Maximum Harper -

Maximum Harper

The Conservatives in Calgary: Paul Wells explains why Stephen Harper is not about to change


Philip Kaufman’s great 1983 film The Right Stuff opens with a shot of sky and a voice-over (Levon Helm’s, I learn):

There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, 750 miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the sound barrier.

I have been quoting that monologue, not very accurately, at book events when people ask me to predict Stephen Harper’s future. Here is what I know about Stephen Harper’s future: nothing. But people expect some song and dance, so I mention the demon in Philip Kaufman’s sky, and I say that in Canadian prime ministerial politics that demon lives at about nine years.

In January, Harper will have been prime minister for eight years, longer than 13 of his predecessors, not as long as eight others. At the 2015 election — assuming it’s held on the date “fixed by law,” haw haw, of October 2015 — he’ll have had the job for pretty close to 10 years and outlasted three more men, if he’s still in the top job: St. Laurent, Borden and Mulroney. All those great careers fell apart a little short of nine years. Jean Chrétien, his career mortally wounded before the nine-year mark, hung on until 10 years and 38 days out of sheer cussedness.

Harper’s goal is to outlast them all, to be prime minister for almost as long as Laurier’s and Trudeau’s 15 years (and even Trudeau was beaten and thought himself done after 11 years), to settle in as a kind of epoch. His goal lies behind a barrier through which very few men have ever passed. This thing he wants to do is hard.

His current situation is mixed. Conservatives still out-fundraise the other parties, by thumping margins, every quarter. The Liberals narrowed the Conservative dollar lead in the last quarter to “only” 54%. But a database development fiasco has cost the party many millions of dollars — the donations of many tens of thousands of ordinary Conservatives — with nothing to show for it. But the database they’re stuck with is the one they used to win the last three elections, which is a high-class problem. But the Liberals’ polling advantage has, under Justin Trudeau, been durable. Most Conservatives I spoke to here think Trudeau is the least of their worries. But the largest of their worries is a Senate mess Harper seems unskilled at putting behind him.

Like I said, mixed. He comes dragging a bunch of nasty headlines about the Senate mix, and as I did broadcast interviews about my book this week, I kept hearing learned academics telling radio reporters that Harper had to show contrition, deliver a full explanation of the Senate uproar, reveal a vulnerable human side, yadda yadda.

He did nothing of the sort. He was more populist, more greatest-hits (GST cuts? Still? But then, the Liberals still talk about the Charter of Rights, and it’s been 31 years), more unapologetic and confrontational than he’s been in a while. As a bonus, his minions sent minions to box reporters into measurably less floor space than at the party’s last national convention in Ottawa in 2011. Just for fun, mostly, because delegates still came to chat.

In 2008, at the height of the coalition crisis, I asked Doug Finley which way the government had plotted out of the existential crisis it had provoked: Fight? Or contrite? “Oh, we won’t be contrite,” Finley said. Harper never is, not on the big things. But here’s the thing: Preferring fight over contrite got him this far, and he will not change now.

My blog post last night read the prime minister’s speech as a sign he was burying Senate reform. The Globe this morning has an article suggesting he is heading toward a referendum on Senate abolition. The two articles are contradictory. This is the glory of a free press. I’m not particularly worried I’m wrong on this.

As Justice Department lawyers are arguing right now in the court challenge to Quebec’s Law 99, and as everyone except Quebec’s noted intergovernmental-affairs minister I.M. Whosis learned in school, a referendum is not magical. The law persists after a vote. And the law, as interpreted last month by the Quebec Court of Appeals in line with arguments delivered by (life is funny sometimes) the government of Quebec, holds that every provincial legislature must consent to Senate abolition. (The Supreme Court has yet to deliver its own opinion, but even if it grants the feds’ argument that they can get away with 7 provinces and half the population, Ottawa would be barely further ahead.)

So say Stephen Harper rides a Senate abolition referendum to re-election. Eighty per cent of Canadians vote to shuter the red chamber, and Harper uses that number to browbeat the premiers of the half-dozen or more provinces that resist Senate abolition. Do you really think every one of those premiers will knuckle under? And even if they do, they must win ratification votes in their legislatures. Elijah Harpers would start popping up like spring daisies.

And do you really think that infernal mess is the way Stephen Harper wants to live the next five years? I don’t buy it. He told the convention on Friday night what he wants: more of the economic populism that got him this far, delivered in the style that got him this far. Anyone who doesn’t like it can vote Liberal or NDP, as, he is quite sure, they already were doing anyway. I can’t see Stephen Harper’s future any better than you can, but this weekend confirmed a hunch that should not have come as a surprise: if he leads the Conservative into another election, he plans to run as Stephen Harper.


Maximum Harper

  1. “To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the ‘U-turn’, I have only one thing to say: ‘You turn’ if you want to. The man in black’s not for turning.”

    • Yeah but everyone was always terrified she might handbag you, probably had an iron in there too, if you even dared suggest she pause for reflection even.
      The lady wasn’t much for admitting she made mistakes like every other human being.

  2. Unfortunately I couldn’t read the Globe article (they will have to show more game before I pony up the cash). Still it is distressing that Wells wins by default among the punditry. Senate reform is the new the gun registry. It is going to be around awhile.

    The real issue for Harper is whether he can transform the discussion about his crazy-ass PMO doing black ops without his knowledge into a discussion of sleazy people in the Senate. (the thing that makes the challenge interesting is that he appointed the sleazy Senators… and the crazy ass people in the PMO).

    • Harper also had an excerpt in the G&M Sports section from his book. Man, Roy MacGregor must have gone through a gross of Nescafe editing. I couldn’t finish reading. Snoozers.

    • but he only has to ‘transform the discussion’ to abt 10% of pop’n. Other 30% of pop’n (his base) is already convinced

      • Harper is definitely good enough to ride this out. That said, in the next 18 months the robocall issue is going to come to front stage. A judge has already stated that 1) it happened and 2) senior conservative were obstructing the investigation.

        It wasn’t simply the Sponsorship issue that brought down Chretien. It was that it followed Shawinigate. Most everyone believed Chretien was being less than honest regarding the hotel, but it really wasnt that big an issue. However it used up his political capital when the sponsorship scandal broke out.

        At this point, 85% of Canadians believe Stephen Harper will lie about the small stuff. When he states he had no detailed knowledge of the robocalls either before or after, what are they likely to conclude?

        • The libs eventually lost because of the gun registry. He lost all those gun-totin’ plebes, and they are never, ever going back. When you write off a big portion of the voting public forever, it’s really hard to to win, as other issues nibble away at your base.

          • Teh rootin’ tootin’ six-shootin’ lobby weren’t Lib voters to begin with. There aren’t enough of them who would ever vote Liberal anyway to make any difference, their only political value is that their paranoia and gullibility mean they can be fleeced by the CPC for their donations.

          • Gay marriage lost the Liberals the election in 2006.

          • That is a dubious proposition. According to the Canadian Election Survey in 2006, only 1% of survey respondents indicated that same-sex marriage was their most important issue. Same goes for the gun registry – gun control was a big issue for 0.9% of voters (and a fair chunk of those voters – 32% for same-sex marriage, 55% for gun control – were not conservatives).

            Health care and ethics/the sponsorship scandal were the most important issues. I mean if gay marriage was “the reason” Harper won, why didn’t he win in 2004 when gay marriage was also an issue?

          • Because gay marriage was openly passed in 2005.
            It was a wedge issue that alienated quiet traditionalists from the Liberal Party and rallied them into Harper’s arms.

            Also, tax cuts.

          • So you honestly believe that a large number of Canadians:
            1. Cared about gay marriage more than any other issue (despite evidence to the contrary)
            2. Understood the difference between a free vote in parliament and a vote in which cabinet ministers are pushed by the PMO to vote one way.
            3. Believed that Harper would win enough seats for the “free vote” pledge to make a difference.
            4. Believed Harper would actually hold a free vote on same-sex marriage if it had a chance of passing… AND use the constitutional tools (e.g. notwithstanding clause) necessary to override the courts.

          • No…they just saw Liberals smearing anyone who didn’t jump on the bandwagon and they saw Harper taking the principled high road.
            The impact was massive.

          • No

          • “Health care” is always the number one issue when pollsters prompt.
            “Health care” moves exactly zero federal election votes.

          • No.

    • G&M do allow a few freebies every month – I got to read Tabatha Southey for the first time in ages. I usually use them up in the first couple of days.

      • I just stopped going.

        • Totally understand.

      • Jan, use Google Chrome in Incognito mode. Free globe articles all month.

        • Thank you, I will try that. Does it work on othersÉ

          • All browsers typically have a ‘private’ mode. Chrome works by right-clicking on any page and then selecting OPEN IN INCOGNITO WINDOW.

          • Sorry – I meant other media – I do use Chrome…thanks again.

          • Duh- my fault. Depends. It can’t circumvent a hard paywall but it does work in pretty much any website that uses cookies/IP addresses to determine # of visits- works great on the NYT and Star website (for latte-sipping leftards), the Onion (for lazy good for nothing Gen Y’ers, and the National Post (for all right-thinking normal people).

    • Sure you can read the Globe article….just browse in Chrome incognito mode.

  3. Will Harper repeal the Federal legislation that gives pretty much every province a constitutional veto? (My bet: yes, if it would bring him success and he has to).

    I know I keep “harping” (HA!) on this every time it comes up, but here’s every premier on senate abolition if the gov’t pushes: “Oh, you need my signature on something or it doesn’t happen? The alternative is the status quo we’ve lived with for 130 years? Well, here’s my list of things I want. Long, eh? You say 80% of Canadians support you? Well 100% of the people who voted me into this job like the things on my list.”

    • agreed. Thats why if SCOC reference basically agrees with QCA, referendum is a way forward POLITICALLY…policy wise the Senate is here forever.

      • There’s no upside to a national referendum whose result cannot be implemented. People would remember they’d voted.

    • Dottt – the “Federal legislation” you refer to IS the Constitution. Repealing THAT would require all 10 provinces and three territories to sign off on it. Fat chance of that happening.

      • Is that the document that guarantees freedom of expression that is not mine?

        • You appear to have plenty of freedom to express yourself

      • i refer to the 1996 law “An Act Respecting Constitutional Amendments” (I would have listed it by name when i wrote it but I did not recall the name). It’s only Federal legislation and can be repealed, but it purports to put additional restrictions on the Federal government before it can sign a constitutional amendment.

  4. 2015 will be tough for Stephen Harper without the guidance of the three wise men who contributed to past CPC successes.

    Doug Finley (master puppeteer & policy strategist) is no longer with us;
    Tom Flanagan (party disciplinarian) has become irrelevant; and
    Nigel Wright (PMO headmaster), has disappeared into the ether.

    Stephen Harper is standing naked in front of Canadians for the first time.

    The Party Faithful may not notice, but Canadians who thrice voted Conservative
    expecting open, honest and accountable Government are running out of hope
    and patience.

    • The guy I think he really misses is Beardsley. The only guy to ever really speak truth to power to him, with the possible exception of the guy accused of the Hilary leak – forget his name at the moment.

      • Brodie? Can’t remember his first name.

        • Aren’t all harpers flunkies called Steve then?
          Ian , I believe it was.

          • There are so many stacked up now, it would be easier to use one generic name…not Nigel though, still too sensitive.

          • Steve ,Nigel and probably Peter are out for various reasons. How about Bruce then?

          • In the spirit of Python, yes. Of course there was a Bruce – when is his trial happening I wonder?

          • Release Bruce!

          • Ah – which one?

  5. Paul, you’ve got my head spinning…You’re saying PMSH doesn’t want abolition (necessarily) but he didn’t REALLY want reform, and he doesn’t want Status Quo cause thats scandal all the way down….so what does that leave?

    • Home plate.

    • It’s handy to remember that if a politician has half a wit, he’s experienced at drawing distinctions, at least privately, between what he might want and what’s possible. Harper wants reform but finds it difficult, dreams of abolition but might find it harder still, and is not fond of the *structural* status quo (as opposed to various procedural changes which are the normal course of business) but can live with it, as indeed he has for near 8 years.

      Suddenly there’s a big scandal and a lot of noise. Does Harper’s reading of the strategic landscape change? Maybe not. Reform is still hard, abolition still harder, and the status quo annoying but worth leaving there while he works on problems that actually have practical solutions.

  6. So , the” boys” are still determined to underestimate and dismiss youngish Trudeau. I’m sure that suits the Liberals just fine. You’d think Harper would know better, given how often he benefitted from low expectations. But the longer this guy is PM, the less he resembles the savvy old SH. Works for me. Works for the opposition generally.

    • They’re definitely ignoring Mulroney’s advice. And Joe Clark’s advice – to offer up the facts re Senate – must be causing a lot of thigh slapping on the plane back to Ottawa.

      • I really think they’d take advise from JT, before those two “losers”.

  7. Errol Mendes ( does anyone still listen to him?) thinks Harper never really was interested in senate reform, once he started to really enjoy power. And if he’s not really interested in a aboltion for the simple reason the idea is bonkers anyway – just what would satisfy him?
    Even if this was ever true, surely he’s back on the reform track after this fiasco – almost solely of his making.

  8. When Harper says that anyone that doesn’t like his agenda can vote liberal or NDP, he forgot (on purpose) what happened in a recent Calgary by-election. Libs and NDP stayed the same in their voter support as in 2011. The 58% conservative support dropped to 38%. The Greens picked up all of that CPC loss , getting 24% of the vote. I’m a former conservative who jumped because of Harper’s brutal stubbornness in wrong minded ideology. The Greens are everything the old Progressive Conservatives were and the best parts of the Libs and NDP. There’s a reason Harper from Calgary didn’t say, “or you can vote Green”.

    • Meh….it was a by-election that many conservatives didn’t wake up for.
      Chris Turner is a local poster boy for smart Green Party success, so people were more willing to give him a chance.
      Calgary-Centre is not and hasn’t been a strong conservative riding. Remember, Joe Clark won this riding for the PC’s in 2000…..

      • Calgary Centre is definitely a winnable riding for a non-Conservative, especially a moderate Liberal with some name recognition.

  9. I nodded in agreement when Paul Wells said on CTV yesterday to Don Martin that the Prime Minister thinks the 2015 election will not be won or lost on the Senate. Also when he brought up BC election as evidence that “scandals” have no real impact on voters’ choices.
    Was Mulcair mentioned by name in PM Harper’s address? I didn’t hear it although Justin Trudeau was mentioned by name and in mocking tones (“Canadian Idol” “marijuana trade”). Mulcair is trying to make a name for himself on the Senate and the media and pundits are egging him on because they are obsessed with it on but the Senate (like “contempt of Parliament” during Ignatieff’s turn) is a peripheral issue and always will be. Mulcair by focussing so intensely on the Senate “scandal” is taking himself out of the real contest. Harper sees this so his main political focus is on Conservative economic accomplishments to contrast these with Trudeau’s lack of economic bona fides. Electorally speaking I think he wants to prevent any of the Manley “business” Liberals from returning to the Liberal fold by reinforcing the message he pointed out in his speech: “Justin Trudeau can’t be trusted to run the economy.”
    I think that will be what the 2015 election will be about.

  10. It is worth pointing out that of Canada’s “successful” PM’s (in terms of longevity) – John A, Wilfrid Laurier, William Lyon Mackenzie-King and Pierre Trudeau, three had comebacks after electoral defeats (John A: 1987, King: 1930 and a few months in 1926; Trudeau: 1979).

    The ten-year ceiling is nigh-on-impossible to break. At the same time it suggests that Harper may be able to survive a defeat by Justin Trudeau at the next election (unlike Diefenbaker, Mulroney and Borden he hasn’t destroyed the underlying coalition that gave him victory – even if he’s discredited the brand a little). Polls point to a Liberal victory, certainly. But Harper could hold Trudeau to a minority, especially with a strong showing by the NDP. Such a parliament would not be especially stable.

    As much as some folks believe any-but-Harper is enough to govern with, the reality is that Prime Minister Trudeau the younger would face difficulties in a minority parliament. Neither the Tories nor the NDP would want to make concessions to their main electoral rivals.

    And the recipe for making the Liberals wither is a clear one. Mulcair demands some concession for Quebec, Harper channels 1987 Preston Manning. Justin Trudeau is popular because he is an attractive, and weakly defined, vessel for which voters can put their hopes and dreams (something Harper never enjoyed). As PM Trudeau could no longer avoid definition. He might be astute enough to make decisions that would cast him in the right light, but he could easily stumble.

    And you know Harper would relish the opportunity to turn the son of Pierre Elliot Trudeau into a Joe Clark-esque eunuch. And it isn’t as if Harper has to fight of leadership challenges to do so.

    -Election night 2015: Harper loses, but doesn’t resign.
    -9 months later: Harper announces resignation, with a 9-month leadership race to give candidates enough time to campaign.
    -<18 months later: Justin Trudeau faces a VONC.

    Don't write Harper off just yet. Nobody can better unite the disparate factions that make up the Conservative party.

    • As the Alberta and BC elections showed us, polls point to nothing, certainly.

      Mulcair is in a tough spot – based on BC and NS elections, if the next federal election is about the economy the NDP lose. Mulcair has to focus on scandal, anything but the economy in order to have a hope of winning or even staying on as Opposition (because nobody sees the NDP as forming a future government – they are a protest party).

      Trudeau has announced he has nothing to say about the economy until 2015. This is Harper’s opportunity which he already has started to take advantage of at Calgary – remind everyone of Conservative economic achievements and belittle Trudeau at every turn for his lack of economic bona fides and experience. The theme of the pre-campaign and campaign will be a binary choice: “Re-elect Harper because Justin is not up to running the economy.” Mulcair will be ignored. Mulcair’s main task will be preserve as many Quebec seats as he can from the resurgent Liberals.

      The optimum result for the Liberals in 2015 is a strong second-place finish with improved showing in Western Canada (and relegation of NDP to 3rd party status) to face another Conservative Harper majority. The danger now is the polls and media are inflating expectations of an improbable Liberal victory which would make 2nd place in 2015 seem like a defeat rather than the achievement it would be. Like Harper did after his 2004 defeat at the hands of Paul Martin, Trudeau and his party will needs to learn how to earn their way towards government. And if in 2015 Trudeau doesn’t repeat Paul Martin’s mistake (resigning on election night 2006) then potentially he stands a better chance of becoming PM in 2019-20 when Harper will likely exit the political scene.

  11. I personally totally enjoyed watching the discomfiture of the press. Harper and the Conservatives learned how to treat them a long time ago, when the media in general scurried around buying into every conspiracy theory the Liberals and the NDP offered after the birth of the new Conservative party. He also saw what they were prepared to do to get a headline to fuel their scandal-a-day anti- conservative bias. It was great to see Fife and Gang so put out during the QP show Sunday over their treatment. The media often tells the PM live by the sword – die by the sword. No one is being taught that lesson more fully than them. And the Canadian public which time and again has indicated it has
    little concern or respect for the Dandy Lions of Journalism, seems to be enjoying the side show immensely.

    • Agreed. Our democracy is much better when our free press is made less free, on the whim of whoever happens to be in charge.

      • This is not a free press. This is a press shackled to their buds in the opposition parties, particularly the LIberals – and to the demands of their employers seeing consumers in a market that is dying thanks to their shoddy product. I.E. See the latest polls re the majority of folks who question both the ethics and honesty of journalists. Press meet glass house – glass house meet press.

        • Can you point me to an article, or a single Canadian journalist, proved to be found acting in an unethical or dishonest manner? Up until last week, you would likely have pointed to the Star journos re: the Ford tape, but even that is now cleared up. Personally, I think our media are constantly being called liars by politicians who are trying to hide stuff — so just how are the journos unethical? By doing their jobs? Was Fife unethical to report something leaked to him — I mean, probably the biggest unearthing of a heinous story in his career — and do you think he should not have reported? Harper government wants to be in the news, all its little policies covered, but then calls journos partisan, or keeps them away from asking questions but still expects the photo opps.

        • Agreed. If the media insists on holding the government to account, they deserve what’s coming to them. Buncha maggots, all of ’em.