The new Stephen Harper, safer than the old Harper

Paul Wells on the more reserved prime minister


Mike Sturk/Reuters

So, Stephen Harper, what would you do if a brutal Middle Eastern dictator used chemical weapons against his own people?

“To be blunt about it, any military intervention in this part of the world, any talk of that, should be undertaken with great caution,” the Prime Minister told Global News anchor Dawna Friesen in a year-end interview. “There are enormous dangers here, enormous risks.”

The Prime Minister’s year-end interviews are always worth close reading. Partly because he gives few interviews. Partly because those interviews, widely spaced, show how his thinking changes as circumstances do. This year the changes are stark.

The part I’ve just quoted came when Friesen asked Harper about the possibility that Bashar al-Assad might use chemical weapons against Syrian opponents of his regime.

Would NATO intervene? “Well, I don’t want to speculate.”

Is the use of what we used to call weapons of mass destruction a “red line,” as the Obama administration has called it? That was the question that got Harper talking about risks and caution. “What we can continue to do, as I say, is try to work with elements of the opposition and others to try to push that country to a better solution and try to avoid further escalation of this conflict.”

This is what being Prime Minister does to you. A decade ago, when conversation turned to the use of chemical or biological weapons and the theatre was Iraq, it was Jean Chrétien talking about risks and caution and Harper urging red lines. I dare hope we’ll never get to test the hypothetical in Syria, but it was not only when it came to Assad that this year’s Harper was notably less cocky than previous years’. Chastened, one might say, by a year when the world turned out to be more complex than advertised.

A year ago, Harper gave his big year-end interview to Friesen’s competitor, CTV’s Lisa LaFlamme, and he was quick to explain how eventful the year ahead would be. “I want to make sure that we use it,” he said then about his first majority government. “I’ve seen too many majority governments, the bureaucracy talks them into going to sleep for three years, and then they all of a sudden realize they’re close to an election.”

Harper now counts himself lucky if he wins more days than he loses. “I try to be as well briefed on a range of subjects as I can,” he said, “because I don’t think we’re in an era—it’s not like the movie Lincoln, where we’re deciding the Civil War and we’re deciding slavery.  We’re in an era where there’s a whole lot of decisions that have to be made. And it really is the culmination of getting most of those things right. So I try to work hard, be well briefed on subject matter. I encourage my cabinet ministers and my caucus to do the same thing so that we make more decisions right than we do wrong. Because inevitably we’re not going to get everything right.  We’re not perfect. We can’t see the future.”

Quite a contrast between this Harper and the one who told Ken Whyte, in this magazine a month after the 2011 election, that “the real defining moments for the country and for the world are those big conflicts where everything’s at stake and where you take a side and show you can contribute to the right side.” He named the 20th-century fights against fascism and Communism.

“You suggest that we are in one great conflict, or we’re heading to one,” Whyte said.

“I think we always are,” Harper replied.

But that was then. These days he’s less interested in running off at the mouth. This year the what-will-you-do-with-your-majority question came from Shan Chandrasekar, the president of ATN, the Asian Television Network, with 33 channels in nine languages. “Our agenda does not change,” he said. “We told people in three elections now what it is we’re going to do, and that’s what we do.”

What happened since a year ago? In a word, China. Harper ended 2011 angry at Barack Obama for delaying the Keystone XL project and eager to move toward China as an energy market. He spent 2012 discovering that was more easily said than done; that China would want to play by its own rules, rules Canadians might not like; and that trumpeting his goals was the same as giving opponents a target.

“There is no better place than India,” he told Chandrasekar. “There is no developed country and developing country that are a better match” than Canada and India. On one level he was saying, your audience is Indo-Canadian, let me flatter them. On another it was, “China was no cakewalk.”

Are his plans themselves less ambitious? I think not. He introduced two omnibus budget-implementation bills in 2012, each hundreds of pages of pent-up deregulatory zeal. The opposition was powerless to block them, the press gallery distracted by the daily circus. He will be able to introduce as many as six more like them before a 2015 election. He was reminded in 2012 that he can’t control the world. But he still controls the House of Commons. For most of his plans he needs nothing more.


The new Stephen Harper, safer than the old Harper

  1. I love the picture… looks like his euchre partner just trumped his ace.

    Good article.

    • And he’s wondering if now is a good time to pull that other ace out of his sleeve, and if the old dears will notice at all.

  2. That`s quite a contrast we are being given between the calm, structured, and refusal to be black-mailed approach of Harper and the hysterical, opportunistic, anything for publicity approach of the son of a former PM.

    • Interesting; I didn’t think the article said a darn thing about Justin Trudeau. As for being “opportunistic and anything for publicity:” are we due to see Harper singing, playing the piano, anytime soon? Or holding a kitten? What about dressed in an ill-fitting ethnic outfit — I have been seeing the one of him in the aboriginal costume quite often lately, wonder why? Maybe driving an ATV up north?

      • —-just offering my personal relief that it is Harper dealing with the likes of Spence rather than a fool like Trudeau.
        Those who have been thinking that they would like to have Trudeau as leader are having second and third thoughts.

        • Are they? I also didn’t read that in the article — so what, are you blue-skying because they used a photo of Trudeau? Transferring your own thoughts to others? Or just using this as a free platform to blather the same crap you spew to the same people, day after day? Why not stick to discussing the article?

          • Wait, this isn’t even the article with the Trudeau photo. Also, the article suggests that Harper has grown over the years, matured and become less-cocky and cocksure — while the article is NOT about Trudeau, let me ask you why he wouldn’t also benefit from growing with age and experience? Or is it because he’s the son of a former PM?

            Do you read the articles as they appear, or just launch off typing whatever bilious stream of consciousness is rattling around your head?

          • I`m afraid you have mistaken me for someone who might care for one mili-second about what you think I should comment on.
            Try concentrating on improving your own contribution—most of your comments appear to be the blathering of a naive adolescent.

  3. Good article, total b.s. headline


  4. Repost from Chris Hedges (Pulitzer Prize winner and former war
    correspondent for the New York Times) on Canada’s right-wing neocon Prime
    Minister Stephen Harper:

    Harper is a poster child for corporate malfeasance and
    corporate power, just sort of dismantling everything that’s good about Canada. So he’s the kind of species that rises to
    political power and is utterly subservient to corporate interests at the
    expense of the citizenry.

    Yeah, he’s a pretty venal figure.


    • Nobody cares what some left-wing American loon thinks about our PM.

      • Nobody cares what some American thinks about our PM.
        Our PM doesn’t care what some loon thinks about us.

        There, fixed that.

        Did you say loon? That’s a Canadian symbol, dangit!

  5. His plans are deeply flawed, his vision of the world he is finding is wrong, how can his plans be right? His failure will be measured in the death of Canadians. I am content that he can not care. It is not in his nature to care.

    • Please give a detailed explanation concerning your insinuation about Harper`s flawed plans, his wrong plans, his measured death of Canadians, and your insight into his uncaring nature.

      • CS Lewis had advise for people like Stephen Harper “Of all bad men religious bad men are the worst”.

      • Why is this attack any different from yours on Trudeau, above? You said that was just your “personal opinion” — so why deny other commenters when you did it first? At least Donnie McLeod’s comment was about the friggin’ article.

        • Cuz Andrew thinks his opinions are facts, period.

          • Andrew is typical of a reactionary thinker. When confounded by reasoned thinking they retort with visceral belligerence and maddening conspiracies. Read about this unlucky lot in Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

        • You are absolutely right.
          I should have explained why I believe Trudeau is a fool, though I did think it was self-evident.
          There are many reasons why I think Trudeau is a hysterical, opportunistic publicity hound, but let`s stick to the most recent episode—a pathetic sucking up to a questionable over-weight woman camped out on an island in the Ottawa river.

      • bill c398 says it all

  6. It’s a great pity Harper isn’t as kind [politically] to others as he is to himself. It’s a tough job being PM, but it is also a tough job trying to hold him to account.
    I get what PWs is saying, and even agree to some extent that Harper has grown into the job; but then he has had such a long long way to come, hasn’t he.

    Not to worry Paul. I’m pretty sure were wolf Steve is still in there some where, waiting for the right moon and the right time to bite someone or other.

    • Do you think he has a secret agenda ?
      Yeah, try bringing that one up again—-it has worked real well for your Liberals the last 3 Elections.

      • Actually i was never much of a fan of the liberal strategy of highlighting a hidden so-con agenda – it always seemed a bit half baked to me, and has largely proven to be just that. If Harper really is a so-con it is very unlikely this country is ever going to share his views. As for the “other” hidden agenda – the one PWs says has always been hiding in plain sight – i find that plausible…very. IOWs he intends, bit by bit to change and or destroy the liberal consensus that has operated in this country for many years now. And yes, i believe he is prepared to go there, whether the majority of Canadians approve or not…you can call that hidden if you like…it’s certainly deceitful imo, because he would be out on his ear if he put it clearly and unequivocally – straight up – to the people of this country. It is a big part of why i despise the man.

        • You may wish and imagine that there is a liberal consensus that runs this country, and there is certainly a– middle of the spectrum– that most Canadians are comfortable with, however, the swing to the left in the years previous to 2006 needed some correction.
          That`s where PM Harper comes in. He is helping to move the country back to that point of comfort—that point may be a bit harsh for sensitive souls like yourself, but be patient—you will be fine when you get there.
          Maybe then you will learn to love the man.

          • Lol …and pigs may fly sometime too. He’ll never get beyond grudging respect from me. I was talking about a large l liberal consensus…it’s not the sole property of the LPC at all. Trust me, look it up.

  7. I recall in his earliest days of being PM he stated he would rather lose an election than withdraw from Aghanistan – how times change. I think he’s done damage to the polity that may be irreversible and I very much doubt I will ever vote for him, but if the only sitting world leader who still believes Iraq had weapons of mass destruction is thinking a little less rashly these days, it’s all to the good.

    Of course, Baird and Kenney are probably off barking up a storm somewhere being less even handed…

  8. I like the comments where people say what they think about politics better than the ones where a commenter jumps down another commenter’s throat for disagreeing. There sure are a lot of the second kind these days. Please don’t say it’s that other commenter’s fault. Look inside. Thanks.

  9. Can’t wait to see what he does with his second majority!