Harper's talent for turning - Macleans.ca

Harper’s talent for turning

Five years on, the prime minister has perfected his ‘spinnerama’


There’s only one big thing about Stephen Harper that we know after his five years in power that we didn’t know before. We know how brazen he can be. It’s been a cardinal quality of past prime ministers, too.

Before his Jan. 23, 2006 election victory, we already knew about Harper’s ideological roots from his days in the Reform and Canadian Alliance parties, and even more clearly from his verbally freewheeling hiatus as head of the National Citizens Coalition. We also knew that his convictions were subsumed in the political drive he displayed by first wrenching the Alliance from Stockwell Day, then merging it with the Progressive Conservatives to unite the right.

But if we knew a lot about what fuels him and how he rolls, we didn’t know if he had that particular knack that we seem to secretly admire in our elected leaders. We didn’t know how his face would look, how his voice would sound, how he would adjust his posture, when he had to turn on a dime. Swallow himself whole. Brazen it out.

I’m thinking here about the quality that allowed Pierre Trudeau to mock Robert Stanfield’s proposal for wage and price controls—“Zap! You’re frozen!”—and then, safely reelected, serve up his own recipe for the same dish with a shrug. About the quality that Jean Chrétien exemplified when he declined to apologize for reneging on his campaign pledge to abolish the GST, even after his finance minister had offered a hangdog admission that making that unkeepable promise had been “an honest mistake.”

Harper has repeatedly shown himself in their league when it comes to the political version of the move once called, in the arena of Canada’s other national spectacle, the spinnerama. What’s remarkable about Harper’s twirl is how he’s managed, in five short years, to find occasion to perform it on such a fascinating range of core policies.

Start with the single issue that best defined the Reform attitude toward Ottawa. To Preston Manning’s populists, the Senate came to represent everything unaccountable about federal power. So overhauling the patronage chamber was a central tenet for them. Still respectful of that base, Harper vowed in 2006 to create a process for choosing elected Senators, and swore off naming any until he’d succeeded.

Then, in late 2008, he appointed 18 senators all at once. It was just after the coalition crisis. He’d confronted the real possibility that the opposition might take over and fill the vacancies with their partisans. Since then, he’s packed the Senate with Tory faithful at will. The top Conservative strategist, Doug Finley, sits there collecting $132,300 a year courtesy of the taxpayer.

CBC’s Peter Mansbridge asked Harper about appointing senators in their recent sit-down. “Look, Peter, I went three years without—I think I appointed one or two senators,” Harper replied. “But ultimately that didn’t get us anywhere.” In other words, Be reasonable—how long was I supposed to honour that pledge, anyway?

If naming Senators by the dozen exposed Harper’s willingness to jettison positions rooted in Reform, his flexibility on fiscal matters demonstrates how little his old University of Calgary conservative economic orthodoxy restrains him.

During the fall 2008 campaign, he said there would be no return to deficit spending even as global credit markets collapsed. A month later, though, with the economic crisis deepening, he gave speech in Peru for the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum. “These are, of course, the classic circumstances under which budgetary deficits are essential,” Harper stated flatly, adding: “I say this with some reluctance.”

Yes, of course, reluctance. How distasteful. Not unpredictable, though. Here at Maclean’s, for instance, we flagged the likelihood of a federal deficit nearly seven months earlier (“Surplus anxiety,” May 7, 2008). By the time Harper was dismissing the possibility on the campaign trail, the distinct possibility of deficits was even more obvious. Yet when he changed his tune, he did so with not a hint shamefacedness, not a trace of contrition.

So he gyrated on democratic reform—the Senate. He reversed on a key economic policy—the deficit. That left foreign and defence policy—Afghanistan.

From the time the House passed a motion in 2008 to end Canada’s military mission in Kandahar in 2011, Harper was adamant about what that meant: Canada would shift to an entirely “civilian, development, humanitarian mission.” Oh, a few soldiers might left to guard to embassy in Kabul. He emphatically dismissed talk of switching Canadians troops over to training Afghan soldiers. Until he changed his mind late last fall.

“Look, I’m not going to kid you,” he said then. “Down deep, my preference would be, would have been, to see a complete end to the military mission. But as we approach that date, the facts on the ground convince me that the Afghan military needs further training.”

His tone was by then familiar. As with the Senate and the deficit, Harper was uneager, but also matter-of-fact. On each jarring about-face, he conveys a sense of inevitability. Naturally, reasonable folks will see that this was his only choice.

It’s an invaluable political skill to be able to shift course so frequently without ever conveying caprice. Here’s the strangest thing: like Trudeau and Chrétien before him, Harper never seems to me more in control, more himself, more above the fray, than when he’s changing his mind.

If he said he was sorry, we’d find him weak. Even worse would be any glimmer of admission that he’d deceived us by ever sounding so sure of himself on the position he’s abandoning.

It’s not that we want to be lied to. It’s that when a prime minister decides to change direction, we apparently want him to get on with it and not fret. And Harper, as we’ve learned, shifts course more and frets less than anyone, five years back, could reasonably have predicted.

Anyone can look good when they’re right. More formidable is the ability to look strong when events have proven you wrong.


Harper’s talent for turning

  1. And were that it, to some extent it could be seen as the actions of an extremist learning to grow up. But he's pulled so many other stunts – some atrocious – that he almost seems to enjoy doing the wrong thing.

    And if you go back even farther, his Afghanistan stuff is even more out of key with current position. he said he'd rather lose an election than bring soldiers home before stability was assured.

    • Really?

      Is it possible?

      You mean to tell me that things HAVE NOT changed those years ago???

      This article plays to its base. In an election Harper will still win with a minority because everyone in this country votes the same way every time, give or take.

  2. 'More formidable is the ability to look strong when events have proven you wrong.'

    Well actually, he's been wrong so often he resembles a pinwheel.

    • Which explains his stupid cowardly refusal to admit that he was wrong to destroy the long-form census. Not enough guts to to to repair the harm he has done.

      • there's no harm in removing government from your data, or wallet.

        • And end up bereft of useful info at a huge cost to taxpayers.

  3. I'm not sure you can say that an apology would make him weak. I think we need to have a politician that tries it once before you can make any such claim.

    Personally, I feel that Canadians would be happy with a politician who actually came out and said, "We told you X. We were wrong. We're fixing that now, and taking steps to make sure it doesn't happen again."

    • Depends. Remember, he kinda tried that with income trusts. He pretended nobody could have predicted that more companies would adopt them if they were given parliamentary approval – a position more insulting to the listener than humbling for the speaker.

      • Which only strengthens my point. Nobody saw him as "weak" for doing that. We saw that he was a duplicitous liar.

        I guess the qualifier I needed to add was that the apology should be at least honest.

        • That worked for Ralph Klein sometimes; he did apologize sometimes for saying or doing something stupid (not always, though). But he reminded me of the kind of man who beats his wife, apologizes abjectly and treats her like a queen for a while, then goes back to beating her.

  4. Some talking head on CBC radio this morning was lamenting that Harper had governed "like a Liberal" and hadn't governed according to conservatives principles of low taxation, smaller government and fiscal responsibility.

    Can anybody name a single administration (north or south of the border) that's followed those "principles", except for cutting taxes? Reagan, Bush senior, Bush junior, Mulroney, Mike Harris, Stephen Harper… they mostly did the easy step – cutting taxes – but did any of them do it in a fiscally responsible way (ie. balanced by spending cuts)? Did any of them balance a budget? And did any of them restrain growth of government?

    Meanwhile, three left-of-centre administrations come to mind (Clinton, Chretien, McGuinty) that balanced their budgets and (in two cases) cut taxes without delivering unrestrained growth of government.

    And yet people still bloviate about treasured conservative "principles" which never seem to be applied. They just sigh and express their disappointment in the politicians they elect. Weird.

    • There was a paper done on this.. damn.. can't remember where.

      Basically, it postulated that people maintain these views because under democratic/liberal governments, when people generally are doing better, the media present stories of those who aren't.. of those who've fallen behind. Why? Because people doing better isn't "news" in that scenario, it's common.

      Conversely, when conservative/republican governments get into power and things take a turn for the worse (as they almost inevitably do), the media starts reporting on the success stories. Why? Because success is the new "news" and people doing worse are just status quo.

      So what people see is that under conservative governments, people do better, and under non-conservative governments, they do worse.. even though our own personal experience may contradict both of those.

      Something I always try to remember — if it's news, it's because it's not the norm. If it was normal, it wouldn't be news.

      After all, there's a reason we will generally see a news report if a plane has crashed, but not if a car has crashed.

    • TJ noted:
      "Some talking head on CBC radio this morning was lamenting that Harper had governed "like a Liberal"

      Actually, TJ…..if Harper had been governing like a LIberal………

      We would have had a bunch of RCMP investigations into theft, corruption and bribery by now.

      Harper, is governing like someone in a Minority Parliament.

      • You mean like they didn't do for Cadman, In-and-out, and Guergis?

        Oh wait.. they did.

        Perhaps that's the other big thing we've learned about Harper. He's better at covering his tracks.

        • Here's the thing about Cadman, In-out, and Guergis Thwim…..

          The Government in power wasn't stealing money from the taxpayers to line their own pockets. The Liberals' were doing that. No doubt, they would do it again as soon as they were able.

          Secondly, the CADMAN thing was never shown to have connection to Harper.
          In-Out. Nothing done wrong here….and the other parties' knew it….as they did it themselves.
          Guergis – You don't have to find the steaming pile to know something doesn't smell right.

          • Actually, the Cadman bribery scandal was never proven because the Conservatives sued the Liberals and secured a gag order as a settlement. But everybody in the country heard the now-Prime Minister say that he knew that "financial considerations" were being offered to Cadman as part of a push to swing his vote.

            Never, never, never has Harper explained what seems to be an attempt to bribe a sitting MP in exchange for a vote.

            As for the In-and-Out scandal, the Conservatives seem to have escaped serious consequences for that as well (though again they used the courts in a novel way – what political party has ever sued Elections Canada?). Anyway, I try not to make more of In-and-Out than it is, but to me it looks like an unethical abuse of election finance rules.

            For me, the real scandal on Guergis is that a lightweight like Guergis was ever in cabinet to start with.

      • Whereas Harper works to derail investigations into Conservative theft, corruption and bribery. In and out and other election dishonesty. Cadman bribe offer. Russell Ullyatt leaking finance committee memo; and running a political mail company out of an MP's office.

      • 'Harper, is governing like someone in a Minority Parliament."

        Right – he's thrown conservative "principles" out the window, but it's the opposition's fault. Hey, I guess if you believe that it's truly difficult for Harper to govern like this, it's not a stretch to believe him when he says he's been "free of major scandal".

  5. This is the test of governing. No one’s principles can remain entirely intact while governing for 5+ years: The unpredictability of events and the need to respond to them responsibly make it impossible. Principled partisans on both sides complain about these type of about-faces, but its easy to when you don’t have to live with the consequences. Most of the moderately-engaged political centre forgives these changes because they recognize them as the responsible decisions – it helps, as Geddes says, when the leader is so good at pulling it off – as Trudeau, Chretien were and Harper seems to be.

    Prime Ministers lose in one of two instances:
    1. When the political-centre stops thinking that the decisions are good ones, or:
    2. When the base of support thinks the principles have been sacrificed too much

    So far, Harper is doing well enough on both counts.

    Canadian governments eventually defeat themselves, essentially when the citizens tire of them, they are almost never defeated by the opposition’s proposals.

    The Canadian public is not tired of Harper yet.

    • "The lady's not for turning!" PM Margaret Thatcher.

      She governed for ten years after saying that.

    • People can sometimes forgive a certain amount of going back on one's word. Harper, in a short time, seems to have broken promises becuase it makes him happy to do so – like a child throwing rocks at cars.

    • I'd argue that they are, but the collective "public" hasn't figured out who it wants more, just yet.

  6. Gosh…if everybody would just let Harp be Dictator For Life, he'd have a much easier time of it, right?

    • Emily seems to be commenting continually. The Liberal party should hire you full time or least pay you per comment.

      • Most commenters on here comment continually. Stick to the topic please.

  7. Adaptable and pragmatic. Fine with me.

    "like Trudeau and Chrétien before him" Gotta love it, lol!!

  8. Here's another of Stephen Harper's about turns circa 1995:

    "Although I can't speak of the details because it is not my area of expertise, what Mr. Klein is doing in Alberta is, in principle, what governments need to do. He is taking a look at a situation that is unsustainable financially and he is taking the steps necessary through expenditure reductions to eliminate that financial uncertainty on a permanent basis within the life of a single Parliament. That is the only way it ever gets done. Any politician who says he is going to do it over two Parliaments is never going to do it. That's the golden rule. That's something that you can learn from Ralph Klein."

    Extending that logic to its ultimate possible conclusions:

    1.) We'll never have another federal election.
    2.) We'll never have a balanced budget under Harper's Conservative government.

    Here's the rest of Mr. Harper's speech:


  9. Ralph Klein was a brilliant politician in that he was not afraid to reverse decisions based on the reaction of the public. He knew who elected him and who kept him in office and he kept them happy. Stephen Harper has made some tactical mis-steps – cutting the culture budget at the beginning of the last election was a big one – he could have had a majority govt. if he hadn't of ticked off all those Quebeckers with that gaffe. An astute politician is one who reads the majority of the voting pubic's sentiment and responds quickly. I am sorry but I just don't think that the long-form census issue is that important to the average Canadian. Right now the economy is everything.

    • "I just don't think that the long-form census issue is that important to the average Canadian"…
      if your average Canadian is uneducated, I would agree…
      However if your average Canadian is of the educated class and well informed, then the long-form census is an issue of paramount importance.

      • You do know that the long-form census still exists and that the only change Harper made was to make filling it out voluntary, right? As a Canadian in the "educated class", it is not an issue of paramount importance to me that Canadians who fail to fill it out can no longer be sentenced to jail time.

        What I would caution is that you do not mistake education for intelligence. I live in Alberta and there are some very successful intelligent people who also live here who have no formal education.

        • Are you being dishonest or are you actually completely ignorant about why the change from mandatory to voluntary makes the long-form census less trustworthy and thus less useful? As an educated Albertan, I think you should stop demonstrating such a lack of intelligence.

          You should get a clue about the importance of the issue from the fact that Clement was lying so much about the stupid decision that the Chief Statistician felt compelled to resign in protest. And if it is so unimportant why haven't Harper and Clement backed down and reversed this stupid decision? It's pretty obvious that Harper does not have the guts to admit he is wrong. He hopes shills like you can make it go away, but he will wear this stupid decision forever.

          • Holly, do you honestly believe that a Canadian should be threatened with jail or a fine if they refuse to bow down to Government beaurocrats asking personal questions?

            Some things are simply no one's business.

  10. ping

  11. Harper has been going going back on practically everything he claimed to believe in from Day 1. Michael Fortier? David Emerson? Bueller?

    The one saddening part has been how the PPG just seems to marvel at how expertly executed the 180 is as opposed to the fact that it was done in the first place.

  12. "i'm thinking here about the quality that allowed Pierre Trudeau to mock Robert Stanfield's proposal for wage and price controls—“Zap! You're frozen!”—and then, safely reelected, serve up his own recipe for the same dish with a shrug."

    A little context JG. Trudeau did do an about face but it was quite a while later [ 2 years??] Yes, it was pretty brazen; his defence was that circumstances had changed in such a way that this policy now made sense – no idea if he was right, or just rationalizing'
    . Interstingly he knew what he was doing since he confided in Coutts[?] that he believed his about face would cost him the election – it very nearly did.
    Keynes once said: " i don't know about you, but when the facts change, i change my mind." Most reasonable people can deal with this.

    • But i'm not convinced Harper fits this bill – at least not always. His fops often seem to be more about his political survival than about changing facts; but i guess it's not always easy to separate the two – hence his success in avoiding an ultimate verdict of the people.
      Certainly as long as his fops mostly conincide with the perception of sensible policy making he will continue to survive if not thrive.

      • You are close TA – PET created the Anti-Inflation Board about sixteen months after the election. During my few years working in the "silly service" that happend to be a place I landed in for a few weeks. Still remember the first day, all the dazed faces gathered in a large room and everyone saying to each other "Do you know why we are here?" Quite funny- bit like being trapped inside "Yes Minister", lol.

    • A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

  13. I have sometimes wondered whether some people want their politicians to be crafty and devious – since they assume that the political leaders of other countries are likely to be crafty and devious, and our leader needs to be able to match wits with them. It's like viewing the world as a giant poker game.

    Consider Joe Clark, for example: an intelligent and decent man, but a man that many people suspected (with or without justification) lacked the street smarts to be Prime Minister. There was always the fear – again, possibly unjustified – that he would sit down to negotiations with the Soviets and wind up giving away Baffin Island to Brezhnev.

    • Don't forget the disgusting smears when Joe's wife Maureen McTeer decided to keep her maiden name.

    • I thought Joe Clark was a great resource. In any tough situation, all you had to do was ask yourself 'what would Joe Clark do here?' Then, do the exact opposite….

      Never fails.

    • Joe Clark thought he was equal to Trudeau or Chretien, when in fact he was more fitting to the mold of Paul Martin.

      Minus of course……the tendency to surround himself with thieves.

  14. The alternative perspective, and indeed the correct one, isn't that he spun away from an ideological extreme "we all knew" he had,

    but rather, the media generated meme turned out to be completely false.

    How rich that Harper's failure in not living up to this false meme is met, not with introspection and a media capable of a semblence of self-criticism, but with a tantrum directed at the subject of the meme who just wouldn't play along….how dare he!!

  15. spinnerama?!


    COME ON!!

    • I'm not sure the spelling has been standardized. Some write "spinarama," others "spinnerama," and I accept your "spin-o-rama" as a possible variation. But when I dropped the term into this posting, my fear was not over spelling, it was about aptness. After all, the classic spinnerama takes the player not in a new direction, but rather, after a complete turn, back towards his original aim. So maybe I should have resisted the urge to put it in at all. Such a great word, though. I miss Danny Gallivan.

  16. Or, put another way,

    how the media turned on a dime:

    from "hidden agenda"

    to "unprincipled man".

    As for common sense pragmatism? Those are qualities only recognized by the great unwashed masses. Around the elite media circles, "brazen" malevolence is the only "correct" way to describe Harper.

    • Yeah, I would go with the brazen malevolence to describe Harper. Perfect fit.

      • Works for me.

        • Well, whatever you think. But "malevolence" adds a dimension that I wouldn't have thought was implied by "brazen." My Oxford Canadian defines "brazen" as "flagrant and shameless," which describes manner rather than motivation. The phrase "brazen it out," which I also use in the post, is defined by the OCD as "facing (censure) in a defiantly unrepentant manner." Both those definitions fit what I was getting at. Malevolence is something else again.

  17. CBC's Peter Mansbridge asked Harper about appointing senators in their recent sit-down. “Look, Peter, I went three years without—I think I appointed one or two senators,” Harper replied. “But ultimately that didn't get us anywhere.” In other words, Be reasonable—how long was I supposed to honour that pledge, anyway?

    Here's an analogy. Chavez's opponents in Venezuela boycotted the election in 2005. One of the results of that was that it enabled him to pack all areas of government with his cronies. He's ruling by decree now.

    You don't win a battle by surrendering to your opponent. Harper would not have helped Canada by handing over full control of the senate to his opponents for ideological reasons, just like Chavez's opponents did.

    The same thing can be said about the deficit, where Harper was in a position to lose power had he not bent a little.

    Geddes, you need to get some perspective.

    • If Harper was serious about reforming the Senate, he would put it to a national referendum, so that the constitutional change that is required to create an elected Senate be ratified. So far, Harper or any Conservative Party member has yet to propose the method in which Senators get elected, how the electoral boundaries be drawn, or even how many Senators a province gets. The only thing that the Conservatives have proposed is term limits, which without a non-partisan way to select senators, only empowers long lasting governments. Think about it, many governments in this country last eight or more years, and if there are eight year term limits, it means that a typical Canadian government will have enough time to entirely fill a Senate chamber with partisans. In addition, what is stopping a governing party to ask for his senate caucus to resign before an election, then re-appoint the seats to party members before an election if it is looking like the governing party is going to lose?

      • You cannot change the constitution by referendum!

        This is what is required:
        The general formula is set out in section 38(1), known as the "7/50 formula", requires: (a) assent from both the House of Commons and the Senate; (b) the approval of two-thirds of the provincial legislatures (at least seven provinces), representing at least 50% of the population (effectively, this would include at least Quebec or Ontario, as they are the most populous provinces). This formula specifically applies to amendments related to the proportionate representation in Parliament, powers, selection, and composition of the Senate, the Supreme Court and the addition of provinces or territories.

        A referendum does not actually achieve anything!

  18. s_c_f Noted:
    "Geddes, you need to get some perspective."

    Perspective has never been a journalistic strong point in the Canadian media.

    • In fact, this is one of those cases where a journalist twists the facts to fit a narrative.

      The journalist starts out by thinking: I want to write a negative article about Harper. Perhaps I'll write an article that portrays Harper as a flip-flopper. Then the journalist strains to find evidence of this, but there is little to be found. He either needs to twist the facts to be able to write the article, or the journalist provides no evidence at all. Both of these occur quite frequently in today's media. Geddes chose the former.

  19. scf…..at least geddes isn’t as obvious as Aaron Wherry….or some others’

    But he is just as predictable.

  20. So if as Geddes believes what he says and Harper is doing exactly what other Prime Ministers have done but with more aplomb where's the news in this column.

  21. PMSHs promise was to bring in an elected Senate.
    Where is a QUOTE of PMSHs ,himself , saying he would NEVER appoint Senators?

    He has been quoted as saying he'd 'prefer not to',
    and he repeated that quote to Manbridge.

    ''..PM: Because of doing something you said you'd never do?

    PMSH: Well, I preferred not to do.
    Look, Peter, I went three years without – I think I appointed one or two senators, I didn't appoint anybody, but ultimately that didn't get us anywhere…'

    So maybe some crack journalist can actually dig up Harper quoted as saying
    'I will never appoint Senators'
    then the Libs can run attack ads with it.