If Stephen Harper could turn back time - Macleans.ca

If Stephen Harper could turn back time


What if, at the first hint of economic peril, the Prime Minister had acknowledged the possibility of something very, very bad happening? What harm would he have suffered if he had admitted that a recession was likely and deficits were almost certain? Would any of the people who supported the Conservatives in the last election have voted differently if he had been more forthright and more forthcoming on our economic state of affairs? What if he admitted that his government would have to make changes to its existing policy and promised intentions to deal with the situation?

I’m not sure Harper wouldn’t have been still been Prime Minister on October 15 if he’d been more direct. He might still have been able to argue that the economy was better off under his guidance than Stephane Dion’s. But then it would have been a riskier approach—in the short-term political sense—than the one Harper took. He would’ve invited scrutiny of his government’s actions. His opponents would’ve used such admissions to attack him.

Honesty in politics is a bit of a weird concept that way. We can demand it all we like, but if we only punish those who speak it, there’s no incentive to tell the truth.

Maybe it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. Say a politician commits to always be truthful and direct. Inevitably there are going to be some problems, some moments when what he says is unpopular or his admitting a mistake is embarrassing. But, in the long-term, maybe he gains a unique kind of credibility. Maybe he wins an amount of trust beyond what is generally attainable for the average leader. Maybe he’s able to utilize that in the interests of not only electoral success, but also legislative achievement.

But how long a game is that? Could any politician survive the short-term well enough intact to get that far? Would we even like what we heard from him?

(Note: We obviously don’t expect normal, non-political people to always be honest. But it’s probably not too much to ask that politicians be honest in their representations to the public. The Prime Minister is surely not obligated to tell you the truth if you ask him whether those pants make you look too hippy. But there should just as surely be some expectation of honesty in how they explain what they’re doing in your name.)

Not that all politicians are liars. But they all come to the truth from selfish perspectives. And they certainly realize, to varying degrees, that it’s not always in their immediate interests to be as forthcoming as possible.

Thing is, that always, inevitably, catches up with them. There probably isn’t a single major political figure in the history of the Western world to have left office without some record of scandal, cover-up or outright deception. And we now generally assume that all politicians are duplicitous in their own ways. It’s just down to what they’re misleading us about, how egregiously they go about it and whether we’re nonetheless able to believe them in enough ways to make them worthy of our support.

That’s sort of depressing. That’s sort of the way things are. Though I’m not sure it’s much of a defence for anyone, let alone Mr. Harper.

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If Stephen Harper could turn back time

  1. Did you write this just to generate copy?

    • Did you comment just to generate copy?

      • Did you comment on someone else’s comment just to generate copy?

        • No.

          • Are you being truthful?

  2. This is a very thoughtful piece, a concise description of a sad situation.

  3. “And we now generally assume that all politicians are duplicitous in their own ways. It’s just down to what they’re misleading us about, how egregiously they go about it and whether we’re nonetheless able to believe them in enough ways to make them worthy of our support.”

    That pretty much sums it up. Everyone knows that there are certain things that politicians can’t say so when they lie rather then say a truth that can’t really be said and it is later shown they were lying, no one really holds it against them because we all suspected they were lying in the first place. It’s weird, but that’s politics.

  4. Interesting that, once again, you manage to wrap this piece around Harper. Why not do a piece on leadership and trust generally, without resorting to one particular individual leader? It might lend considerable credibility to your piece.

    When I look for leadership, I don’t look for the trees but I look for the forest; the total package.

    Was it wise for a leader to dampen the fears of an enormous economic crisis looming? Yes, because I think most of this current economic crisis is feeding heavily on itself. Had the wider world bought into the market when it was going down, the swing would in fact have been upward, not downward. We’re feeding off each other’s fear and Harper wasn’t willing to go there (election time).

    Since then, the fear mongering of the coalition partners has intervened considerably. Personally, I have been through ups and downs, finacially etc. and I think most people my age have gone through such experiences. Nothing is constant, like you yourself indicate within your report, and no one, not ourselves or any of our leaders, can foresee into the future.

    But how we deal with the present will set the tone for the future. We will indeed reap what we sow. And at this time I think Harper better start listening to his inner self, because when he does that he is at his best. I think he needs some distance between what is going on around him (the feeding frenzy), and what will ultimately be better under these trying circumstances (his inner convictions speaking to him).

    Right now I feel he’s listening far too much to the many various opinions, and he won’t be able to see the forest through the trees.

    Time to take a breather. Leaders can’t be effective leaders if they don’t take time out at a distance for adequately overseeing things.

    • I dunno , Francien. I mean about this listening to his inner self stuff. Nothing good can come of that.

      • Yeah, didn’t Harper get us into trouble from listening to closely to his inner self?

        I think its very apt that Harper is the subject of this discussion of leadership. The sweater did sell himself on that platform and is it quite fitting that he is judged by what he sold himself on. Currently what we are seeing is a bungling and dithering man who seems to get his best ideas from Stephane Dion’s 30 day plan.

        Maybe we elected the wrong leader but it’s too late now.

    • Francien, I agree. A prime minister should NOT try to promote fear and anxiety amid challenging economic events. The media and the Opposition can promote fear quite adequately. Unfortunately, the threat of the Coalition has pushed the Conservatives toward excessive and questionable spending which will create the deficits which they have tried to avoid. The media elite are calling the Conservatives liars because they’ve been forced to change their economic policies by the Opposition and the media. The Conservatives are in a double bind.

  5. Did anyone else notice the exclusive use of the male ‘he’ when referring to politicians here? Geez, we have come a long way, baby …

    As to your main point, good politicians usually have a pretty good idea of how much truth the electorate can handle, and they’ve all seen plenty of examples of demagogues and populists getting elected on lies about how easy it would be to just do A or B. A lot of very thoughtful honest politicians went down to defeat when the lying populist “Reform”-ers swept into office in 1993 by playing ugly race cards about Quebec and first nations, and tales of how easy it would just be to cut government spending (by eliminating MPs’ pensions … we all remember *that* one). Looking around at what’s being said about the recent events in Parliament has been bringing back all too many memories of that time for me.

    • I’m curious… do you consider those “lying populist reformers” to be ugly racists in the same way that you consider Andrew Wherry to be an ugly sexist for his “exclusive use of the male ‘he’ when referring to politicians here”?

      I’m glad you exposed Wherry’s discriminatory and offensive use of pronouns. Don’t forget to notify the Human Rights Tribunal.

      • You’re putting words into my mouth, C.R. I did not call Aaron Wherry an “ugly sexist”, and I don’t believe that to be the case. Perhaps his use of the male pronoun was an oversight. It’s not too often that language leaves me feeling excluded from a discussion any more, so it’s just surprising to see such examples is all.

    • Your attack on the Reform Party is interesting. It contains insults with very little content. The Reform Party gained many seats in 1993 because the options were so limited. The PC Party had moved too far to the Left. The Liberals had become the Toronto/Montreal Party. The NDP had remained as the Socialist option. That’s history. Today the options are just as restricted. One can vote for the Socialists, the Toronto Party, the Quebec Party, or the Conservative Party. By the way, you’re dead wrong about the posted platform of the Reform Party. It sounds as if you were listening to the NDP and the CBC during the 1993 campaign. I think you should have read more.

  6. Critical Reasoning,

    “Did you comment on someone else’s comment just to generate copy?”

    Yeah, what can one say. It’s become all one big hutchpot. Cook, cook, cook, and the simmer will continue.

    Me, I’m still thinking the properties in southern France are slipping, slipping……..and the only reason I mention France is because my french really is lousy; I would never understand what the fuss would be all about and so I would be able to shut out the brainy operations…….something to look forward to. Critical reasoning, goodbye………YES!

    • Francien,

      The south of France sounds heavenly!

      “Hutchpot” is a great description of what goes on here sometimes. I’m starting to wonder if a passionate interest in Canadian politics is some form of early dementia, and we are all afflicted :)

  7. Interesting,

    time does indeed flow forward AND backward……….:)

  8. Then, people would have known that the truth was not in him.

    Then, they would have a choice: to believe, or take what he says with a grain of salt.

    Then, the blown-up and deified image of Harper would have taken a blow, perhaps a blow too hard for some to recover from let alone his own self.

    So, the Harper must not be shown to have clay feet. Never ever.

    Some people might have quit sending cheques to Harper, even while harrangued and bitten and sent into paroxisms of socialists and separatists at the gates, held at bay only by your (Harper Party) donations, like some snake-oil dr dollar of the worst of the bakker ilk tactics that the Harper money machine uses, even saying the opposite of the Prime Minister for Pete’s Sake!

    And getting away with it.

    Why does the Harper Party, or the so-called government allow such a side-winder as Finley to take public money, or even party-garnered money to mislead Canadians? Is this the sort of thing that, God willing, a Liberal or coalition government be acclaimed by the majority of Canadians would support?

    I doubt it. It’s dirty pool, and everyone knows it. But, a fool and his money is soon parted, and there’s no fools like the old fools who support the chameleon and ever-changing Stephen Harper: he who works only for himself.

    Stephen (do you know he’s an economist?) Harper says so, and his believers pay, so. In the immortal words of PT Barnum, there’s a fool born every minute and two to take him.

    Stephen Harper would never turn back time. He is sure that God is setting his path to the end times, and that he will be raised above most others.

    Frankly, I think the guy is a wingnut. Just my opinion, but would you as an ordinary person listen to an ordinary person on a soapbox in a park saying the things Harper says, believe him? Somehow I think Canadians are smart. Way smarter than what Stephen Harper thinks of us poor doomed deluded Godless saps, for sure.

  9. Aaron asks, ‘ What if Stephen Harper… ‘ Wondering if things might have been different . Would he have fared any worse, if he had just leveled, just tusted us a litle more. Any one spot the word i inserted and the question Aaron implicitly asks? Stephen Harper has a problem with trust [ oddly enough Ignatieffs’ words]. He doesn’t trust his colleagues; he doesn’t trust his ministers; he doesn’t trust Parliament. Most important of all, Stephen Harper doesn’t trust Canadians. The feeling appears to be mutual. As Aaron says, it’s sad really.

  10. Too many Canadians think that a leader is man with his arms down – because they know that the man with his arms up IS-NOT-A-LEADER. Canadians need a detox from propagada on the concept of leadership – and on Frenchie bashing.

    And Aaron, stop expecting Harper not behave like himself. The man did not write anti-Canada literature for nothing.

  11. Talking about Harper writing anti-Canada literature, today he is quoted in the Globe and Mail saying:

    “Never underestimate the resilience of the American economy and the American people. The Americans did not get on top of this world for no reason.”

    If he keeps his Mr. Sweater act up, maybe Harper will say something equally nice and encouraging about Canada and Canadians. But I won’t hold my breath.

  12. Much of what Aaron writes is thoughtful, perceptive and apt as it relates to western politics in general — at least as I see it.

    So here’s the thing with Harper — he deserves some sympathy in his situation. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about what might have caused the economic debacle he struggles with now. No one person or group seems to know what remedy will work — so Mr. Harper (perhaps unwillingly and certainly reluctantly) follows the crowd. An ideologue forced to act against his/her ideology seems a sorry person indeed.

    If the crowd is correct, much of the ideology will be disproved. If the ideologue is correct, he/she will never know, for lack of a test. If consensus action succeeds, the electorate will applaud their actions as proof that their intervention was the right thing to do and sigh with relief that their ideological leader abandoned his beliefs to defend their interests.

    An obvious question looms — what if the ideologue risks applying his/her own remedy? Is it even possible without the support of a majority? It strikes me as far too risky and not at all likely in the realm of democratic governance. That is the real difficulty of trying to govern from the extreme.

    Harper understands the need for gradualism in transforming the state to a new model. Revolution is painful and usually (always?) fails to yield the ideal. In the midst of crisis any gradual approach to change is interrupted.

    • ‘…he/she will never know, for la of a test…’ What has the last 8yrs of Bush been, if not a test? Harper isn’t Bush, but i think we can draw some inference.

      • kc,

        Agreed — but acknowledging that I am not certain Bush and Harper are on the same page.

  13. Aaron,

    Thank you. Compared to your usual knee jerk anti-Harperism, this is a thoughtful, interesting critique and comment on honesty in politics.

    What if, at the first hint of economic peril, the Prime Minister had acknowledged the possibility of something very, very bad happening? What harm would he have suffered if he had admitted that a recession was likely and deficits were almost certain?

    This seems to me to be an irresponsible way for a politician to behave. People are conditioned to understand that when a politician admits a recession/defecit is possible, it’s because it’s really inevitable, and they are just softening the blow and preparing the public. Saying that the sky is falling at the “first hint” of something going awry to me is premature for any politician to do. There are many “first hints” that fail to materialize into anything more, and it would be wrong to start panicking. To me it seems prudent and reasonable for a politician not to admit things like recessions until the evidence supporting them is uncontestable, because to do so prematurely would make it a self-fulfulling prophecy.

    Honesty in politics is a bit of a weird concept that way. We can demand it all we like, but if we only punish those who speak it, there’s no incentive to tell the truth.

    But how long a game is that? Could any politician survive the short-term well enough intact to get that far? Would we even like what we heard from him?

    I think you hit the nail on the head with this. And you’re right, it is depressing. I think it’s much a product of the media looking for a story (or these days, a soundbite) that is a large cause of this.

  14. We tossed Stephan Dion for, among other things, telling us a watered down truth about what we need to do on climate change.

    Doesn’t bode well for the survival of our species.

    • We tossed Stephane not for that but being incompetent. Just about verything he has said and done has been a disaster for himself and the Liberals and he wanted to inflict that kind of leadership on the rest of the country. Aside form discussing the merits of climate change-global warming (which is an unproven hypothesis) I am against the concentration of a pool of money by government (which has been shown to be a poor instrument of implementation of policy) by which “Allies of Al” or the “Sidekicks of Suzuki” get to profit from the proclamation that the world is coming to an end unless “YOU and I” do something drastic. Only the gullible fall for that line. That is not to say we shouldn’t all try tp limit our own carbon footprint but other than setting up realistic rules and targets, the monumental waste of money, time and effort in implementing the “greenshift” would have done very little other than make us all mad and some people deluded into thinking something was actually being accomplished. The only sure result would have been a mass transfer of wealth. Blaming us for the demise of Stehpane and crabbing about the survival of the species reek of typical left-wing sout grapes. The only comment missing is that we are leaving miserable legacy for our children and grand-children although that is implied in the survival of the species.

      • Foon Der: spell check? tin foil hat?

      • Only possible reply to a conservative idealogue: ‘ aconservative is someone who doesn’t believe the future is important because, after all, what has the future ever done for them’

  15. A Christmas Wish for my friends on the left:

    Forget about Harper for a moment.

    Why not show a bit of patience (resist the urge to fly into the seductive flame of power), regroup, take some serious time to formulate policies that will resonate with Canadians (and select a leader who will encapsulate those newfound principles), build up your war chest,

    and have at’er when you’re truly ready?

    Each episode like the last coalition power grab, will inevitably make true reform (yes that’s what the Liberals need) that much more difficult, that much more time consuming.

    One last piece of advice:

    Start to take control of your party again. Act in the long term interests of your party, and stop succumbing to the abitions of the current elite few, who think of their own ambitions first.

    • While that would be preferable, Harper won’t allow it to happen. Do you really think he’ll let the opposition parties build their war chests?

      Harper’s tactics have always been to take out the opposition via a war of realpolitik not via presenting the better ideas to the voter. He has, and will continue to, take advantage of any weakness he can see in the Liberal party, with the ultimate goal of not just removing them from power, but removing from them any possibility of attaining power for a generation or more.

      Liberals would be foolhardy to leave this destructive persona anywhere near the legislative agenda.

    • Someone spike kody’s xmas punch? I think he makes sense.

      • Although I have suggested the opposite at times, I believe Kody is capable of making sense — unfortunately he is wedded to an ideology — and that marriage frequently blinds his objectivity.

  16. I can accept that from time to time politicians may not tell the whole truth. However, Harper appears to be a very dangerous politician and has shown that he is not above inflamming anger between different regions of our country or between different groups of people apparently in his attempt to stay in or to grab power. This is unacceptable no matter how you cut it unless you want a country that is ultimately torn apart by bloodshed and hatred of one neighbor for another just because of different ideologies. At least in Paul Martin’s case, he called the Gomery inquiry which as it turned out, was the wrong thing to do for himself and for the Liberal party because he was punished by the voters. Paul Martin, however, did the correct thing for our country by calling for an inquiry into something that should not have happened. I do not believe we will ever see Harper put country before his own partisan interests.

  17. Can an ‘honest’ politician even be elected?

    My political awareness starts about the time Bob Stanfield was the leader of the Conservatives. He was ridiculed by Trudeau and the left for proposing wage and price controls as a necessity. Anybody remember what happened.?

    Joe Clark was ridiucled for suggesting that gas prices had to go up. Anybody remember…?

    Kim Campbell was paraphrased as saying that an election campaign was no time to be discussing serious issues; she, I think, came very close to hitting the nail on the head.

    I have pretty much come to the conclusion that voters don’t want to hear any ‘truths’ in tough times. They want platitudes and reassurances that everything will be just peachy keen and there is nothing to worry about. A politician who does not realize this doesn’t stand a chance of winning an election.

    There is one other philosophy in play, of course. Voting is about negatives; a voter casts his ballot for the politician / political party that they hate less. I.E., they didn’t vote for Mr. Harper, they voted against M. Dion.

    • Interestingly yr examples of truthful politicians are all Conservatives. So there’s yr answer.

      • Having been a Progressive Conservative most of my adult life (although not a supporter of Mr. Harper), and lived mostly under the government of the Natural Governing Party (Trademark Registered), these are the examples that spring to mind. If there are other examples of ‘honesty’ during an election campaign, feel free to share them.

        Anyone want to share examples of a negative position that elicited support from the electorate?

    • I voted for my MP.

      • Me too, to some extent. Well, actually no, I voted for a losing candidate in my riding. But still. I maintain in my head a (fabricated?) balancing act between voting the party and voting the individual. I wonder if that’s common, or whether this is just a good opening for a joke about me taking my medication on time.

  18. Gee I can’t wait to vote again for a less than truthful with very little integrity politician. However, in retrospect, why should that be a wish? We have the very best there is in that department as we speak, and luckily enough he happens to be running the country now. (Or at least temporarily)