Tories Regroup After Bad Spring

STEPHEN HARPER is in trouble. On that, a wide spectrum of Conservatives agree, though they argue over what sort and how deep. Among Tory MPs, the prevailing view is that their leader suffers from a persistent, but superficial, image problem.

Tories Regroup After Bad Spring

STEPHEN HARPER is in trouble. On that, a wide spectrum of Conservatives agree, though they argue over what sort and how deep. Among Tory MPs, the prevailing view is that their leader suffers from a persistent, but superficial, image problem. With the House likely to wrap up this week, they're hoping Harper's plan to tour the country and flip plenty of burgers during the summer break will boost his appeal. But among some right-of-centre activists, it's Harper's devotion to basic policies and willingness to convey them to Canadians that's seen as faltering. Their unsolicited advice: worry less about attacking Liberal corruption and more about selling core Conservative principles - the sort of serious stuff that can be tough to slip into conversation when you have an oversized spatula in your hand.

Into this debate over what Harper must do to bounce back in the polls comes a new book - the kind that passes for deck chair reading among politics addicts. William Johnson's Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada is an unabashed, 418-page fan letter. But while the author doesn't hide his admiration for his subject, this biography is thorough enough to illuminate Harper's faults even as it focuses on his strengths. Along with being a veteran political columnist, Johnson is an English-language rights activist in Quebec. So it's no surprise that he devotes a lot of attention to Harper's stance on Quebec during the constitutional wars of the 1990s. In fact, Johnson was so impressed by Harper's demands during the 1995 referendum for stringent conditions before separation could be considered, that he credits him with having shown "better judgment in addressing the issue of secession than any other politician."

Yet if Johnson saw Harper as a true conviction politician a decade ago - and still does today - other observers seem less sure. John Williamson, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a non-partisan lower-taxes advocacy group, slams Harper's Conservatives for watering down key positions in recent months, when it looked like the Liberal minority might fall in the wake of new revelations at Justice John Gomery's sponsorship inquiry. "They were so fixated on running an election on Gomery that policies began to come unravelled," Williamson charges.

He complains that the Tories have matched a recent spree of Liberal spending promises that he estimated at $26 billion. On the government's policy that will pump $5 billion of gas tax money over five years to municipal governments, Williamson gripes that the Conservatives have promised not to alter the plan - except perhaps to spend more. Similarly, he faults the Conservatives for edging too close to the government on issues such as child care and Kyoto, although in both these cases Tories claim their positions have been misunderstood or misrepresented. Still, they are clearly having trouble getting that point across. "Are Conservative policies going to be Liberal Lite," Williamson asks, "or something different?"

A more fundamental question is whether Harper has permanently given up on talking boldly about health care. A few years ago, he bluntly described the government monopoly on health insurance as the biggest policy problem facing Canada. But when the Supreme Court of Canada issued its recent landmark decision striking down Quebec's ban on private insurance - and paving the way for similar court challenges from other provinces - the Tories were in no position to capitalize. Under Harper, the party has made its health policy all but indistinguishable from the Liberal doctrine of strict adherence to the medicare status quo. "What the court said was that, in Quebec, people should be able to buy private insurance and pay for services privately," said MP Steven Fletcher, health critic in Harper's shadow cabinet. "And the Conservative party does not support that position."

That baffles Rick Peterson, chair of the Conservative Council, a group of Tory supporters who cast themselves as independent advocates for better policy. Health is exactly the sort of issue where Peterson sees room for the party to sell an alternative vision. He's critical of Harper's team for being too fixated on slamming the Liberals, particularly over the sponsorship scandal, and not energetic enough when it comes to making distinctive Conservative options sound appealing. "This is a very basic branding exercise we haven't done yet," Peterson says. "The positive has been lacking." He stops well short of calling for Harper's head, though. "It's a messaging problem. It's not something that you have to change the leader to fix."

All the debate over Harper's woes flows from a familiar source: the latest polls. New GOMERY INQUIRY revelations briefly hammered the Liberals in April opinion surveys, but the governing party has bounced back. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have slipped, and Harper's own approval numbers suffered. So Liberals, improbably, are heading to the cottage after this spring of scandal feeling upbeat. But Johnson's book aims to take a longer view than the poll-driven political mood swings. He methodically traces Harper's evolution from a quiet Toronto suburb to his ideological awakening at the University of Calgary and then helping create the Reform Party, to his dual triumph in forming the new Conservative party and becoming its first leader. Along the way, Harper has been "constantly underestimated," Johnson says. And Harper's resilience, according to Johnson, is rooted in ideas. "He is not primarily a deal-maker, but primarily a policy wonk, a public intellectual."

That's not a new view of Harper, who has often been portrayed as a deep thinker, and a deeply committed one. But does it hold up today? Even Johnson's laudatory account includes hints that a less resolute Harper has emerged. On U.S. relations, for example, Johnson sees Harper as having "softened his past support for the Iraq war" and equivocated on Canadian participation in U.S. ballistic missile defence. Even on Quebec, Harper's strong suit in Johnson's view, the author sees the Tory leader as "willing to go a long way to curry favour." Johnson is especially tough on the side deal Martin negotiated for Quebec in last fall's health accord and which Harper supported, calling it an example of the sort of asymmetrical federalism "calculated to tear a federation apart."

Many Tory insiders will view all this as good news. To them, Harper's problem is that he has looked too tough. More flexibility is part of the solution - the right outlook for a summer image makeover. But can Harper sustain a sunny disposition? Johnson's portrayal raises doubts. While he respects Harper's intellect, he also sees him as driven by "unrelenting contempt" for his Liberal adversaries, not to mention "a touch of paranoia with respect to the news media." No matter how many footballs Harper tosses, or how much grilled food he chows down on this summer, contempt and paranoia are hard to disguise - and tough to sell to Canadian voters in any season.

Maclean's June 27, 2005