Stephen Harper (Profile)

JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING you hear repeated about Stephen HARPER does more to obscure than reveal him. He's said to be a policy wonk at heart.

Harper, Stephen (Profile)

JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING you hear repeated about Stephen HARPER does more to obscure than reveal him. He's said to be a policy wonk at heart. But isn't his main accomplishment to date, orchestrating the merger of the CANADIAN ALLIANCE and the PROGRESSIVE CONSERVATIVES, the work of a master tactician? He's often described as icily unemotional. But how does that square with his more impulsive gestures, such as his op-ed outbursts after the 2000 election, in which he essentially declared himself for Alberta first, the rest of Canada a distant second - a recklessly hotheaded move for a man with national aspirations? And then there are his own frequent claims that he's a reluctant politician, uncomfortable with putting himself on display. Odd, then, that Harper plays such a personalized brand of politics, contrasting himself as an ordinary middle-class guy, concerned about saving for his two kids' educations, against a millionaire Prime Minister born to political influence.

At least the cliché about Harper being a rigid ideologue has, for the most part, been put to rest. He now seems willing to bend on issues (to the breaking point, critics say) - his Conservatives have recently said they would even implement the Kyoto climate change treaty. That has driven home the message that he has grown more flexible as a middle-aged Tory leader than he looked capable of back when he was a whippersnapper REFORM policy thinker. In fact, whispers that he has gone soft have gradually replaced the old charges that he was too brittle. Which leaves the voter with a nagging question to answer as the country lurches toward an increasingly probable spring election call: who is this guy who looked last June like he might become prime minister, and has emerged less than a year later as even more of a threat to evict Paul MARTIN from 24 Sussex Drive?

Harper, 46, was born in Toronto and grew up in its prosperous suburbs. He briefly joined Pierre TRUDEAU's Liberals as a teenager, but it didn't take. His political awakening came a few years later, after he moved to Alberta to toil briefly in the oil industry (his father worked for Imperial Oil) and then study economics at the University of Calgary. Harper came under the thrall of one of his professors, Robert Mansell, and was generally caught up in the university's ferment of right-leaning economics and politics. This was during the early 1980s, when the revolutions of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher overshadowed political debate everywhere. But it was a distinctively Canadian uproar - the controversy over Trudeau's National Energy Policy - that really got Harper's juices flowing.

Harper has often spoken about how the damage the NEP did to Alberta's oil-patch economy, the lost jobs and ruined businesses, turned him into a political animal. He went to work for a Calgary Tory MP, Jim Hawkes. After growing disillusioned with Brian MULRONEY's Conservatives, he switched to Preston MANNING's nascent Reform movement, gaining attention in 1987 as the insurgent party's brainy young policy chief. As an economist and a methodical platform architect, he was pegged as a smart, if rather dry, up-and-comer. But this pat assessment missed the passion behind what pulled him into politics - how much he despised Trudeau.

That negative inspiration has stayed with him. Shortly after Trudeau's death in 2000, Harper wrote revealingly of his feelings toward the dominant political figure of his youth. He recalled running into the former prime minister by chance on the streets of Montreal in 1999. "There I came face to face with a living legend, someone who had provoked in me both the loves and hatreds of my political passion, all in the form of a tired out, little, old man," Harper wrote in a newspaper column that stood out from the flood of Trudeau tributes. "It was an experience at once unforgettable, nostalgic and haunting." He went on to denounce that old man's legacy in the bitterest terms. Not only did he rebuke Trudeau's policy mix of "centralism, socialism and bilingualism," he even indicted him for failing to serve in the Second World War or oppose the Soviet Union. "In those battles," Harper wrote, "the ones that truly defined his century, Mr. Trudeau took a pass."

It would be hard to find another major Canadian politician who has laid bare the emotional core of his politics so starkly. No matter what one thinks of Harper's harsh verdict on Trudeau, his assessment can't be described as cool. And perhaps his intense animus against an iconic Liberal is showing these days in Harper's eagerness to read the complex tale of the sponsorship scandal as proof the whole party is rotten to the core. Asked recently if he would concede that it is possible only some Liberals are guilty - surely a possible, even likely, conclusion of Justice John Gomery's inquiry - Harper waved off the distinction between the misdeeds of a few and the culpability of all Liberals. "I think at this point we're arguing about the details," he said.

Many voters apparently don't see the scandal in the same stark terms. Last week, a Strategic Counsel poll showed the Liberals pulling slightly back ahead of the Conservatives, after Martin went on TV promising to call an election within 30 days of Gomery filing his final report late this year. Even as the Liberals slog through the muck, Canadians still don't seem ready to leap to the Tory alternative.

Harper has long been quicker to reject Canada's ruling elite than the average voter, at least since he swung from the Tories to Reform in the mid-1980s. Yet that passion seemed to go unnoticed by most, who saw only Harper's meticulous, economics-based approach. Harper was viewed as a cold fish in comparison to the feistily folksy Deborah Grey or Manning himself, with his Bible-radio populism. Harper was cast as the hard-core neo-conservative, inspired by Reagan and Thatcher, wired to the University of Calgary's brain trust, but without much in the way of political instincts and skills. No doubt his appearance reinforced that impression of detachment: his gaze is sometimes chilling enough to count as a tool in the country's anti-global-warming arsenal.

Yet Harper's impact inside the Reform party came more from the way he pushed a particular strategy for winning than any set of policies. According to his closest adviser, University of Calgary political science professor Tom Flanagan, Harper criticized Manning for pursuing a "hinterland" strategy, whereas Harper wanted to go after the mass of middle-class voters in central Canada. "He pointed out," Flanagan wrote in Waiting for the Wave, "that the rural resource-producing regions did not have a large enough population or enough parliamentary seats to achieve Manning's goal of someday forming a government."

Harper served as a Reform policy chief and then as an MP until 1997, when he quit to lead the National Citizens Coalition, a right-wing lobby group. He said he was leaving because he wanted to speak his mind more freely than being an MP allowed. But as NCC president, his most memorable comments, arguably, were not an ideologue's free-flowing arguments on the issues of the day, but a strategist's closely reasoned observations about party affairs he had supposedly left behind.

Perhaps his most intriguing speech during his NCC hiatus was one he delivered in April 1998 to the Mortgage Loans Association of Alberta. In it, Harper recounted, in the style of a good memoirist, how in the spring of 1996, when he was still an MP, he spent a few weeks away from the Parliament Hill fray after the birth of his son, Benjamin. Apparently fatherhood put him in a mood of mellow introspection. He came to a turning point: his rejection of the Progressive Conservatives - the very foundation of Reform and of his own partisanship - had to be reversed. Harper decided Reform's verve and principals needed to be merged with the Tories' "penchant for incremental change and strong sense of honourable compromise." That was the way to win. Still, he viewed Manning's United Alternative bid to use a grassroots process to bring the parties together as doomed. Harper said only negotiations handled along the lines of a business merger would work.

And that's exactly what happened, of course. Harper came back from the NCC to win the Canadian Alliance leadership in 2002. Joe CLARK was Tory leader then, and wouldn't seriously consider a merger - as Harper realized. But the following spring, Peter MacKay succeeded Clark, and even though MacKay had sworn not to pursue a merger, Harper shrewdly sized him up as a likely deal-maker. He pushed for negotiations to be treated like behind-closed-doors corporate merger talks, just as he had described four years earlier, and made the process work almost through force of will. Many who had viewed Harper as an inflexible neo-con with no knack for coalition-building didn't see it coming. He won a new sort of respect, if grudging, among Ottawa insiders who esteem above all else a guy who can make things happen.

If Harper's vision for making conservatism an electoral contender in Canada has been remarkably consistent, his discipline when it comes to sending a saleable message is less reliable. The same deep-seated anti-Liberal, Alberta-centric passion that lies at the root of his partisan drive sometimes seems to prompt him to vent opinions that don't serve his long-term ambitions. The best-known example is the open letter to Ralph Klein, which Harper signed in early 2001, along with five other Alberta political and academic right-wingers. The letter urged the premier to "build firewalls around Alberta, to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate jurisdiction."

Harper's adversaries will forever cite the firewall manifesto as evidence that he doesn't see Ottawa as having a legitimate role in areas like health care. Less famous, but possibly even more revealing of Harper's black mood in the same period, is an op-ed piece he published alone in December 2000, just after the Stockwell DAY-led Alliance was defeated by Jean CHRÉTIEN's Liberals in that fall's election. He admitted Day had run a poor campaign, but still attributed the Alliance loss to Liberal attacks on Day's Alberta base. In Harper's view, the fact this ploy had worked was evidence that anti-Western politics "has an enormous market in this country." He bitterly concluded: "Alberta and much of the rest of Canada have embarked on divergent and potentially hostile paths to defining their country." How did he define those two paths? Alberta was "open, dynamic and prosperous," while "Canada appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country."

It's hard to imagine Harper would have published those harsh words if he considered how they might resonate should he return to federal politics. Now he drags that baggage with him, a potentially serious liability as he tries to solidify his image as a national figure and a moderate leader. He doesn't talk that way anymore. But he's still for Ottawa giving the provinces more autonomy and more money, though he insists he's not proposing "a major realignment of responsibilities." Exactly how he envisions the rebalancing of financial clout and policy leadership between Ottawa and the provinces is not clear. Whether even he knows is uncertain, since much would depend on negotiations with the premiers. "What I'm promising here is not a simple thing," he admits. "It requires significant agreement."

While his vow to renegotiate federalism could be big stuff, much of the rest of Tory policy under Harper is muted. The party is committed to the status quo on abortion. The old Reform preoccupation with citizen-driven referendums and direct democracy has all but disappeared. How far Harper is willing to go on cutting taxes remains to be seen. "He has been persuaded that the safest way to power is to take no chances," says Rick Anderson, a former Manning adviser who has feuded with Harper since the old Reform days. "Intelligent political parties evolve and rethink things, but what's going on is not an updating, it's an erasing."

Others are more forgiving of Harper's appeal to the mainstream. "I don't think he's changed his views," says University of Calgary political science professor Barry Cooper. "It's really a matter of packaging so you can be acceptable to people in Ontario who have a problem with Westerners."

Don't expect more provocative policies to emerge on the campaign trail. The stump speech Harper was test driving in Ontario last week showed off little of his alleged ideological toughness, and a great deal more traditional partisanship. Among the zingers: Liberals put a higher priority on getting foreign strippers into Canada than immigrant MBAs and MDs; the Liberals' child care plan would end up making daycare so expensive young couples couldn't afford to have kids; Liberals spent money on new executive jets for cabinet ministers instead of upgrading Canadian Forces equipment. Good hustings material, no doubt, and there are even grains of truth scattered in there. But these applause lines hardly support the view of Harper as an aloof economist who doesn't care much for performance politics. He delivers his material with too much relish for anyone paying attention to buy that.

Even more telling is his willingness to personalize his partisan attacks. In declaring his bid for the leadership of the new CONSERVATIVE PARTY last year, he portrayed himself as having an average-guy background that better suits him to the prime ministership than Martin's upbringing as the son of a senior Liberal cabinet minister. "I was not born into a family with a seat at the Cabinet table," Harper declared. "I grew up playing on the streets of Toronto, not playing in the corridors of power."

When he scorns Liberals for viewing power as a birthright, as he often does, he might be referring either to the party's long grip on government or Martin's own lineage. Or both. He turns a battle of ideologies into a clash of party cultures - and a highly personal confrontation. Part of the package is his appealing family image. He married Laureen Teskey, a graphic designer who was a Reform member when they met in 1991, and they have two children, Benjamin, 9, and Rachel, about to turn 6. Deborah Grey has said she thinks family life mellowed Harper. It certainly added a dimension to his public persona. His wife and children were out for the cameras in last year's election, even featured in a Conservative TV ad. Harper often makes references to reading aloud to his kids, taking his son to hockey, even cooking them Kraft Dinner. The message: I'm no shipping magnate, I'm like you.

When Martin cut a budget deal with NDP Leader Jack LAYTON last week to try to shore up his minority, Harper lashed out at the pact as "the most disgraceful thing I've seen in all my years on Parliament Hill." He vowed to bring down the government as soon as he can. No doubt policy issues will be hashed out in the election, whenever it comes. Harper will make his cases for lower taxes, a new deal for the provinces, a more focused federal government. But anyone who expects him to be cerebral and platform-oriented hasn't been paying close attention. The real Harper is instinctively strategic, occasionally volatile, and always passionately partisan. Don't assume those eyes are icy. The hottest flames are blue, too.

Maclean's May 9, 2005