From the June 3 edition of Maclean’s:
“Colleagues, we have an active and important agenda on the issues that matter to hard-working Canadian families,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the Conservative caucus on Tuesday. “And there is much work to be done.”
Let us see how active and important Harper’s governing agenda is these days.
On May 20, Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, resigned, allegedly for writing a $90,000 cheque to save Sen. Mike Duffy from an investigation into his spending and expense claims. Here’s what was on the Prime Minister’s website on the day Wright’s resignation was announced; this is the story the government wants to tell you about its agenda.
The top item on his website was Harper’s visit to Prince Edward Island to announce $7 million in funding for subsidies to three businesses, under a program Jean Chrétien launched 12 years ago. The second item was his visit to Winnipeg for a round table on cyberbullying. (He’s against it.) Third up was an account of a Quebec City visit where he announced funding for clean-energy projects. Harper, as you know, is a noted advocate of clean energy. Finally, the website’s main story window announced “initiatives to strengthen co-operation with Trinidad and Tobago.”
Poking around listlessly, trying not to nod off, we find other elements of Harper’s active and important agenda. The Prime Minister attended celebrations of Vaisakhi, a Sikh celebration, on Parliament Hill. He announced that the Calgary Child Advocacy Centre will be renamed the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre. He gave Mark Messier the Order of Hockey in Canada. He was sad when Margaret Thatcher died.
If my intention were satirical, I could not concoct a more insipid pile of imaginary announcements for the fake website of a fictional prime minister wheezing through his 84th year in power.
A government is like a shark. If it stops swimming, it drowns. Harper has lasted 11 years as a party leader for two reasons: He was never alone and he had a plan. Indeed, it’s the plan that has often helped keep him from being alone, because his are a loner’s instincts. He reached out to the Progressive Conservatives in 2003 after battling them for 16 years because he knew his Canadian Alliance was too slim a platform for a man who aspired to govern. He made serious concessions to Quebec nationalism after mistrusting it all his life. After he united the Conservative party, he reached outside its bounds to attract Liberal MPs—David Emerson, Wajid Khan—and then, through Jason Kenney’s ethnic-outreach efforts, he took away an ever-growing bite of the Liberal voter base.
At every moment, he could afford such bold moves because he was secure in his leadership of the Canadian conservative movement. Harper’s critics tend to describe him as a loner, a brain in a jar created by mad scientists toiling in underground laboratories at the University of Calgary. But in fact he has expressed a broad cultural conservatism in the land. Millions of Canadians have been happy he is their Prime Minister. Knowing he had a base, he could build beyond it through decisive action.
And now? He is increasingly alone and isolated. Look across the country, across the border, around the world, and even within his own caucus.
He has, perhaps, one provincial ally, Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall. He has not met the premiers as a group since November 2008. The last time Canada went that long without a first ministers’ conference, Louis St. Laurent was the prime minister.
On Canada-U.S. relations, Harper used to lecture Chrétien on his lousy rapport with George W. Bush. Harper’s own interaction with Obama is no better. He has campaigned since 2007 against environmentalists, calling them economy-wreckers, agents of foreign interests, attackers of Canada’s West. Today he needs a really big favour from the environmentalist who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington. And it turns out, Obama has been listening all along.
Overseas, he has one solid friendship, with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. But it’s Obama who gets both Netanyahu and Israel’s neighbours to take steps away from stalemate and toward peace. Harper has claimed to be close to a trade deal with the European Union since 2011. He has nothing to show for it. He made a high-profile trip to China at the beginning of 2012. He has not been back. He tabled an investment-protection deal with China eight months ago. He hasn’t implemented it.
We will get to this business with Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy. But back up a few weeks, to before their secret deal was ever reported. Even then, every major story about the Conservatives this season was about members of the caucus and the party base inching away from Harper. An odd caucus coalition of anti-abortion social conservatives and centre-right High Tory procedure wonks has rebelled, durably and with some success, against his party discipline. The pro-life movement used to provide some of the Conservatives’ most enthusiastic volunteers and steadfast contributors. Now one group has identified Harper as the biggest obstacle to progress against abortion, and is distributing postcards that feature Harper’s photo next to one of an aborted fetus.
In private conversations with reporters, Conservatives were calling for Harper to provide far more detail about the Duffy-Wright deal than he did on Tuesday. He let them down, as he has often done in this drama. Duffy was Harper’s choice for Senate. Wright was Harper’s chief of staff, working under Harper’s nose. When their plot was revealed, Harper’s response was to make a great show of reminding his MPs to keep their own noses clean. It’s like a neighbourhood kid who sends a baseball through your living-room window and then comes over to lecture you on your clumsiness.
All of this would matter less—to Conservatives, to the country—if it felt like a distraction from an “active and important agenda.” Of course, some of this government’s activity is well-known and broadly popular among Conservatives. Since the 2011 election, Harper has shut down the Health Council of Canada, the National Council of Welfare, the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, Rights and Democracy, the First Nations Statistical Institute and the National Council of Visible Minorities. The Millennium Scholarship Foundation, the Council for Canadian Unity and the Canadian Council on Learning were shut down a little earlier. The end of the mandatory long-form census was only the beginning of sharp cuts at Statistics Canada.
But Harper has preferred not to announce most of that. His goal is to last long enough in power to durably limit the federal government’s ability to intervene in Canadian public life. The only part of the job that seems to interest him is the part that involves wandering around Ottawa, boarding up old government offices. And it’s work he’s reluctant to admit to.
I offer no prediction about his long-term political survival. He has recovered before, many times. But he did it by reaching beyond his comfort zone to unlikely allies in the service of a bold agenda. His new chief of staff, Ray Novak, has been working for Harper so long, he actually remembers those days. Maybe the two of them can bring that confident, surprising Harper back. It would be a change of pace if they did.
Watch Paul Wells and John Geddes discuss the latest on the Wright and Harper’s terrible week: