How he sees Canada’s role in the world and where he wants to take the country

Prime minister Stephen Harper in conversation with Kenneth Whyte
Kenneth Whyte
Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper at 24 Sussex in Ottawa June 27, 2011. Photo by Blair Gable for Maclean’s Magazine
How he sees Canada’s role in the world and where he wants to take the country
Photographs by Blair Gable

Q: Let’s start with election night. Was it fun?

A: It’s always fun when you win.

Q: Did you take a moment to enjoy it?

A: Yeah. Look, as I think you know, we were pretty confident we were going to win, frankly, from the outset—the question was the margin—and we were feeling pretty good in the days leading up to it. I suppose, yeah, it was exciting that night. But you’re also coming off the end of a long, gruelling campaign, so there’s also a sense of relief and a sense of exhaustion all wrapped up together.

Q: If you’re not going to stop and enjoy that one, what are you going to stop for?

A: I did enjoy it. We have to enjoy things. These guys—my staff—probably enjoyed it more than I did. I’m always thinking. The next task is almost immediately on my mind.

Q: I saw you give an interview after the election in which you alluded to the next task: you want to establish the Conservatives as the natural governing party of Canada. What does that entail?

A: What I want to do, of course, is really entrench, over time, a Conservative-majority coalition in the country. I probably—the more I’ve thought about it—I should probably stay away from the natural governing party terminology, because I think as soon as a party believes it’s the natural governing party it’s in a great deal of trouble. Since coming to office, we’ve grown steadily. We’ve grown from our base out. We haven’t tried to re-engineer the Conservative movement, we’ve built on it by bringing more people into it. We still have more work to do to be as representative of people as we’d like to be, but all the elements are there in terms of the coalition. I think, obviously, it has to be backed up with an agenda, and the agenda has to be successfully implemented, and the country has to buy into it and be happy with the results. So that’s the big thing we have to do, but I think in the end—given the outcomes of the election—we’re greatly helped not just by our own result but by the relative incoherence of the opposition as an alternative for government.

Q: This is a fundamentally different mission from when you started off in politics. The Reform Party, by virtue of its name, was about changing the political landscape, changing the political structure in Canada. When you’re trying to become the natural governing party you want to be where Canadians are, you have to be where Canadians are, so it’s more about managing a consensus than being a catalyst for change.

A: Well, first of all I think you have to remember, I began my serious political involvement in the Progressive Conservative Party way back, so my involvement has always been about conservatism. I began in the traditional Conservative Party and then became involved in the Reform Party, and—I think as you know probably better than anyone—my involvement in the Reform Party was really to re-invigorate conservative principles in Canadian politics. And I think with the eventual merger of the Reform Alliance and Progressive Conservatives, we’ve achieved an organization that embodies conservative principles but is also pragmatic and trying to reach a sufficient number of Canadians to form a government. But it’s also about, in the success of advancing conservative principles, of moving the country toward the values that you represent and that you demonstrate through the policies and the programs you deliver. And I think that both those things are happening. I also think the party and the government have been moving the country toward conservative principles. I think there’s an increasing number of people who vote for us not just because they think we’re the best choice but because they actually believe we [have] the values that are closest to their long-term values. And we’re starting to see in our own polling that at the federal level more people identify themselves as Conservatives and as voting Conservatives than any other party, and that is a huge change, and that never happened even during previous Conservative governments. So I’m optimistic that we’re moving in the right direction, but we have a lot of challenges.

Q: You’ve been running for something for nine years now, and you have had no real job security, you haven’t known from year to year where you’re going to be.

A: Yeah, in nine years I’ve run four national election campaigns, two leadership campaigns, a party referendum merger, and a couple of other convention processes. And of course by-elections. You know, I’ve been elected five times in my riding in nine years. I’ve been literally running non-stop.

Q: In addition to that, you’ve had all the false alarms about elections.

A: Yeah, every three months. Look, it’s been exhausting. I wouldn’t say as much for me as for my senior staff and for, frankly, senior public servants. Every three months we’ve had the plan for the government and every three months we’ve had the plan for the election. The great irony is that only once did I threaten an election, then I actually called it—that was in 2008—but every single three months in between we’ve had a threat of an election, and we’ve always taken it seriously. One of the reasons we won is in spite of the fact the other guys made the threats, we were always the best prepared. But yeah, it’s been two tracks, and it’s been exhausting to everyone involved in it. So it’s very different now planning for a four-year period.

Q: Over that nine years you develop habits of mind. I would imagine that you’re making short-term calculations all the time about how this is going to play, how that’s going to play. You try and look long-term but you have to be constantly aware that you may be going to the polls soon. Now that you’re in this longer-term mandate, how do you stop thinking that way?

A: Well, I’m not sure you completely do. There are some good disciplines this teaches you. Even when we were thinking short-term, you don’t ignore what could be the long-term or mid-term consequences of your actions. I would always point that out to staff: something may be great today, you know—we got a great headline today—and six months later everybody goes, “What were you thinking?” You’ve got a big problem, especially in a minority context. So it does heighten your political instincts, but I think that’s good. The party has to—and the government has to—move the country with it. Now, does that mean the country has to agree with you on every single issue? No, but even in a minority I never took the view that the opposition parties or even the country at large had to agree with every single thing we were doing, but they had to agree with the direction we were taking and that will remain the case. It’s just that we’re less under the gun from day to day.

Q: At the Conservative convention on June 10, you made quite a remarkable speech. The first thing I noticed was how much time you spent thanking people who worked in the parties, and thanking your MPs, your ministers, your staff, in great detail and with great specificity. And having watched you deliver speeches over more than 20 years now, I don’t think I ever recall an occasion where you went so far out of your way to express personal gratitude. Was that deliberate?

A: Well, I’m not sure it is that different. I think I’ve done similar things, maybe not at quite the same length, but on similar occasions. The party convention is unique in that you have, literally in one room, almost every single person who is responsible for whatever success the organization has had, and they also happen to be in the room at the moment where the organization has its greatest success, and so that’s obviously the appropriate thing to do. I’m the first to say, you look over the past nine, 10 years, we’re today a majority government not because we have the best leader but because we have the best team, and we have the best team on every level—and they actually work together as a team far more than any of the other guys.

Q: You don’t think that you operate differently at a human level than you would have 10 or 20 years ago?

A: Well, I think as you spend more time at any occupation you get better at everything you do—I hope—and so I think I’m better at a lot of things than I was 10 years ago. But do I think there’s a sudden change at the convention this year? No, no, no.

Q: Another striking thing, to me, was some of the language around foreign affairs, and you said that, essentially, Canada needs to redefine its national purpose, and that its national purpose is no longer just to go along with everyone else’s agendas. How would you describe Canada’s definition of its national interest in the past?

A: Well, I’m not going to belabour analyzing previous governments, I’ll just say this: since coming to office—in fact since becoming prime minister—the thing that’s probably struck me the most in terms of my previous expectations—I don’t even know what my expectations were—is not just how important foreign affairs/foreign relations is, but in fact that it’s become almost everything. There’s hardly anything today of any significance that doesn’t have a huge international dimension to it, beginning first and foremost with the economy. Yeah, we have a strong economy, but really we have a stronger Canadian economy within a world economy. When we had a world recession it didn’t matter that there wasn’t a single thing that had caused the recession anywhere else that was present in Canada, we were still in a recession, and we didn’t go down as far as the others, and now that it’s recovering, we’re recovering ahead of the others. But nevertheless, we’re just a piece of the global economy. That’s the first thing, and whether you go to security matters or pandemics, it’s all international. I’m not saying it is not necessary to have good relations with a lot of people; in fact, having good relations, first and foremost, with our most critical ally, the United States, is essential to Canada’s well-being, as are our good relations or good dimensions of relations with a large number of other players. But it isn’t enough, in this day and age, to say we get along with people. We have to have a clear sense of where we want to be and where we would like our partners to go in the various challenges that are in front of them. Whether they’re economic challenges or security challenges or anything else, we better know what we’re trying to get out of this and where we’re going to align ourselves, and it’s not just good enough to say, “everybody likes us.” That is not a sufficient way to protect your interests when your interests are so deeply enmeshed with everybody else’s.

Q: So what do we do differently?

A: First and foremost I think you see the differences in this government in terms of how we approach foreign relations. First of all, we take pretty clear stands. We take stands that we think reflect our own interests but our own interests in a way that reflects the interests of the wider community of nations, or particularly the wider interests of those nations with whom we share values and interests. Whether it’s taking strong and clear positions, for instance, at the G20 on something like a global financial regulation and a banking tax, we don’t just say, “Well, a consensus is developing for that. We’ll go along with it.” It was not in our interest. It actually happens to be bad policy as well. So we worked to oppose that particular agenda. I won’t get into specifics, but in some issues of foreign affairs or conflicts, what are the Canadian values or interests at stake? We think it’s pretty important that our long-run interests are tied somewhat to our trade, but that they’re more fundamentally tied to the kind of values we have in the world: freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law. We see over time—it’s not an ironclad rule—but those societies that promote those values tend to share our interests, and those that do not tend to, on occasion, if not frequently, become threats to us. We also make sure as well—and this is important—that we have the capacities. I know we’ve received some criticism for re-investing in our military, but when you’re in a dangerous world and countries are from time to time called upon to do things to deal with those dangers, if you don’t have the capacity to act you are not taken seriously. Nobody takes your views seriously unless you can contribute to solutions, and it’s very difficult to contribute to solutions unless you can contribute across the range of capabilities, up to and including military capabilities. I think if you look back—I think Hugh Segal’s written quite eloquently on this recently—Canada’s been at its most influential when it’s actually had a range of capabilities, so we’ve made sure we have capabilities.

Q: And when it’s actually been using them.

A: And when it’s been using them. If capabilities are just in the freezer all the time then they’re not really capabilities, right?

Q: You think Canadians are prepared?

A: We’re trying to make our foreign aid more effective. We don’t fund talk shops anymore, we fund aid that actually makes a difference. On the economy, if there’s a banking crisis and a debate over banking we make sure we’ve got a good record on that, but we also make sure we have good people who understand the subject matter who are able to be at the table and drive discussion. So that’s what we do across a range of issues. I say it’s a very different shift from simply every country likes us and would raise its glass to us at a cocktail party. That’s not the issue.

Q: It’s one thing to say you want a strong-in-principle foreign policy, and another thing to carry through. I admired a lot of things the government initially said on China and human rights violations, but when we had a negative response from China on the trade front, your government’s line shifted. We’ve also seen different policies with regard to Afghanistan, some based on principle, some buffeted by what our allies would want, or the public wants.

A: I think on China we’ve been clear from the beginning that we’re anxious to have good relations and to pursue vigorous economic relations, but we are going to continue to speak out on democracy and human rights issues, and we have. I think it took the Chinese government some time to get used to the fact we had shifted the approach from one of utter silence on those issues, but the shift was made and I think it’s a productive relationship. On Afghanistan, look, the issue is complex and obviously the government’s been trying to decide as it goes forward each step of the way what’s the next best thing to do. I’ve said from the beginning we’ve needed to be engaged there on all levels to try and affect outcomes, but that the goal cannot be the permanent military occupation and kind of de facto governance of the country. This is a position not only that we’re pursuing but that I’ve argued with our allies. I think if you look at what’s happened, the positions we’ve been arguing have, over the past two or three years, become the positions of our allies, after we’d already been clear which direction we were going.

Q: Do you think you can wield the same influence on Israel? You’ve been a strong supporter of Israel for some time, but you’re now more or less isolated in the G8.

A: The Middle East question is more difficult in terms of the opinion of others. I wouldn’t go so far as to say isolated, but it is a difficult position. That said, in my mind, the stakes are very clear, the issue is very clear and the stakes are very important. We all recognize there has to be a two-state solution, but we have in Israel essentially a Western democratic country that is an ally of ours, who’s the only state in the United Nations whose very existence is significantly questioned internationally and opposed by many, including by the other side of that particular conflict—still, to a large degree—and when I look around the world at those who most oppose the existence of Israel and seek its extinction, they are the very people who, in a security sense, are immediate—long-term but also immediate—threats to our own country. So I think that’s a very clear choice. That doesn’t mean there aren’t individual issues that become quite complicated and nuanced, but I think it is important and I will continue to be very clear with other leaders the way I think we should see this problem.

Q: You’re confident that Canadians are prepared to accept a more muscular foreign policy? I noticed that when you talked at the convention about Canada’s founding principles, you mentioned first the phrase “courageous warrior.”

A: I think you have to take the triumvirate: the courageous warrior, compassionate neighbour, confident partner.

Q: Yes, but you didn’t choose to say a nation of peacekeepers, nation of immigrants, or hewers of wood or drawers of water, you said a courageous warrior, and that is not a way that Canadians are really accustomed to thinking of themselves.

A: Well, not recently, but in fact Canada has a proud military history, beginning with the War of 1812 that essentially began to establish our sense of national identity. That was really the genesis of the geographically wide and culturally diverse nation we have today. We’ve been consistently involved on the right side of important conflicts that have shaped the world in which we live, that are largely responsible for moving the world in the overall positive direction in which it is moving. Look, let me give you the two big threats of the 20th century. First, fascism. Canada, next to its big-three allies, played one of the largest roles in the world in the defeat of fascism, which purged the world of one evil, and obviously the most robust military engagement anyone’s ever been involved in. And then through a different kind of engagement, the long, sustained state of alert of the Cold War against Communism, the other great threat to the world and to our civilization. In spite of, quite frankly, the ambivalence of some Liberal governments toward that, Canada, in fact, remained engaged in that from the beginning to the very end. I’m not dismissing peacekeeping, and I’m not dismissing foreign aid—they’re all important things that we need to do, and in some cases do better—but the real defining moments for the country and for the world are those big conflicts where everything’s at stake and where you take a side and show you can contribute to the right side.

Q: You suggest that we are in one great conflict, or that we’re heading to one that we need to be prepared for.

A: I think we always are.

Q: What is the nature of that present threat?

A: Well, I think it’s more difficult to define now. We know there are challenges to us. The most obvious is terrorism, Islamic extremist terrorism. We know that’s a big one globally. We also know, though, the world is becoming more complex, and the ability of our most important allies, and most importantly the United States, to single-handedly shape outcomes and protect our interests, has been diminishing, and so I’m saying we have to be prepared to contribute more, and that is what this government’s been doing.