Paul Wells on The Harper Decade

Q & A with Paul Wells about The Harper Decade, an e-book released by Maclean's

On this day ten years ago, Stephen Harper was elected to head the Canadian Alliance. In the decade since, he has methodically made his way to the forefront of Canadian politics, uniting the Conservative Party of Canada, becoming Prime Minister, and winning a majority government in the last election.

On the anniversary of what it’s now clear was a portentous day in Canadian history, Maclean’s is releasing a special e-book: The Harper Decade, in PDF, iBook and Kindle format and The Maclean’s iPad app by the magazine’s Political Editor, Paul Wells. We asked Wells to share his insight about Prime Minister Harper and this crucial period in the Canadian political scene.

Q: Why “The Harper Decade?” What does that mean? When did it begin?

A: Tuesday, March 20 is the 10th anniversary of Stephen Harper’s election as leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2002. Of course he’d been in politics before, but starting in 2002 we get the beginning of a sustained effort by Harper to dominate Canadian politics. So far it’s worked. This e-book is an attempt to take stock of the man, his political style and policies, and his effect on the country.

Q: What makes this Prime Minister unique? Has there been another PM like him?

A: Every successful prime minister is different from the others. What’s most striking about Harper is the long ascent. With his predecessors, especially the Progressive Conservatives — Mulroney and Diefenbaker — the first flush of overwhelming popularity was never matched afterward. With Harper it’s been a crescendo: every time he goes back to the voters, he wins a slightly larger share of the vote. There was never any such thing as Harpermania. Instead, so far, there has been Harper solidity.

Q: How does Stephen Harper measure up to Canada’s great Prime Ministers?

A: Stephen Harper can’t yet compare to, say, Macdonald, Laurier or Trudeau for the impact he’s had on the country. He hasn’t even matched the grand failures (Meech) and bold successes (GST) of Brian Mulroney. The times are different and he was defending a weak hand. But he has survived until now he can hope to compete with the really significant prime ministers. He’s conscious of the comparison, too: before Christmas he gave an interview to CTV where he sought to minimize the accomplishments of previous majority PMs, because now he’s competing in their league. I believe he is already a significant prime minister, for the way he’s changed federalism, foreign policy and the behaviour of the electorate. And at least three years still lie ahead.

Q: Who is Stephen Harper, the man? Do we even know him at all, on the basis of his public persona?

A: Face to face, with people like me whom he knows but not well, he is unfailingly pleasant to chat with, engaged, curious about everything the other person brings to a conversation. I’ve heard stories about personal generosity that would surprise his detractors and maybe even some fans. But the private Harper is pretty close to the public Harper: focussed on results, unsentimental, willing to abandon an associate at the moment they cease to be an asset. Alone.

Q: When did Stephen Harper become a game-changing Canadian politician?

A: I think the coalition crisis after the 2008 election was the most important week in Canadian politics since the 1995 Quebec referendum. On both sides you had people who would do everything for power, although neither side would admit to such a stark framing of things because they all told themselves they had the higher interests of the nation at heart. It was a brutal collision of competing camps. And Harper, who started from a position of weakness, won big. When public support was everything, more Canadians backed him than the other guys. He has pushed the advantage he won that week ever since.

Q: Will the Harper Decade become a Harper Era?

A: Beats me. In June of 2005 — seven months before the Conservatives defeated the Liberals — William Johnson published a book called “Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada.” I remember people making fun of the title, because what could Harper ever be the future of? Politics is full of surprise. I’ve tried to ensure my writing reflects that. But here’s one thing I like to remind people: On the day of the next federal election, assuming the government follows the fixed election-date law, Harper will still be three years younger than Jean Chrétien was when Chrétien won the first of his three majorities.

Q: What kind of insight do you think Canadians really need to hear about Stephen Harper?

A: How eerily patient he is. Just about everything he has accomplished was a long shot when he set out to do it. He didn’t let that stop him. A lot gets written about the ideological tension between Harper and the press gallery, and there’s something to that. But to me the real mismatch is one of tempo: we’re all on Twitter and we forget Monday by the time Thursday rolls around, and we’re trying to cover this guy who just keeps plugging away, long after attention spans have been exhausted, if he thinks the result will be worth it.

Q: Why an e-book?

A: At Maclean’s everyone tries to think past the day we’re writing, past the week we’ll be on the newsstands, to say something that will last about the subjects we cover. So it’s just handy, after a while, to gather up all of our writing on a given subject and present it in a way that encourages further reflection. Technology makes that easier than it used to be, and I hope e-books in various formats will become a regular part of the work we do.

Click the link to order your PDF copy of The Harper Decade, or the Kindle version, via the Maclean’s iPad app featuring ten years of coverage and commentary from Paul Wells.