expansion raises the spectre of huge tax increases to pay for it."

He doesn't talk about medicare in such dire terms anymore. Today, Harper is the one proposing expanding the system: not only is he calling for public coverage of "catastrophic" drug costs, he even suggests that Ottawa run the new program. That's a stunning departure from his long track record of arguing for containing costs, and leaving it to the provinces to take the lead in setting policy and delivering services. The change hasn't gone unnoticed in Alberta. "I was surprised to see him advocating this sort of aggressive expansion coupled with a federal role," says Roger Gibbins, president of the Canada West Foundation, an influential Calgary-based think-tank that promotes a Western policy perspective.

Those closer to Harper are less taken aback. They say his priority is stopping the Liberals from stoking voter fears that if Conservatives win power, universal care will be history. Reynolds says Harper's master stroke on the file came last year, when as Alliance leader he smothered his party's reflex to criticize, and threw its support behind a five-year health accord struck between Jean Chrétien and the premiers. Harper's idea was to line up so squarely with the Liberals that they would have trouble setting themselves apart on health. "He told us, 'We're going to support it, and we will kill this as an issue,'" Reynolds recalls. "It's working. I've served under a lot of leaders, and he's the best strategist I've ever met."

Conservative insiders point to another decisive Harper move as proof of his determination to deny the Liberals easy targets. Last fall, he quickly fired Larry Spencer as Alliance family values critic, and the Saskatchewan MP was also forced to quit caucus, after he said in an interview that homosexuality should be outlawed. Spencer's remarks were a reminder of the social conservative baggage often blamed for stopping Reform and the Alliance from breaking through in moderate Ontario. "Can you imagine if the Spencer thing had happened in the reign of Preston Manning or Stockwell Day? Stephen Harper killed it right away," says Reynolds. Whether the Liberals agree the underlying issue is dead, though, is another matter: Martin advisers say they won't raise religion in the campaign, but they view the so-con views that often go with evangelical Christianity as fair game.

If Harper can keep religion out of the campaign, and avoid being tripped up on big issues like health, is his dream of a governing Conservative coalition within sight? John Wright, senior vice-president of the polling firm Ipsos-Reid, says a Harper move into 24 Sussex Drive after the widely expected June 28 vote is all but "mathematically impossible." The firm's latest poll, conducted in early May, put the Liberals at 40 per cent, which would translate into a solid majority of about 175 seats out of 308. The Conservatives, at 24 per cent, could get around 60 seats - far below the combined 78 Alliance and Progressive Conservative MPs elected in 2000. (The poll projects about 55 seats for the Bloc and 20 for the NDP.)

Dig deeper into the data, though, and Wright finds a more complex long-term picture. He says polls tend to show only about one-fifth of Canadians are solidly conservative, although nearly half don't rule out voting Conservative. The largest potential pool of new support is younger Ontario voters. Harper's biggest problem: few Quebecers seem inclined to vote his way. He admits Quebec is the toughest long-term challenge in building his new coalition. This time out, barring a shocking turnaround, the Quebec dead zone is what leaves him facing very long odds against forming a government. Knocking the Liberals down to a minority might be within reach, but only if his popularity picks up dramatically in Ontario. Wright says an effective late-campaign signal to voters shaken by the sponsorship scandal might be: "Vote for us and we'll hold Liberal feet to the fire - a minority ain't so bad."

Harper insists he's playing for all the marbles. He talks of planning for the transition from opposition to government. And he says the Liberals' reported plan to quickly trot out his more controversial quotes shows Martin is scared. "This is what you do when you're behind," Harper says. "They are conceding we are a threat in a way they haven't had to concede to an opposition party in a long time." The polls suggest that's partly partisan bluster mixed with wishful thinking. But Harper has defied expectations before. And the Flames weren't given much chance of making it so far in the playoffs either.

Repositioning Brand Harper: Six Ways of Looking at Stephen Harper

Stephen Harper is arguably the most mysterious of the candidates vying to become Canada's next PM. Whereas Jack Layton has established himself as the media-crazed everyman, and Paul Martin as the "new and improved" status quo, Harper - with his watchful gaze and understated manner - is still an unknown quantity. Maclean's Associate Editor Lianne George asked political experts, media professionals and image consultants to weigh in about his profile and prospects. Here are six ways of looking at Harper:

AS THE PASSIVE LIBERAL DESTROYER

Harper is a steady communicator and not prone to major image gaffes. I think the Liberals have made a strategic mistake by trying to paint him as an extremist. The fact that he's less spicy than, say, Jack Layton, is good. With the Liberals getting such negative coverage right now, why would he want to detract from it? As Sun Tzu tells us, when an enemy is destroying himself, don't interfere.

Ezra Levant, founding publisher, the Western Standard, Calgary

AS A YOUNG MAN IN OLD MAN'S CLOTHING

I think he's pristine. He's got a nice, clean-cut attitude - although I think a younger electorate would look at him more favourably if he were a little more modern in his dress. I would develop his casual side, frankly. He's typical of most young men his age who haven't got a clue how to look good except in a suit.

Harry Rosen, founder of clothier Harry Rosen Inc., Toronto

AS A WELL-POSITIONED BRAND

I think his brand is about perfect in light of everything that's gone on with the Liberals. Martin's sort of like a Cadillac and Harper's the Honda Accord. As much as Harper's really boring, he's a seemingly honest guy and people are desperate for someone to give them the straight goods. All he has to do is get people to notice him. But I wouldn't put him on camera. He's a little flat.

Geoffrey Roche, creative director of Lowe Roche Advertising, Toronto

AS A MAKE-OVER SUCCESS STORY

I've noticed a huge change in Harper between 2002 and today. Back then, he was clearly ill at ease in the limelight. You could tell by his facial gestures: a lot of looking down, not speaking clearly, not making eye contact. I'd say he's made progress by leaps and bounds.

Merge Gupta-Sunderji, leadership and communication expert, Toronto

AS THE STRONG, A-LITTLE-TOO-SILENT TYPE

He's very low-key and sort of non-excitable - the opposite of Preston Manning in that sense. The question is, will he be able to produce news and excitement every day during the campaign?

Patrick Gossage, former press secretary for Pierre Trudeau and now president of Media Profile, Toronto

AS A DARK SUIT AND A BAD HAIRCUT

He looks like a dark suit with a very pale face plopped on top of it. If he invested in light grey-blues and earth tones, he'd have better success. Also, his hair reminds me of Bill Gates with that kind of helmet-head. It seems like he pulls it over his skull in the morning. He needs a style with some softness to it.

Joanne Blake, founder of Style for Success Inc. business image consulting, Edmonton

The To-Do Lists

Three new leaders, and one with a new lease on political life: it's making for an election buzz utterly unlike Jean Chrétien's three strolls to victory. A capsule look at what's changed for the main parties:

LIBERALS: Chrétien's majorities were never seriously in doubt, and his agenda was for the most part modestly managerial. The latest poll numbers put Paul Martin back into majority territory, but his "historic" and "transformative" change rhetoric sets the stakes higher. Expectations were enormous when he took over last year. Now, he must run a superb campaign to restore that sense of excitement.

CONSERVATIVES: Stephen Harper still has a chance of winning a respectable number of Ontario seats - the big score that eluded Preston Manning and Stockwell Day. The downside: failing to top the 78 seats won by the Alliance and Tory parties in 2000 would make last year's merger look pointless - and polls suggest he might indeed fall short. So he too needs to pick up support on the trail.

NEW DEMOCRATS: Jack Layton has already outstripped Alexa McDonough and Audrey McLaughlin. Yet the Martin-vs.-Harper dynamic dominates. To turn that into a three-way affair, Layton needs to show early promise of knocking off Liberals, especially in Toronto and Vancouver. Polls suggest a near doubling of the NDP's 2000 total of 13 seats. But is even that enough?

BLOC QUÉBÉCOIS: Gilles Duceppe is an unlikely survivor. He might well be the main beneficiary of sponsorship scandal fallout - on track to build substantially on the Bloc's 38 seats in 2000. If his party can thrive even with such a lacklustre leader, and with enthusiasm for separatism lukewarm at best these days, then maybe it really is a permanent political force.

Maclean's May 24, 2004