Exclusive excerpt: Stephen Harper confidential

Paul Wells has won the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. Here’s an excerpt from his book
Jason Ransom / PMO

No figure in contemporary Canadian politics provokes more heated emotion than Stephen Harper. And yet no leader in memory has worked as hard as Harper does to keep a low profile. As Maclean’s Political Editor Paul Wells explains in his new book The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006-, that’s part of Harper’s plan. In this exclusive excerpt, Wells describes Harper’s working style, his temper, and the sustained effort he puts into remaining an enigma. “The point of this word craft and image manipulation,” Wells writes, “is to last. The point of everything he does is to last.”

Exclusive Excerpt

“Let’s go through a typical day,” somebody who works in the Langevin Block suggested. “He wakes up and he will do various media reviews with his wife, just by himself. And then he will come into the office for around 8:30-8:40 a.m. and he will meet with his senior staff. And they will then proceed to give him a media review. But he will have a sense of what some people have written already.”

This is striking because Harper has often protested that he doesn’t read the newspapers. He gets what he needs to know, he says, from his staff and the enormous bureaucracy that feeds it. But sometimes he is ahead of them when he arrives at work. Laureen Harper reads the papers, the blogs and Twitter. She will often mention reporters’ work to them when she bumps into them at receptions around town. A recommendation or condemnation from her is probably a big influence on Harper’s reading.

After the media review, senior staff convene a meeting with Harper focused largely on the issues of the day rather than long-term planning, with a strong emphasis on communications. “He will give broad assent and feedback. He may make some comments on memos that have been submitted to him in the days prior. And that will be sort of his morning meeting, which lasts about an hour or so.”

A typical workday for the Prime Minister is hard to define because there can never be such a thing. Sometimes a visitor will show up—Justin Bieber or the recipients of the Canada Vanier Scholarships. Sometimes there is a trip to a factory or a meeting with a world leader. It’s a complex job. But on quiet days, “there is mainly a mixture of meetings in the office; but really there’s work time, where he’s reading memos. The main way he prefers to be briefed is via a memorandum. Obviously, you meet with him and talk to him. But if you want to pitch something to him, a short note is how he likes to be briefed. One or two pages maximum.”

This sounds all right as a way to function until you remember that before a weekly meeting of the priorities and planning committee of cabinet, Harper might have 50 such memos to digest. “And then he will engage with you on that basis. So he spends the day on a few notes, reading things, writing speeches. And then whatever events or roundtables with people outside of the government that get added to his calendar. And then the day ends and he goes home to his family.”

In his early days as Prime Minister, Harper would scribble substantial notes in the margins of the memos sent to him by the bureaucrats. The memos would return to the Privy Council Office dotted with comments. Bureaucrats took the running commentary as evidence that Harper reads closely documents that nobody expected would receive his personal attention.

Once Harper wanted Canada Post to issue a commemorative stamp to mark the anniversary of the Montreal Canadiens hockey club in 2008. A memo came to him explaining that the Prime Minister does not normally request specific subjects for stamps, because it is important to keep Canada Post above the partisan fray, or beneath it—or in any event away from it. Note in margin of memo: “I don’t care. I want the stamp.” Sometime later another memo returned to the effect that this sort of thing just wasn’t done, and perhaps somebody on the PMO staff could designate a suitable arm’s-length surrogate who would ask for a Habs centennial stamp. Probably he needn’t fuss anyway, because this was the sort of stamp Canada Post would normally produce on its own. Harper’s note in margin: “Who is not reading my comments?” Today on the Canada Post website you can still purchase an impressive set of 100th-anniversary Habs commemorative stamps.

After a few years in office, Harper’s staff decided the marginal comments left too many hostages to fortune: they might provide proof, for posterity or the Conservatives’ opponents, of Harper’s direct involvement in a file. The handwritten comments disappeared thereafter, although on each page of a memo Harper has reviewed there is still a checkmark and the initials “SH.”

If Harper can be imperious with the mostly faceless strangers of the public service, he is surprisingly collaborative with his partisan political staff. Several people who have worked for Harper say hierarchies tend to flatten in his presence. Just as almost any minister can get up in question period and answer a question on almost any file, similarly, job titles and formal responsibilities matter little within the confines of his office. Hierarchies snap back into place as soon as everyone leaves, but if you are in the room he wants to hear from you. This helps explain how Ray Novak, who began life as a gopher for Harper, wound up as his chief of staff. He was in almost all the meetings. Nobody told him not to talk.

Sometimes Harper is just a guy. “I was walking into work,” one former Langevin Block denizen said, “and you go in the west doors. And that’s where the PM pulls up.” A motorcade, several black sedans and minivans deep, will arrive from the south and sidle up to the Metcalfe Street curb. “And there’s a family there, and it must have been tourists. They were an Aboriginal couple. And the PM gets out with the RCMP—it’s a big deal if you haven’t seen it before—and [the tourists] are taking pictures. The PM stops to talk to them. And he brings them into the office and shows them around and spends 10 or 15 minutes talking to them. And I thought that was very touching.” There was a pause in our interview. “He does like junk food.” Any favourites? “Skittles, I think.” “I didn’t know him at all when I got there,” added the person who reported the fondness for Skittles. “People ask me what he’s like and I say, ‘He’s exactly what you think he’s like.’ Very serious, inscrutable. The closer you get to him, the more he yells at you. We use that as a barometer. The new guy always gets a free ride.”

One does get a glimpse of the temper. Several people report that he doesn’t yell at a staffer until the staffer has been around for a while. Clearly, then, he has some control over his behaviour. Swearing blue streaks at a staffer thus becomes a sign of trust. Nor is it wise to try too hard to implement whatever instructions he barks when he is feeling shouty. Sandra Buckler, his first communications director, used to take his tirades as her marching orders. A few days later and several degrees calmer, Harper would issue contradictory instructions. Soon, a colleague says, Buckler learned to take Harper’s tantrums as “cathartic,” not as an expression of his truest self.

Though they change, his moods often last several hours at a time. “He comes into the office sometimes in a bad mood and that will affect how he sees things throughout the day. And if he comes in in a good mood no one can do anything wrong.” The surprising moments of bridge-building and clemency from this government usually come directly from Harper. So do the truly dark outbursts of vengefulness.

When he first became Prime Minister in 2006, he built a staff that could handle the ordinary flow of routine government business. He has replaced almost every component of that team again and again, like George Washington’s axe in the old joke—three new blades and two new handles—often replacing a staffer with somebody very different. Yet the tone of the government changes little over time. The office delivers routine. The Prime Minister delivers surprise, for good and for ill.

He can carry a grudge. “He will refer to things that were said in Conservative caucus when he was first an MP, when he was first elected as a backbencher, and will use that as a basis for judging that person forever. If he forms a negative impression of someone, he retains it more than a decade after the fact, even if it’s based on a trivial encounter.”

Since Tom Flanagan wrote his book spilling many of the secrets of the early Harper years, Harper has continued his grudge against him. He probably won’t change his mind on that. More than two years later, Flanagan turned up at a Calgary Stampede event at which Harper was to address the crowd. While he was speaking, the Prime Minister caught a glimpse of his former chief of staff. Later, in the “green room” set aside for Harper’s use a short distance from the main event, he was livid. “Who the f–k let him in?”

For all the frequent displays of temper, Harper does not, his staff insists, forbid contradictory viewpoints. He asked Bruce Carson to direct the production of the 2006 election platform because, as he told Carson, “You’re a little to my left politically.” (“You’ve got that right,” Carson replied.)

Doug Finley, the Conservative senator who died of cancer in May 2013, ran the campaigns of 2006 and 2008 and organized the government’s defence during the 2008 coalition crisis. He was behind most of the party’s fundraising efforts until 2011, when his serious health problems returned. His wife, Diane, is one of the government’s senior cabinet ministers. I had the chance to ask him for some insights into Harper’s personality. “I don’t really know Stephen Harper,” Finley said. “I don’t socialize with him.”

“He has a profound ability not to care about being hated,” one former ministerial staffer said. He is indifferent to most criticism, and takes considerable pleasure from some, especially if it comes from the elites he’s mistrusted most of his adult life: academics, lawyers and the media. But there was one exception to this general observation. The guffawing that greeted the photo opportunity when Harper took his son and daughter to school a few days after the 2006 election upset him durably. The photos and TV footage showed him shaking his son Ben’s hand, as though they had concluded a real estate deal. Ben was a shy kid, as his father would have been 40 years earlier, and it is hard to do anything the way you normally would when you are being followed by a gaggle of photographers. As it happens, I have since had occasion to drop off children at the same Ottawa school many times. Almost none of the parents hug their kids. They’re dropping the kids off at school, after all, not ushering them into the French Foreign Legion. They’ll see them again in a few hours.

The snark about the handshake took Harper by surprise and, having nothing to do with his work as a political leader, hit him hard. “The notion that he might be a distant or uncaring father hurt him,” a former adviser said. “It’s the only thing I ever saw that did.”

What’s his speech-writing process like? My source named the four-person speech-writing staff, led in recent years by the former Calgary Herald columnist Nigel Hannaford. There has been a lot of turnover in the speech-writing office. It doesn’t sound like rewarding work. Harper “likes his drafts early and he likes to spend a lot of time reading over and commenting on drafts, especially on speeches. He likes to have a lot of time. He likes to go back and forth and make a lot of changes.” It is the speech-writing staff that serves in this tennis match. Harper likes a draft he can react to. Then he reacts in detail.

“I think the ‘Harper as micromanager’ notion is wrong in a number of ways, but at the speech-writer end it’s definitely that. It’s not that he likes to deliver deep and profound speeches. It’s really rare that he will deliver a really meaningful speech.”

I suggested that perhaps, because it is still hardly clear to anyone—including members of his own cabinet—what Harper conservatism really is, Harper takes pains with his language because whatever he says becomes the song sheet for an entire movement. No, my source said. That’s not it at all. Harper doesn’t spend his afternoons trying to find potent expression for his ideas. He works at removing memorable turns of phrase and identifiable ideas from his speeches. He puts great effort into flattening the prose.

“I find that oftentimes he makes his speeches more platitudinous rather than more [potent]. A good portion of his edits are taking out either superfluous phrases or ideas that people are trying to put into his mouth . . . He tries not to make news with his speeches, even with speeches with which we would want to make news. I can’t explain it because I don’t understand it.”

I had a hunch. Another former adviser confirmed it. “All the stuff that sounds good in speeches—‘We must,’ ‘I will never,’ ‘Mark my words’—all that becomes a line in the sand. It gets held against you later. So that stuff’s coming out. If it makes the speech-writing staff feel bad, well, they’ll live.”

There is a secondary reason for Harper’s penchant for literal self-effacement. He wants to be damned sure which line in a speech will get quoted in the papers. So he repeats it in French and English, and to make sure that one line sounds interesting, he makes sure the rest of the speech doesn’t.

Jean Chrétien mostly left speeches to staff and had no strong opinion about how much personality his writers should make him seem to have. He would grind through the text like a millstone through oats, haul a well-worn cadenza off a mental shelf to get a belated rise out of the stultified audience (“Millions of people would give their shirts for our so-called problems”) and call it a night. Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin were obsessive about reworking speech drafts to insert their own voice. Only Harper spends hours subtracting a voice from his speeches.

Formlessness makes Harper both harder for his detractors to hate (although never all that hard) and, paradoxically, easier for his admirers to like. Scholars of the storytelling craft tell us that when we know little about a protagonist it can actually be easier to identify with him. In his 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment, the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim examined the structure and enduring power of fairy tales. “The fairy tale makes clear that it tells about everyman, people very much like us,” Bettelheim wrote. In Beauty and the Beast, you never learn much about Beauty. “The protagonists of fairy tales are referred to as ‘a girl,’ for instance, or ‘the youngest brother’ . . . fairies and witches, giants and godmothers remain equally unnamed, thus facilitating projections and identifications.” If a stranger rides into town, we imagine he must be like us—that, in fact, he is us. If he is a blond stranger with a Flemish accent and henna tattoos, not so much.

When Harper first ran for prime minister in 2004, his name was so meaningless to Canadians that he sought to pour meaning into it with those issue-based television ads that ended with the oddly insistent “My name is Stephen Harper” tag. By 2006 his name had become a problem. His opponents had defined him, and he had been rather more successful at defining himself—as a jerk—than he wanted. So he kept his name out of his campaign advertising. Eventually he won the election, and then sought to reduce his presence in his own government. Some readers will recall that public servants have been told to refer systematically to the “Harper government,” but that didn’t begin until he had been the Prime Minister for nearly five years. At first they were told to call it “Canada’s new government.” Thus facilitating projections and identifications, Bettelheim would say.

I used to be surprised by emails from readers who, when they were not critical of Harper, were sure he was bold or compassionate or brilliant. On some days he has been all of those things. But on most days he is not, in public, much of anything. Observers looking for something to dislike get less fodder than they would if he were a loudmouth, although they manage with what’s available. Observers looking for a hero draw the hero’s chiselled features in the outline Harper leaves blank.

The point of this word craft and image manipulation is not to amuse a bored Prime Minister, or to help him cope with shyness, or to mess with the press gallery’s head. It is to last. The point of everything he does is to last. The surest rebuttal Harper can offer to a half-century of Liberal hegemony is not to race around doing things the next Liberal could undo. The surest rebuttal is to last and not be Liberal. “He always says, ‘My models aren’t Conservative prime ministers,’ ” one of his ministers told me. “ ‘My models are successful prime ministers.’ ”

As a student of successful prime ministers, Harper has certainly also contemplated those who failed. Some deserve little attention because they didn’t understand politics or were robbed by fate: Joe Clark, John Turner, Kim Campbell, Paul Martin. In Harper’s lifetime, this leaves Diefenbaker, Trudeau, Mulroney, Chrétien. Flanagan has also written that the largest majorities collapse under the weight of their own internal contradictions. That was Diefenbaker’s burden, but because it has not been Harper’s it needn’t preoccupy us.

Are there lessons to learn from the others? Perhaps these two. Mulroney and Chrétien were destroyed by lieutenants who became rivals. Trudeau and Mulroney went off chasing dragons and exhausted the nation’s patience.

By the time Lucien Bouchard and Paul Martin left cabinet and turned, in different ways, against the prime ministers who had made them stars, they had earned independent reputations as visionary leaders. They had built largely autonomous bases of power and influence within their respective parties. Bouchard’s resignation from Mulroney’s cabinet in 1990 consolidated the collapse of the Progressive Conservative coalition. He then built the Bloc Québécois from Mulroney’s Quebec caucus and from the PC voter base in the province. The rise of the Bloc matched, and to some extent provoked, the Reform party’s expansion in the West. Defeat for the Progressive Conservatives followed in the next election. The party, as constituted, never really recovered.

Martin’s resignation from Chrétien’s cabinet in 2002—in his trademark style, Martin did not understand that he had quit until Chrétien swore in a new finance minister—turned the Liberal party against itself. But only briefly. Martin had prepared well. Badly outnumbered, Chrétien manoeuvred with great skill, but his departure was coerced and his party badly damaged.

Harper has not permitted a Martin or a Bouchard to rise in his government. Nobody in his cabinet combines the two ingredients Bouchard and Martin had at the moment of their apostasies: an independent power base and antagonistic ambitions. David Emerson and Jim Prentice had no broad power base, so when they left they took nothing with them. John Baird and Jason Kenney might manage to hurt Harper in some bizarro-universe revolt, but it is not easy to imagine them rebelling. Their political identity is indistinguishable from the Harper party’s. During the 2000 election, Martin’s associates were laying money bets all over Ottawa against a third Chrétien majority; in 2011, associates of Kenney and Baird were busy securing the first Harper majority. The biggest detonation Harper has suffered came early, before he won power, when Belinda Stronach left the Conservatives for the Liberals in 2005. Nobody went with her. He won the next election against her new friends. It is hard to imagine Peter MacKay, for instance, leaving to launch an outsider challenge to Harper, but even if he did, the scale of the thing could not match what Bouchard did to Mulroney. Of course there is ego in Harper’s insistence that he remain top boss. But not only ego. A party that devours itself is fodder for its enemies; a party that resists the temptation of regicide can hope to replicate the King—St. Laurent—Pearson—Trudeau—Chrétien daisy chain.

Rivals are not the only enemy of longevity. So are projects. If the sponsorship scandal and Paul Martin’s ambitions were enough to put paid to Jean Chrétien’s career, the two other durable regimes of Harper’s lifetime—Trudeau’s and Mulroney’s—were sapped in the end by the leaders’ dogged pursuit of goals that bore little obvious relation to the preoccupations of most Canadians.

Amid global economic turmoil, Trudeau’s three-year battle with René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois after 1976 led to his defeat in the 1979 election, although the voters’ hope that less Trudeau would mean less tension in the federation amounted to wishful thinking. On his return in 1980, Trudeau defeated Lévesque in the referendum and set off to repatriate the Constitution. After he succeeded, Trudeau often seemed bored with the routine stuff of government. His globe-trotting 1983-84 peace tour probably sealed many voters’ perception that Trudeau would always find something to do besides routine public administration. Defeat for the Liberals soon followed.

For six interminable years, from 1987 to 1993, Mulroney devoted much of his time and some of his strongest cabinet ministers to building the Meech Lake consensus for constitutional reform, buttressing it against attack, and then managing the damage from its collapse. Then he did it all again with the Charlottetown accord. Both attempts were complete failures. The respites he offered from more than half a decade of constitutional obsession were those noteworthy barrels of fun, continental free trade, the introduction of the GST and the Oka crisis.

Do not take this as a comprehensive attempt to weigh the value of Trudeau’s contribution to public life, or Mulroney’s. Both men accomplished much. Both lasted longer at 24 Sussex Drive than Harper has so far. It would have been odd if Trudeau had ignored Lévesque, or sought no resolution to constitutional negotiations that began before he became prime minister. It would have been odd if Mulroney had not sought a different solution to the same problems, given his Quebec roots and his competitive streak. But both prime ministers burned their parties out by setting aside the routine preoccupations of everyday political life for grander and more diffuse goals. Chrétien avoided that trap, for the most part, by meeting the premiers less frequently, seeking agreement whenever possible before each meeting, keeping the agenda relentlessly on routine economic and social files. And it worked like a charm: on the day Martin rose against him, the Liberals were still healthy in the polls.

Harper brings a temper and a vengeful streak to office, but he is also awesomely clear-eyed. Because he is temperamentally the most conservative Canadian prime minister of his lifetime, he will not ever run out of ideas for conservative things to do. So on any day he has a choice: he can do the big conservative thing that would be the end of his career, or he can do some of the small conservative things that won’t. He is amazed that earlier leaders had a hard time choosing.

Of course Harper is often, and plausibly, dismissed as a mere fiddler and mucker-about because of the way he avoids grand battles. “His strong bias is toward arch-incrementalism,” one of his advisers says. “He backs away from ideas he feels may be controversial. And that creates a lot of frustration.”

The former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai said in the early 1970s that it was “too early to tell” what the impact of the French Revolution had been. Assessing Harperism will take time too. He has often done his best to present the appearance of drift and indecision. It is worth noting that there are two groups who think he is making some kind of difference: partisans to his left and partisans on the right. Liberals and New Democrats are pretty sure Harper stands for something they don’t like. Their antipathy is mirrored by stubborn support for Harper on the right. Mulroney was, on the face of things, a bolder leader. But Mulroney suffered an exodus of millions of voters from his electoral base. Harper’s smaller base has stayed solid and grown by hairs. A few newspaper columnists who proclaim their non-partisanship—Dan Gardner in the Ottawa Citizen, Andrew Coyne in the National Post—are always eager to complain he is not sufficiently partisan. But conservatives are pretty sure he is a conservative.

In rough moments, whether it was in the overhaul of Harper’s office before the 2006 election or during the perilous dip in the polls during the 2008 campaign, the Conservatives depended heavily on Doug Finley as a stabilizing influence. The wiley Scot came up in business, moving through cars, aeronautics and commercial horticulture—“real business,” one of his associates said, “not politically connected fields such as law and consulting.” There Finley learned that teamwork is more important than individual talent; that’s the lesson he passed on repeatedly to the rest of Harper’s entourage. “He would speak at length about the Spanish way of playing soccer and tell us how we could benefit from watching more games from La Liga.”

I’m no soccer buff, so when I visited Finley, I asked him about Spanish soccer. “It’s always goal-oriented,” Finley said of the Spanish style that has emerged over decades. “It’s very tight possession. Never give the ball away, because if you have the ball, they can’t score a goal. And have the very best material that you can put on the field. The very best resources.”

I read further about what the Spaniards sometimes call tiqui-taca, an onomatopoeia for the short-pass possession game. The parallels to Harper’s game are obvious. Formal positions matter little; every player can attack or defend depending on circumstances. The goal is not to send the ball way down the field; it’s to keep it close and deny others. There is a raging debate about whether tiqui-taca is an unlovely, unromantic way to play the game, but any criticism is muted by the amazing success Spanish teams have had in recent seasons. “If you watch the Spanish team, they can keep hold of the ball for 25, 30 minutes,” Finley told me. During that time, whatever the other team is doing, it is not scoring. “It might be boring to watch sometimes. But it sure works.”

Excerpted from The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006–, on sale Oct. 22. Copyright © 2013 Paul Wells. Published with permission of Random House Canada.