Harper among the immortals - Macleans.ca

Harper among the immortals

Paul Wells on Stephen Harper’s longevity


Every once in a while, a mysterious Conservative emails a bunch of people to remind them that Stephen Harper is about to pass another prime minister in the longevity stakes. I got onto the recipient list when Harper passed Alexander Mackenzie in the autumn of 2010. Since then he’s passed Lester Pearson and R.B. Bennett and now he has John Diefenbaker in his sights.

Turning to the noted authority on Prime Ministerial longevity, Wikipedia, we learn that there will now be a bit of a pause until Harper begins catching up to the PMs who served two full majorities: Louis St. Laurent, Robert Borden and Brian Mulroney, at intervals through 2014 in a manner that should help goose the sales of the by-then-brand-new paperback edition of my next book. 

To beat Jean Chrétien, Harper would need to be re-elected yet again after that. And then to pass Laurier and Trudeau, re-elected yet again. Sir John A. Macdonald and Mackenzie King look safe in their top perches, and frankly I hope my third book can be about a different topic, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

What have we learned? Maybe a little more than nothing. Beginning, arguably, when he passed Pearson early this year, Harper moved out of the group of prime ministers nobody remembers, and into the group everyone will. Quick, name something Arthur Meighen did, or Mackenzie Bowell.

Now, obviously longevity isn’t a sufficient condition of prime ministerial significance. When Trudeau retired from politics the first time, in 1979, he had already been prime minister for 11 years and my predecessor Allan Fotheringham wrote a column that pretty much wrote the guy off. “He leaves office as he entered it — a steely mind and unbendable personality that the voters, in the end, tired of trying to unravel,” Doctor Foth wrote. “In retrospect, he was a lousy leader…. That was his fatal weakness. But he gave it a try. Give him credit for that.”

Fotheringham’s dismissal made sense at the time. The 1980 referendum, the Constitutional repatriation (and the National Energy Program) still lay ahead, in a short second career that would outweigh everything Trudeau had done before.

But it should be clear by now that longevity is a necessary condition for any prime minister who wants to carry weight in the history books. Harper has already had an influence on Canada’s political culture, its foreign policy, on the practice of federalism and the evolution of social policy. Now he can start to make a difference comparable to anything Pearson and Diefenbaker made. If he wants. Harper’s (first?) coveted majority is already seven months old.


Harper among the immortals

  1. After 6 years as PM, Harper continues to be seen in all polls as the best leader in the country.
    The most recent poll ( Nanos ) concerning the mood of the country shows that 63.5% of Canadians agree with the direction of the country. That is a 25% improvement over last year`s number. Compare that to Trudeau or Chretien after they were leaders for 6 years or Obama after 2 years.

    By the way, why do I have to go over to the National Post to read about this most recent poll ?  One would think someone at our national magazine would want to tell it`s readers about this optimistic outlook that Canadians are feeling. Maybe Coyne was getting tired about the negativity around here as well.

    • A lame dog could lead with the opposition in the condition it’s in. On the other hand, I don’t understand the psychology of people who are happy to have someone to tell them what to do.

      • Oh, of course, the old–we`re so stupid that anyone looks good next to us explanation.

        • The truth hurts.

        • awfully defensive of you.

        • Yes. No mention form them of the fact that Jean Chretien had an opposition split into four during his tenure. Does that make him a lousy leader?

          • History isn’t done yet.

          • Neither is your thought, if you even have one.

          • @Dennis_F:disqus Ooooh, devastating….

          • Or is your argument here that ‘The Liberals did it first’. What? They put up a lousy leader against a fractured opposition? Or that having a fractured opposition automatically makes you a lousy leader?

          • I’ll try to go a little bit slower for you. The same people who say Harper is helped by a poor opposition didn’t say the same for Chretien. In both cases, I tend to think prime ministerial leadership had something to do with the state of the opposition.

          • @Dennis_F:disqus The corollary being, in refutation of Calvin’s praise, that merely being the leader it does not automatically follow that that you are a good one.

            Polls show that Canadians think he is a good one. This is not evidence that he is a good one. 

            And I typed that slowly, so you could understand.

          • –just trying to follow your convoluted logic……if the polls showed that Harper was a bad leader would you then think he was a good leader ?

          • Binary obtuseness does you no favours.

          • PM Harper made the opposition lousy ( To make it simple for you DOUG he destroyed them himself)..Chretien had it handed to him by the reform party breaking away from the Conservatives (not any of his own doing). To make it even simpler for you Doug,The Conservatives rebuilt their party from 2 seats..The Liberals want to hold onto the brown envelope ERA and it isn,t going to happen any time soon.

          • @ff533027bb40d6c634aaf03db94961d6:disqus Merely being a politician, does not mean you are necessarily a leader.
            And being a good politician, does not mean you are necessarily a good leader.

            The Conservative party, which rebuilt itself from two seats, is not the party which leads this country. In fact, the Conservative party leader betrayed his party for power. Does this somehow confirm MacKay as a good leader? or a ruthless politician?

            And you refer to a point in history from which you judge the Liberals – to stick to the topic here – as poor leaders. Don’t let me put words in your mouth. But you do judge them. Brown envelopes neither confirm nor deny good leadership. They do confirm corruption: Mulroney, versus back room party functionaries. 

            Back room party functionaries are not leaders. Speaking of Stephen Harper. They are cogs, not levers.

            A point I am making is that it is early in Harpers reign to conclude whether he is good or poor. There isn’t sufficient evidence. Yet. But, the evidence so far says, petty, manipulative, obsessed. Not good so far.

            But the skills he brings, as a skilled politician, a back room plotter and functionary, also do not necessarly affirm ‘Great Leadership’.

            Merely being in office for some period of time does not mean ‘Great Leadership’. 

            Merely having a high approval rating does not affirm ‘Great Leadership’.

            Somehow having a phalanx of cheerleaders does.

          • I think I have a better idea of your logic. Unfortunately for you, you are still wrong.

          • @4a64130278c80432e4d05477e5ee5a66:disqus Since you, seemingly, are successful at parsing my query to Dennis’s argument – as successfully understanding my logic, perhaps you could also tell us what Dennis’s meaning is?

          • Oh I think Dennis is quite capable of defending himself.

          • No, there are lots of things that make Chretien a lousy leader. Unfortunately, it seems Harper’s intent is to perfect the execution of every one of those things.

          • I tend not to engage in such simple-minded analysis.

      • The opposition is lame because Harper demolished it, smothering and pulverizing losers and nobodies like Martin, Dion, Ignatieff and Layton.

        • …like an old testament god…

        • That they’re now considered “losers and nobodies” says something, doesn’t it?

          • Exactly :-)

    • Except that Canadians can’t tell you what direction we’re going in….they’re just crossing their fingers that things aren’t going to get worse.

    • “By the way, why do I have to go over to the National Post to read about this most recent poll?”

      You don’t. You can just subscribe to Nik Nanos’ blog and skip the middle man.

      • Thanks Nik.

        • Nanos delivers right into your email box, believe it or not. 

        • I can’t tell if you were trying to be sarcastic or not.

          • When in doubt, always go with the sarc.

    • Reasons you might have to go to another outlet to read about said poll:

      1. We have diverse media marketplace and maybe its a good thing that not every organization is reporting exactly the same thing (despite the constant complaints of online commenters that the reverse is the case, when it obviously isn’t).

      2. The National Post is a daily paper, Maclean’s is a weekly magazine, which influences what gets reported.

      3. Polls aren’t news.

      • I don`t think so–it`s Monday, what better day to report the optimistic findings of mood of the country poll.

        Here`s a thought—maybe the 63.5% favorable outlook of Canadians that the poll shows doesn`t look good next to the constant pessimistic stories here.

        I`ll go check to see if the CBC website has a story on the poll.

      • Well this isn’t news either.

        I doubt anybody in the country cares if Harp has been in office longer than Dief.

        There’s no prize for it….you don’t even get a cookie.

    • And yet the Harperites are so defensive…

    • Maybe because that “most recent poll” is over a month old?  The questions were asked at the end of October.  Why it is only coming out now I don’t know.

  2. I wonder if Paul has any concerns about this trend toward militarism (the mission accomplished photo op etc) , the move to control? RCMP communications, and other more recent Conservative initiatives some of which were mentioned by Lawrence Martin last week?
    And the flagrant, blatant election irregularities and tactics practiced by Conservative Party?

    With the options Canadians have currently in regards to political choices, I hope Harper sticks around for at least another decade after his first one.


  4. Allan Fotheringham wrote a column that pretty much wrote the guy off.
    “He leaves office as he entered it — a steely mind and unbendable
    personality that the voters, in the end, tired of trying to unravel,”
    Doctor Foth wrote. “In retrospect, he was a lousy leader…. That was his
    fatal weakness. But he gave it a try. Give him credit for that.”

    You have to love how over a decade’s work as prime minister can be dismissed with a few strokes of a pen, or a keyboard. You see, Canadian voters apparently don’t know what a good leader looks like. Self-righteous columnists do.

    • Dennis you’re defending Pierre…best delete…they’ll revoke your membership at blogging Tories for that. :)

      • I’ve never been a “blogging Tory.”

        Believe it or not, I tend not to subscribe to the attitude where what everything “our side” does is awesome, and everything “their side” does stinks.

        For example, I’ve come to conclude that Ontario Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty is one of the best politicians I’ve seen, regardless of what I think of him personally or his record.

        Frankly, I think we’d all be better off if more political observers were willing to give the “other side” credit when it’s genuinely due.

        The National Post does it all the time. Not sure if other outlets do it as much.

        • BT’s was just a guess of course – i’m duly surprised.

          Wow i must be mellowing or you must. I agree with every word of that.[ don’t know very much about Dalton but i don’t have much admiration for his tendency toward truthiness]

  5. As the despotism only deepens and becomes systemic

  6. …”If he wants”

    A crafty little caveat. I would agree with that except…i see no evidence[ in hindsight] of Harper being a transformative PM in the mold of Trudeau. My feeling is he’ll be remembered as a fairly competent PM who limited himself due to frequent outbreaks of dickishness. I really don’t think he has what it takes to be much more.

    Look forward to reading the new book.[unfortunately i haven’t got around to the first one …yet]
    Does it have a tittle yet? If not are you up for suggestions?

    SH – If i stick around long enough by God i’ll make them love me?…or

    SH on why i like being PM? “Look frankly someone has to be head jerk around here?”

    • How about – You can’t fool all the people, but you can fool enough of them.

      • SH – Winners win; losers just worry about democratic rules and conventions.

        • Seeing a theme here…:-)

          • Damn i hate to be predictable.

            SH – If you promise to love me i Promise to go away!

            …this isn’t working.I’ll just have to think like holimn.

            SH – Better then all the rest! So quit yer  whining! Your time will come when i’m dead.

          • Or as Calvin would suggest – Shut up, just shut up!. 

          • Silly anti-Harper sloganeering means the end of discussion.

          • Calvin:

            Try using that little scroll thingy on your computer. Better yet say something that’ll start another discussion.

  7. Title of new book:

    Harp and Change

  8. Since I heard.  Harper is a Reformer. He founded the Northern Foundation Party. They said the skinheads assisted Harper to organize his party. This was in 1989.

    Harper said. I am the government. I am the law. I make the rules. Dictatorship anyone?

    Harper had a many times convicted American felon working for him. Felon Carson and his ex prostitute girlfriend, were guests in Harper’s home.  The robocalls to Canadian homes to confuse their voting locations during the Federal campaign, came out of North Dakota. Hmmm  Harper also had Guelph University stormed, to stop the students from voting. They even tried to steal the ballot boxes

    • Oh puh-lease! What a bunch of non-sense!

      • The only thing that I don’t know happened is the political party, the rest happened as far as I know – Carson, robocalling and the nonsense at Guelph.

  9. I think Harper has a reasonable shot at lasting a long time. I submit three key factors:
    -Internal support
    -FlexibilityFirst, Canada’s most long-lasting PM’s were all fairly young at year 6 of their reign:Harper: 52King: 53Trudeau: 54John A: 58Contrast this with PM’s that made it to six years, but not much longer:Mulroney: 51 (the exception)Borden: 63Chretien: 65Diefenbaker: 68Pearson: 71St. Laurent: 72Second, a key factor to longevity is being able to sustain electoral defeat. Macdonald (1873), King (1925 sort of, 1930), and Trudeau (1979) all lost elections. What was critical is that their parties kept them on as leader despite this. Given Harper’s iron grip on his own party, he seems like a good candidate to repeat this feat. There is nobody with sufficient stature to challenge Harper, who can claim a lot of credit for the political success of the Tories – his party has fully 100 seats more than it won in the 2000 election. In contrast, even politically successful leaders, like Chretien, can face problems if they don’t have sufficient internal control. 

    Third, despite his depiction as an ideologue (which probably helped him by lowering expectations), Harper shares the flexibility that has defined our most successful PMs. John A. was once a supporter of reciprocity with the US, but when rebuffed, he milked a Yankee-bashing bonanza like nobody else in our history. King, of course, was famous for his ability to change with the political tide. What of Trudeau? People forget how flexible Trudeau was during his first term. Think of “zap you’re frozen”, of Trudeau’s backing down from a pullout of troops from Europe, or the bold declarations of a “third option” (while Canada’s reliance on trade with the US increased). Yes Trudeau made some controversial decisions, but they were nearly all in his last term, in which he didn’t have to be concerned with re-election. 

    So is Harper really a rigid ideologue? He was one of the first NATO leaders to pull out of Afghanistan, strongly embraced stimulus spending in the face of the recession, put forth the Quebec as a nation motion, flip-flopped on income trusts, purposely buried the gay marriage issue by calling a vote he knew he’d lose, and has enthusiastically embraced (and exceeded) many of the tactics he criticized when employed by Chretien. 

    Harper may not be guaranteed a thousand year reign, but he is the kind of guy Canadians have given long terms to. 

    • Oh and Laurier was 61 at year 6, kept on by his party after defeats in 1891 and 1911, and was clearly flexible (while losing in 1911 and 1917 because of two issues where he was insufficiently flexible – free trade and conscription).

  10. As someone said on Twitter, it should read: “Harper among the immorals”

     This is an incredibly dumb article.

    • Because it’s not a foaming-at-the-mouth screed in opposition?

  11. Harper is the best PM that we’ve had in a very long time. Our economy is in a strong position compared to most others in the G20; our military must surely be the envy of many; and I detect a sense of pride- absent for a long time- when I talk to people. It’s one amazing time to be a Canadian.  Well done Stephen, and thank-you.   

    • I would suggest that the pride you sense (and didn’t) has more to do with who the people are you’ve been talking to.

    • I find it really interesting that some people feel this way. 

      Personally, I’ve never been more embarrassed to be Canadian. We have a government that refuses to answer straight forward questions in the House of Commons. We have a government that insists on buying overpriced, poorly designed jets with no explanation for why there was no contract competition. We have a government that in all likelihood will move ahead with an omnibus crime bill when crime is at its lowest rate since the ’60s, a crime bill against the effectiveness of which there is overwhelming evidence. We have a government that scrapped the long-form census but is now pushing for unconstitutional access to the private internet information of its own citizens.

      It’s fascinating that two people can look at the same government and come away with such different conclusions. I guess I’ll just have to wait a few more years to feel comfortable with this country again.

  12. Well I figure Harper is here until he dies in office of old age.  We should get rid of the expense of democracy and have his responsibly change to include Queen, gg and prime minister.  Sort of God’s agent for Canada.  And we can start the killing of liberals, atheists, homosexuals, unions but not in an Atheist state but in a Christian Conservative sate.  Were it will be OK by God. 

  13. After watching the candidates for the leadership of the NDP especially Mulcair one of the supposed leading candidates start off the English debate in French and the others for a two hour love in Harper has nothing to worry about. As for Bob Rae he will through his own conniving do away with a leadership convention for the Liberals but when he and the NDP both socialist fight for the vote in Quebec  Harper can see back and still keep his seats there for a majority. The NDP are finished in the west with the exception of B.C but that to will change. We have watched what has happened in europe under socialist leadership. Obama will disappear in 2012 and the North american continent will get back that made it the envy of the world capitalism with a heart but  head for business.  

    • Who will beat Obama – dying to know? 

      • No one will beat Obama he is doing it on his own.

  14. Oh Harper is here to stay for a good while!

      • I love that video! I miss Winnipeg!


  15. Of course Harper is going to be PM for a long time.  He is the first PM that has an education that fits the Job and the Brains to run a tight ship.  Thats what we need, and the People know it.

  16. Time to put the old dog down.

  17. S Harper is a toughie. What we all need especially when we are faced with disfunctional outside governments.

  18. He already has, Paul. T C’s 50 Million. PM’s helicopter flights. Calls about that Jewish guy retiring from Parliament. Telling the Americans the pipeline is a no brainer. Sycopants who will dance on their heads if they even hear he talked about it. Forget whether it was true or not.