Stephen Harper’s political children? They’re all grown up.

The prime minister’s political tree is bearing fruit: The post-Harper generation of Conservative leaders is already here.

Adrian Wyld/CP

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his acolyte, Jim Prentice, Alberta’s current premier. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Listen to Paul Wells read his column, or subscribe to Maclean’s Voices on iTunes or Stitcher for on-the-go listening:

I have awful news for people who wish Stephen Harper would just go away: He has begun to spawn.

Three former members of Harper’s federal Conservative caucus are now at, or approaching, positions of leadership in provincial politics. Even as the Prime Minister gears up for his fifth national campaign, the post-Harper generation of Conservative political leaders is already here.

Two former Harper MPs, Jim Prentice and Brian Jean, are duking it out in the Alberta provincial election campaign. Prentice is the province’s premier, of course, and leads the Progressive Conservatives. For years, he was a minister in assorted Harper cabinets. Jean used to sit quietly in a sunless corner of the Conservative caucus in the House of Commons, clapping when asked and shushing when shushed. Suddenly, he finds himself leader of the Wildrose Party. Of all the odd ways this odd campaign could end, Jean defeating Prentice would not be the strangest. No wait, I take that back. It would be really strange. But it’s possible.

Related: Paul Wells in Alberta: Could Jim Prentice really lose? 

Our third Harper halfling remains obscure. But Patrick Brown is all Ontario’s provincial Conservatives are talking about these days. He’s young—at 36, 16 years younger than Brian Jean—and when he announced last September that he was running for the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership, almost nobody took his candidacy seriously. You can count the independent-minded policy entrepreneurs in the federal Conservative caucus on one hand, and Brown would not have been on that hand. But when the Ontario PCs choose their leader on May 9, Brown will be one of only two candidates on the ballot. Three others have dropped off, and although Brown started this campaign as the longest of long shots, he must now be counted the front-runner.

From left: Patrick Brown, Brian Jean, Jim Prentice. (CP)

From left: Patrick Brown, Brian Jean, Jim Prentice. (CP/Photo illustration by Adrian Lee)

What do these three have in common? Not a lot. They’re like that episode of Star Trek where Captain Kirk beams down to the planet and returns as two different Kirks, one meek, the other mean. Eventually, the crew realizes they need both Kirks in one body to survive. Prentice, Jean and Brown each represent a facet of the Harper personality.

Jean used the televised Alberta leaders’ debate to repeat, with robotic insistence, a dead-simple talking point: Wildrose won’t raise your taxes. He actually led an interesting life until 2004, attending law school in Australia and working stints as a logger and as an inspirational speaker, the latter I’d pay to see. Then he spent years observing the obsessive message control of Harper in power. Harper believes thoughtful debates don’t change minds and are therefore a waste of time. What’s important is to repeat a clear message until you are sick of it, then some more, so people know what you stand for. Jean emerges from the transporter as Message Control Harper.

Prentice, if he wins, will go back to being what he seemed to be until this spring: Managerial Competence Harper. Prentice never gets angry, a guy whose low-key persuasiveness lures blue-chip associates into public service. He must have believed, when he introduced a budget that would eliminate Alberta’s deficit over three years, that he was showing the incrementalism that has been a trademark of the Harper style. Harper took five years to eliminate his own federal deficit, after all.

But the lesson of that Star Trek episode is that you need all the parts of Captain Kirk. Prentice regards Jean as a simple sort, but, if Prentice manages to lose this campaign, it’ll be because he never did frame his incremental mission in the polarizing terms of partisan combat. Prentice is pleased to be a fellow everybody can live with, but, by mid-campaign, he was looking like a guy everybody could live without.

Related: Colby Cosh and Paul Wells take your questions on the Alberta election

Brown is turning into a huge surprise. Compact, wiry, a teetotaller with the energy of a wind-up toy, he’s been orbiting near Conservative circles since he was a city councillor in Barrie, Ont., more than a decade ago. I never really noticed him in Ottawa. But he turns out to be Thousand Levers Harper, working every angle to win the Ontario Conservative leadership.

The PCs have no strength in northern Ontario? He toured the region seven times, sold 50 memberships in Moosonee. The million Ontarians who’ve been voting Conservative federally and not provincially include huge numbers of immigrants? He’s been to India 15 times. He struck up a friendship with a regional player, Narendra Modi, who’s now India’s prime minister. He organizes charity hockey tournaments, which is the short version of the way he landed Wayne Gretzky’s endorsement, though Gretzky moved out of Ontario the year Brown was born.

Brown’s competition is Christine Elliott, a veteran MPP he’s managed to depict as the establishment candidate in a party that has lost four straight elections. When this began, he couldn’t catch her. Now she may not be able to stop him.

What lessons can we draw from this teeny Harper brigade? First, that Harperism is broad enough to accommodate contrasting styles. Second, don’t bet everything on the early front-runners. If Brown and Jean can rise, more surprises might be in store, even in the race to succeed Harper. After all, the big guy himself was the longest of long shots when he started out.

Of course, Jean and Prentice can’t both win. Perhaps neither will. As for Brown, the prize he’s seeking has lately constituted a licence to lose to the Ontario Liberals. The first post-Harper generation in Canadian politics may be short-lived. Nobody’s eternal. Not even he.


Stephen Harper’s political children? They’re all grown up.

  1. Prentice strikes me more as more infused with the spirit of Joe Clark than Steven Harper.

    • I don’t recall Joe Clark being smug and making really foolish mistakes. Who tries to get rid of a struggling opposition by getting the leader and 11 of her cronies to cross the floor? How did Jim Prentice not know that wouldn’t play well in Alberta. Then, he calls an election he didn’t have to after telling Albertans it was their fault the economy tanked and the budget hurt. He is smug and self-righteous. Now he is wildly trying to get the Wild Rose supporters to swing PC because he is afraid of the NDP. Well, given the inaccuracy of polling and the fact that apathy reigns at the voter’s booth in Alberta, Jim likely will do fine. If he doesn’t, he has no one but himself to thank.

        • From what I recall (I was young), Joe Clark tried to pass a tough but fair budget and got voted out because he had a minority govt. He wasn’t a bad PM (for the 6 months he was pm).

        • Only mistake Joe Clark made is he was too honest. Corruption feeds Ottawa, lobby bought all the way. No lobby money means no votes in a media managed Canada. Note that CBC hasn’t been reporting PC Party dirt and closed cbc.ca commenting.

          We are well managed.

    • Joe Clark had more character and integrity.

      Joe Clark didn’t vote for GM, auto and bank bailouts to get a CIBC executive position. Joe Clark had the guts to face his constituents after having them pay for Ottawa/Ontariowe.

  2. I see Prentice as a moderate if not a red Tory, who couldn’t stand the Harper hate attack take no prisoners style a minute longer and got out when it was convenient to do so. Kenny is the real Harper guy and he’s not leaving.
    Brown and Harper obviously didn’t see much to admire in each other.

    • Prentice walked almost his entire opposition across the floor into his party and by an apparent act of kindness destroyed all of their careers but you claim he couldn’t stomach ‘attack style politics.’ Maybe what he really has is no patience for the frontal attack of his political opponents. He prefers to cozy up to them as though he is their friend and dispatch them that way. Then he talks down to the voters and treats them with contempt because he believes he has just removed one of their choices in already very narrow field. I just received a call from the PC party with a fear-mongering message to vote PC, not Wild Rose because the NDP are going to win. While I’ll never vote for the NDP, I will never vote for Jim Prentice. I didn’t vote for Alison Reford either and I am not sorry to see Danielle Smith gone. She made poor choices for the Wildrose. Voter apathy and fear will likely carry
      the day in Alberta for Jim Prentice but I truly hope Brian Jean at least gets a good showing and I am okay with Rachel Notley taking Edmonton. Now get out and vote Alberta.

  3. Paul,

    Really, really, good column. Deeply impressed and amused.

    cheers ,


  4. I hope no one gets the impression that this is somehow unique to Harper or the Conservatives – all of the risers in all political parties come about in the same way…

  5. MmmHmm….it was going to be Harp-Hudak-Ford too.

    The country is moving left, not right.

    • I wonder if Wells knows what Brown did to get in Harper’s dog house a pretty crowded place more like a barn.
      And I wonder if he or anyone knows why Prentice headed out of Ottawa.

  6. It sure looks like The Federal PC’s have a much stronger bench than the series of lightweights The Federal Liberals have and are trying. Thank God!

      • Ah Emily and you told me before you weren’t a Liberal!!
        Little Justin couldn’t carry Harper’s bags. The more he talks, the further down the polls he goes so, I hope he keeps that up. Otherwise, he will lead the country to the same state of bankruptcy the Ontario Liberals have left us with in Ontario.

        • I agree with him. The Fed Libs are poverty stricken and Trudeau 2nd is, like his father, a matinee idol – so wrapped up in himself he can’t see the banana peel on the sidewalk.

          • You two old crackers and Jack Daniels are a laugh. Enjoy yourselves. Ciao.

  7. Patrick Brown is not a former member of Harper’s federal conservative caucus. Brown is still spending the federal taxpayer’s money promoting himself in his riding. Today’s issue of the Barrie Examiner featured an all-blue front-page ad right under the masthead with Brown’s name and photo touting one of ‘Our Conservative Government’s’ tax measures. A few days ago I received an over-sized newsletter, one of those taxpayer-funded ‘householders’, again all in blue ink, touting his participation in local events.

    Far from being a wind-up toy, Brown has the worst vote attendance record of any Ontario MP in 2015, and has only managed to attend a single meeting of either of the parliamentary committees he is or was a member of since Parliament resumed after the Summer 2014 recess.

    Prior to the 2008 federal election, Patrick Brown usurped control of a hockey fund-raiser for the local hospital and sent out flyers claiming that the fund-raiser was his own idea even though it was started in 2004 by former NHL-ers and hospital staff and Brown himself participated in the 2006 edition of the fund-raiser.

    I suspect Wayne Gretzky’s endorsement of Patrick Brown has more to do with the Brown spending tens of thousands of dollars attending Wayne Gretzky’s hockey fantasy camps in Las Vegas three years in a row, while skipping Parliament in 2012 and 2013 to do so. (Brown also attended Gretzky’s fantasy camp in 2014, but that year the camp was scheduled during March break.)

    • P.S. Brown has also claimed that he’s spent his last nine Januaries in India, when sponsored travel supporting documents filed with the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner show that Brown was in Thailand and Vietnam before returning to Canada near the end of January 2014. I know this for a fact because after reading a January 8, 2014 press release from Brown’s office claiming Brown was involved in local budget consultations in Barrie, I found photos of Brown on Facebook showing him playing hockey at a tournament at a shopping mall in Bangkok at the time.

  8. I wonder why there are so many of us out here still looking for signs that Mr. Harper has grown up – never mind any of his underlings. He has been (and I mean has-been) the most childishly petulant and stubbornly opinionated PM ever, so what lessons has he passed on to any “heirs”?

  9. “What lessons can we draw from this teeny Harper brigade?”

    The most obvious one of all it seems; that Stephen Harper is really Captain Kirk.

  10. I guess I’m a bit slow out here in the boonies far from the bright lights and wickedly crafted insights of the Ottawa pundit class.
    Wells is being satirical!
    Sarcasm is a bit rare up there but now I see this is something of a masterpiece.

  11. Jim is really more like Wynne 2.0… tax’em more to keep union cards happy and lobby money rolling in.

    Some of us remeber how Bailout Jim voted for GM/auto/bank bailouts then took an executive job with CIBC Bank as not to face the voters in his Alberta riding that have to pay into the coporate-union bailout buddy system. And Jim never did let go of the people who let Redford happen, and Redford didn’t happen in a vacuum. No fixes in AHS either. Jim is a “good olde” back room boy. Showed he is not beyind tampering with democracy in how he duped Danielle Smith….. but we have a better Wildrose for it.

    My memory is not short and why I donated to the Wildrose, Wildrose sign on my lawn and voting Wildrose. Jim just doesn’t have the character or leadership skills, just a statism good olde boy.

    Jim clearly does not represent Albertans. Jim will lose votes on election day, question is will it be enough to send him and PC Party hacks a packing to become the opposition.

  12. All I see is morally and ethically corrupt politicians.

    [x] Need better choices for my vote.

    Sad fact is voting is a lose-lose game, no mater how you vote, you will be taxed more, get devalued money for bank debt/currency fraud, have less to spend on your family and other peoples jobs. Hey, more govmint, less for the people. Its the only posible outcome of every federal ballot int he land.

    Probably why most people don’t vote, they realize how disgustingly low character people are always on the ballot lying their heads off for votes and tax greed.

  13. Kind of disappointed we haven’t got the dumb innumerate column favouring Prentice like we got for Hudak in Ontario

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