What you don’t know about Stephen Harper - Macleans.ca

What you don’t know about Stephen Harper

His backroom battles, diplomatic scraps, betrayals and secret insecurities

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What you don't know about Stephen Harper

Blair Gable/REUTERS

1. CRISIS POINT: The day he almost gave up power

Stephen Harper’s life and work made no sense to him if he wasn’t the prime minister of Canada. Having the title wasn’t his goal. He needed to hold on, long enough to change a country. Everything he had done in politics since 2002 was designed to unite his base and divide his enemies. Now his enemies were united. He was lost.

It was Monday afternoon, Dec. 1, 2008. On Harper’s desk sat a copy of the coalition deal Stéphane Dion, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe would sign in a public ceremony a few hours later. Its demure title blackened his mood even further: “A policy accord to address the present economic crisis.” The first paragraph gave the game away: this was about a “new government.” Not his.

At times like this, other leaders have been visited by close friends or trusted confidants who helped them look past the crisis of the moment toward history. But Stephen Harper has no close friend in politics, so the three men waiting outside his door would have to do.

Jim Prentice was the chairman of the cabinet operations committee, which had been holding its weekly meeting down the hall. The job of “ops” is to put out fires, and this mess qualified. Jay Hill was Prentice’s vice-chair, rough-hewn where Prentice was smooth. He had known Harper longer than the others, since they had first sat in the Commons as Reform party rookies in 1993. James Moore was the youngest minister in cabinet, just 33, eager, intense.

Ray Novak, the guardian at the PM’s door, let them in. Haltingly, Prentice laid out the ops committee’s consensus: Harper should ask the governor general to prorogue Parliament, suspending the legislative session almost before it had begun. Only three days earlier, Harper had promised Canadians he would put his government to a confidence vote that would determine its fate. Prorogation would cancel that vote. It was for the good of the country, Prentice said. Give everyone a chance to cool down.

Harper was tempted by another path. Let them win, he said, with no great conviction. Let Stéphane Dion try to run the country, with Jack Layton calling the shots and Gilles Duceppe sitting in judgment over the whole mess. It’ll fall apart in six months. We’ll pick up the pieces in the next election. Come back stronger than ever.

James Moore cut in. Prime Minister, he said, you can’t be sure it will work that way. They’ll be so terrified of facing the voters they’ll cling to one another for a long time. They may even make this thing work. You can’t know.

The Prime Minister was unconvinced. It fell to Jay Hill to make the strongest appeal. “Prime Minister,” he said quietly, “If you give up power now, I don’t know if you can survive as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.”

It is hard to pick a highlight in Stephen Harper’s five years as Prime Minister, but that’s the low point right there. Harper started fighting back within hours. The coalition crisis ended so soon that already its details blur. But it indelibly marked the thinking of its near-victim. At every point since the immediate crisis ended, Harper has insisted, over the objections of Dion’s successor Michael Ignatieff, that the opposition parties will reunite if they see a chance.

Whenever the next election comes, he told Maclean’s in January 2009, “the electorate will know that if you’re not electing the Conservative government you’re going to be electing a coalition that will include the NDP and the separatists.”

“I really think he believes this,” one of his ministers says. “This is not a line.” On its face, it means the biggest confrontation of a career built on brinksmanship still lies ahead.

WATCH COYNE V. WELLS ON FIVE YEARS OF HARPER (VIDEO)

Meanwhile it is getting time to take stock. He has been Prime Minister for five years, longer than Lester Pearson. Not by accident, because in a House where the Conservatives have no natural allies, an accident is politically life-threatening. By tenacity. While he survives, he chips at the way the country is governed, avoiding grand gestures that could provide an easy target. It’s why he is determined to endure: because he needs the time. His method is not revolution, or even evolution. It’s erosion. The object of his steady attention isn’t the way Canada works, its laws and transfer dollars, not primarily, anyway. It’s the way Canadians think. That is what he wants to change. “Is this a centre-right country?” one of his closest campaign advisers asks rhetorically. “No.” Harper’s game is to change that.

New interviews with Conservative caucus members and current and former Harper advisers give fresh insight into Stephen Harper’s method. This winter, with no crisis looming, Harper’s circle has been more relaxed and frank than at some earlier moments. They feel freer to reminisce about the boss’s temperament and method, and to speculate on his goals. But sooner or later, even now, any discussion about how Harper manages to keep winning turns to the moment he almost lost it all.

The food in Lima was treacherous. Of 8,000 delegates at the APEC summit in Peru, Nov. 22 and 23, 2008, more than 100 developed upset stomachs or worse. The Peruvian government put out a news release blaming the weather in Lima, “characterized at this time of year by midday heat, but cool breezes in the mornings and afternoons,” for “upset stomachs” among “unprepared diners.”

Stephen Harper was one of the victims. The APEC food knocked him off his feet. After he landed back in Ottawa it mutated into a sullen and thuggish flu. His mood was foul and his body weak for days before Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tabled his fall economic update.

That moment came on Thursday, Nov. 27. The stakes were high. The election had ended as a debate about how to handle the looming recession. Harper had won by promising to avoid recession and deficit. Already those promises were fading, at least in the memory of the man who had made them. Before the ceviche cut him down in Peru, Harper had told Asia-Pacific heads of government that a jumbo dose of fiscal stimulus would be needed in many countries. But Flaherty’s fall update didn’t mention anything of the sort. What it did propose was an end to the $1.95-per-vote taxpayer-paid subsidy for political parties.

The idea, sources say now, came from the Conservative caucus, not from the top. Government MPs were not pleased to beat the Liberals, NDP or Bloc in their ridings, only to see voters bankroll the losing candidates’ future comeback attempts, whether they wanted to or not. The Conservatives figured the opposition parties might yelp at the end of those subsidies, but they wouldn’t bite. Conservatives got more votes than other parties, after all. They’d lose more free money.

Almost as soon as news of the vote-subsidy cut leaked on Wednesday night, though, it became clear the opposition parties meant to do more than yelp. “This means war,” the quote-o-matic NDP MP Pat Martin said.

Thursday, Flaherty tabled his statement in the Commons, making the threat real. All three opposition leaders spoke against it.

Friday, Dion’s Liberals announced they would table a no-confidence motion at the first opportunity. Friday afternoon, Harper walked downstairs to a scrum mike in the Centre Block foyer and announced he was postponing all votes in the Commons for a  week. Plainly, he was buying time. Plainly, he had no better idea yet. Saturday, Transport Minister John Baird showed up at the CBC building on Queen Street in Ottawa to announce the government would not go ahead with the vote-subsidy cut.

RELATED: Andrew Coyne argues that the Conservatives’ drive to stay in power imperils the state of politics itself

No matter. In hotels across the capital, negotiating teams organized a coalition government, led by Dion, seconded by Layton, with a pledge of confidence-vote support from Duceppe. The negotiators showed up at the annual Press Gallery dinner on Saturday night flushed with excitement. In the cold outside the Museum of Civilization, Doug Finley, Harper’s dour Scottish campaign manager, stood cradling a scotch and taking a smoke break. One reporter suggested Harper’s options came down to “fight” or “contrite.”

“Oh, we won’t be contrite,” Finley said.

But the boss had no fight in him as late as Monday, Dec. 1. He just looked deflated in question period. It wasn’t until nearly 5 p.m. that he saw his shot. The coalition partners gathered in Parliament’s Railway Committee Room to sign their astonishing manifesto. Gilles Duceppe was one of the three, seated and treated as an equal.

“There are moments when this government talks to the country, to our supporters and our networks,” one member of Harper’s government said much later. “This wasn’t that. This was the country talking to us. Immediately after the press conference it was a kind of electric shock. Every phone line, every email, every blog, every radio commentary lit up like Vegas on jackpot day.”

“There had been a bit of a sense of defeat,” Chris Froggatt, a former ministerial chief of staff, said, “and then when that happened it was just a sense that we were handed an opportunity. It was like a gift to us.”

Yet later that evening, as Tories gathered for their annual Christmas party at Ottawa’s Westin Hotel, many of the rank and file were still in a coalition funk. In fact, one Conservative official says Harper himself seemed unsure what tone to take in addressing the crowd. It was his wife, Laureen, in a quiet moment in a kitchen off the main hall, with only a few other staffers in the room, who told him the faithful expected him to show leadership. So he needed to rally his own spirits. Harper ignored a prepared text and delivered a rousing attack calling the coalition a separatist-led attack on democracy. “It sounded like a come-from-behind speech by a coach in a basketball movie,” one partygoer said.

The next day Harper just about ate Dion in question period. “Mr. Speaker, the highest principle of Canadian democracy is that if one wants to be prime minister, one gets one’s mandate from the Canadian people, and not from Quebec separatists.” In the gallery above, Harper’s staff cheered and pumped their fists until Hill security guards shushed them.

As always, Harper’s instincts were bolstered with as much polling as his staff could hurry to gather. “We reached out to Tories who were in the market-research community who were already in the field and asked them to add questions about the coalition,” one staffer said. “Whatever they were originally polling on. It could have been about corn syrup.”

What they found was a high level of concern about what Dion and the others were up to. Duceppe’s presence was the biggest source of concern, followed by the prospect of Dion as prime minister. The presence of New Democrats in the federal cabinet fell a distant third on the list of hot buttons.

Conservatives started hitting those buttons with every tool at hand. “The whole gamut,” the staffer said. “Paid advertising, grassroots mobilization, events, a media blitz.”

Perhaps the campaign’s biggest target was the involvement of the Bloc. Never mind that the party would have no members in the government; its support for the Liberals and NDP, and Duceppe’s presence at the announcement, was enough for the Harper crew. “This was so hot among NDP-Reform switchers in Western Canada,” one of them said. Some Conservatives, including some who spoke on cable-TV political shows for the party, were very worried that all this talk about a “coalition with the separatists” would hurt the Conservatives in Quebec, where the Bloc’s legitimacy is unquestioned. Harper’s campaign team was well aware of the danger.

They ignored it. “Everyone knew that the use of the word ‘separatist’ was inflammatory,” one of them said. “But that was a problem for another day. We had to save the government.”

In the end they did. On Wednesday night the party leaders broadcast statements to the nation, making the case for keeping or rejecting the coalition. Dion’s video was delivered late and out of focus. The fight went right out of the Liberals. On Thursday, Harper paid a long visit to Rideau Hall and Parliament was prorogued. Four days later, Dion announced his resignation as Liberal leader.

The attempted coalition was gone. But not forgotten. Conservatives marvelled at the spike in support for their party at the height of the crisis, with well over 40 per cent saying they would vote for the besieged party. Thousands backed that sentiment with cash. “We’d never raised so much money,” the senior campaign official said. “It was a banner month for fundraising.”

Within a month, Harper was telling interviewers the coalition crisis would be replayed if Conservatives don’t win a majority at the next election. He has not swayed from that message. In some ways, it’s an odd message: if the choice is Conservative majority or all-but-Conservative coalition, then how will the Conservatives be able to govern with a minority like the one they have now? A member of Harper’s government simply shrugged when that question was put to him.

What’s clear is that Harper hasn’t forgotten the day his enemies almost took his job from him. He cannot believe they won’t try again. Until then he governs as he believes he has governed for every day he has had this job: under siege.

Next page: TAKING ON OTTAWA

The secret to moving to the country right

Todd Korol/Reuters

2. TAKING ON OTTAWA: The secret to moving the country right

Someone who was there paraphrased Harper’s message to his ministers at his first cabinet meeting in 2006: “I am the kingpin. So whatever you do around me, you have to know that I am sacrosanct.” Harper was telling his ministers that they were expendable but that he wasn’t. If they had to go so that his credibility and his ability to get things done were protected, so be it.

“It wasn’t personal,” this source said. “It was his office.” The office was fragile. Harper limped into the PMO with 124 seats out of 308, 31 short of a majority. The Liberals had kept 103 seats. The gap between the two was 15 seats narrower than it had been, in the Liberals’ favour, after the 2004 election. The Liberals still outnumbered the Conservatives in Ontario. Harper’s party had been shut out of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

“He believed it would be a much shorter term of government than it actually ended up being,” this insider from the early days said. “That had everything to do with the design of his of?ce and the government. Everything was about control over message, delivering the five priorities, and writing the mandate letters so they would be specific.”

Harper brought in Derek Burney, a former chief of staff to Brian Mulroney, to run the transition. Burney had been involved in throwing together a hectic last-minute transition plan in 2004, when the Conservatives were amazed to discover they had a long shot at winning. They didn’t, but Harper read the package Burney, Hugh Segal and others had prepared, and asked Burney to lead the exercise if it was ever needed again.

By 2006, Burney still didn’t know Harper well. He says his marching orders were clear: “Keep it simple, keep it focused.” With a small team composed mostly of veterans from the Mulroney years, they designed a plan for a smaller cabinet than Martin’s, with far fewer cabinet committees. “The PCO”—the Privy Council Office, the bureaucracy’s central organizing hub—“had become a mammoth operation under Martin,” Burney said. “It was more than three times the size that it had been in my time, in the late ’80s.”

A trimmer organization would permit the government to focus. “I know it sounds silly to say it now,” Burney says, “but it was also intended, indirectly, to get more power back into the hands of the major departments and less at the centre. I mean, that was the plan.”

But that plan often conflicted with another plan: ensuring that Harper wasn’t blindsided by his rookie ministers. He kept them on a short leash. Ministers traditionally receive “mandate letters,” prepared by the bureaucracy and political staff and signed by the PM, telling them what’s expected of them over the medium term. The tasks they set out usually cover a year or more. Harper’s covered only six months.

“He actually went over them line by line with me, and in a very meticulous fashion,” Burney said. “There was not a lot of chit-chat. This was not a Rotarian kind of guy.” If something in one of the mandate letters conflicted with language in the Conservative election platform, Harper would spot it and give Burney the wording for a correction. “It was very different from what I was used to,” Burney says. “Mulroney would have said, ‘Well, what do these letters say, Derek?’ And you’d explain them for five seconds and he’d sign them, or not.”

The whole operation was designed, ?rst of all, to deliver the “five priorities” Harper had used to get elected. Badly outnumbered in the Commons, he expected he would have to go back to voters soon. He would need to show them clear results.

WATCH COYNE V. WELLS ON FIVE YEARS OF HARPER (VIDEO)

“The first four of the five things I’ve talked about are things that, quite frankly, we can do fairly quickly,” he’d told reporters three weeks before the election. And indeed, soon enough he cut the GST, introduced an Accountability Act to disinfect Ottawa’s culture of easy money, started mailing cheques to parents of young children, and introduced the first of many tough-on-crime initiatives. The fifth priority, a health care wait-times guarantee, would be a tougher nut to crack. Five years later Harper still hasn’t made serious progress on it.

But go back to those first four. During the campaign Harper didn’t only say they were cinches to accomplish. “They will have longer-term impacts,” he added. “The country will be different because of them.”

That’s the game. Harper wanted to lock in change quickly so the country would be more clement for conservatives, even if he was swept away. Economists will tell you the GST cut is bad economics. But it is very good at reducing federal revenues—and hard to ratchet back up without a fight. Similarly, try telling working mothers they won’t be getting their child care cheques any more.

This business of changing the culture of the country obsesses the group around Harper. It crystallized in March 2002, when an article by Kevin Michael Grace appeared in the money-losing little magazine The Report (formerly Alberta Report). The article carried the headline “A self-hating nation.” But it was mostly about the perception that Canadian conservatives didn’t care whether the country flourished or disappeared. “A reliable source claims that a famous right-wing pundit, a star of the National Post, was heard to say, ‘The Post has a problem. It was started to save Canada, but Canada isn’t worth saving.’ ”

This raises a question, Grace wrote. “Does the right hate Canada?”

While the article was on the newsstands, Stephen Harper became leader of the Canadian Alliance. Of course not a lot of people were reading The Report, but many who did were on Harper’s staff. They were badly rattled by its implications.

“We didn’t have a competing narrative,” one of them says now. “What are the symbols people talk about when they talk about Canada? Health care. The Charter. Peacekeeping. The United Nations. The CBC. Almost every single example was a Liberal achievement or a Liberal policy.

“We had gotten to a point in Canada where the conservative side of politics had been marginalized—where we weren’t even recognized as legitimately Canadian.”

That’s what you get when the Liberals run the country for most of a century: a party that starts further back in the public debate than any opposition party anywhere else. “Nobody believes that the Democratic party in the U.S. is not an American party. In Australia, both of the major parties are recognized as legitimate parts of the debate.”

In Canada, Harper had to carve out a patriotic vocabulary that was different from the Liberals’. “We didn’t have any illusions about displacing the Liberal vision and the Liberal narrative of Canada,” the strategist says. “But we needed to give the conservative side something to rally around.” So almost from the beginning, Harper started building a distinct right-of-centre, patriotic new vocabulary. “It’s the Arctic,” this strategist said. “It’s the military. It’s the RCMP. It’s the embrace of hockey and lacrosse and curling.” In policy terms, it included the child care cheques and the accompanying rhetoric of families able to make their own choices.

Some internal debates over this clash of visions were almost surreal. It galled some within the Canadian Alliance, and later the Conservatives, that the only colours on the national flag were red and white, and the Liberals had a monopoly on red. They even considered adopting red and white as the official colours of the Canadian Alliance before deciding to fight their battles on other terrain.

But in these early debates we see the impulses Harper has brought to so many of his decisions, long past the six-month window after January 2006. A few issues with a lot of emotional significance get way more attention from Harper’s office and from senior ministers than others. An issue gets special attention if it has the potential to shift the national debate onto terms favourable to Conservatives. “We’ve implemented a series of shifts,” the strategist said. “On foreign policy. On defence. On criminal justice. On federalism. On the tax system, especially as it affects families.”

The result was on display on Jan. 23 at an Ottawa-area rally to celebrate Harper’s five years in office. A central theme of Harper’s remarks was patriotism and love of country. This helps explain why Conservatives are so pleased to face a Liberal leader like Michael Ignatieff, whose many years living abroad make him vulnerable to attack on the very ground where Harper used to play defence.

And Ignatieff has had to laboriously learn his party’s ancient rules and culture. Harper built his party from scratch to do what he wants it to do. The Conservative Party of Canada has existed for only a few months longer than he has led it. Which helps explain the seamless connections between the government, the party’s campaign team and its fundraising shop.

“It’s not the old Progressive Conservatives, it’s not the old Reform-Alliance party,” says Peter Harder, who served as deputy minister of foreign affairs during Harper’s first year in office. “It’s a party that was formed so recently before coming into power that this focusing on the party is logical.”

Harder contends that the Harper team’s constant attention to the party’s political fortunes has made Ottawa feel more like Washington. “It’s an Americanization of our political culture. It’s more a White House operation than a parliamentary, prime ministerial operation.”

One measure of the heavy emphasis on strategy is who matters most in the PMO, and who is missed when they leave. One of Harper’s close collaborators says the biggest change in the PMO over Harper’s years was not the exit of two chiefs of staff, Ian Brodie and Guy Giorno. It wasn’t the departure of two clerks of the Privy Council, Alex Himelfarb and Kevin Lynch. No, the hole Harper has been unable to fill was left when electoral strategist Patrick Muttart left in 2009 to work in the United States.

“The one difference with big structural implications is when Patrick left,” this senior Conservative says. “To call him the marketing strategist is an under-pitching of his role. He has a whole discipline and methodology for keeping track of today but keeping an eye on the big picture. I still don’t think they’ve replaced him in the organization.”

Through it all, Harper has been able to count on far greater caucus solidarity than other recent prime ministers did. It’s a mystery to outsiders, but it’s very real. It took time to build, and it was greatly bolstered by a departure from his caucus.

First came Belinda Stronach’s spectacular defection to Paul Martin’s government in 2005. “That had reverberations for years,” one long-time Harper adviser recalls. “The revulsion at her. At that moment, a whole slew of people who were kind of dancing around, not sure if they were in the pool or out of the pool, were in the pool.”

That kind of marquee defection can destroy a party leader. In fact they often have. Mulroney’s career never recovered from the departure of Lucien Bouchard to form the Bloc Québécois. Paul Martin’s revolt ruined Jean Chrétien. But it wasn’t just the leader. A whole party was shaken to its foundation in both cases.

Harper notices these things. In office he has never let a minister rise high enough to form an independent power base. The Harper operation is built for survival, armoured against threat from the inside and out, designed to protect the one component its leader believes is indispensable: himself.

Next page: TAKING ON THE WORLD

Harper's war on two fronts

Peter Andrews/Reuters

3. TAKING ON THE WORLD: Harper’s war on two fronts

If there is an area where Harper has been likeliest to indulge a preference for going it alone, it is foreign policy. That’s not how he planned it. He cannot have expected the rest of the world would take up so much of his time. He had barely travelled outside Canada before he became its head of government. Foreign diplomats stationed in Ottawa—whose own career prospects depended on their insights into Canadian politics—were nearly frantic when this man who had turned down almost every request for a meeting became the Prime Minister.

Of course he hadn’t paid the world much mind. Foreign policy doesn’t win elections. Which doesn’t mean it ever leaves a guy alone. Harper would not have to wait long to learn that lesson. The day after the 2006 election, his transition team had to junk most of the day’s schedule because Harper had to field congratulatory calls from overseas.

Soon Harper found himself tossed into the summit routine that defines much of the travel schedule of any large country’s leader. Canada belongs to the Francophonie, the Commonwealth, the G8, APEC and the “Three Amigos” North American triumvirate with the United States and Mexico. Harper’s presence was requested at all those meetings. And truth be told, they were the sort of thing that made him self-conscious about his limited experience.

He had a chance to assuage those nerves at his first G8 summit, in St. Petersburg, Russia, in July 2006. The mood at the summit was grim. George W. Bush’s relations with European leaders had been strained by the Iraq war. The late-inning troop surge that would largely rescue the whole operation still lay ahead. The other leaders didn’t know much about Harper, but most figured he was likely to be very close to Bush. Yet at the table, Harper used his fluency in French to build a quick rapport with Jacques Chirac.

“Chirac had sent signals that he was not too keen on the new government in Canada. Chilly,” recalls a Tory official who worked at the summit. “The personal dynamics between him and Bush were so bad at this point.” Yet Harper found a way to carve out a role for himself, especially with Chirac. “Harper learned that he wasn’t out of his league at these summits, and if he mastered a couple of agenda items, he could move the dial in a way that he hadn’t been at all sure he could do,” his adviser said. “The Americans and French, to a lesser extent the others, were in a big fight about what the G8 was going to say about the ongoing Israeli incursion into Lebanon. In the end there was a summit declaration that was more balanced than either the European or the American drafts. And Harper really talked Chirac off a very hardline position on that.”

Peter Harder, who was Harper’s “sherpa”—or diplomatic advance man—for that first summit, also credits the Prime Minister with a surprisingly sure-footed performance in St. Petersburg. But Harder says this was far from an isolated event: “He is a very good summiteer, and you could argue that the crises we have been managing play to that tactical strength. He’s very analytical. He intervenes very effectively. Away from the cameras, he can build rapport with other leaders.”

Early success at the summit table gave Harper the confidence to handle foreign policy himself. This prospect greatly displeased the legions of superbly educated, urbane, multilingual career diplomats who staffed the Pearson Building, the hulking Foreign Affairs headquarters on Sussex Drive. To Harper, that wasn’t a problem, it was a bonus.

In many ways, the Harper government worked well with the bureaucracy. There was always suspicion, because Conservatives saw the civil service as a vast repository of ancient and unquestioned Liberal assumptions. But many ministers worked well with their deputies. Where there was conflict, the deputy minister could usually be encouraged to retire quietly without putting up a fuss. And in a few cases, the Harper crew came to genuinely value the work bureaucrats did for them.

One such case was Gérald Cossette, who was rushed into service to handle a backlog in passport applications when the U.S. imposed new restrictions on Canadian travellers in late 2006. Panicked travellers complained to their MPs, who complained at weekly caucus meetings. Cossette was conscripted to fix the mess, double-time. Almost overnight, the long lineups at passport offices vanished.

“The PM was so impressed by the turnaround, caucus was so impressed because all the complaints evaporated, that he actually phoned Gérald Cossette to thank him,” one adviser says. “It was very unlike him. The PM was not in the habit of phoning folks like that. Cossette’s career just took off after that.”

WATCH COYNE V. WELLS ON FIVE YEARS OF HARPER (VIDEO)

The elites at Foreign Affairs—“that self-satisfied coven of right-thinking high priests,” as one minister called them—were a different story. To Harper’s staff, the department headquarters at Fort Pearson was a supply house for the internal opposition against conservatism, and Canada’s global network of embassies was a problem to be managed, not an asset to be flaunted. Budgets for “public diplomacy”—art exhibits, public lectures and the other soft-sell techniques for raising Canada’s image abroad—were slashed. Ambassadors were forbidden from talking to reporters without clearing everything they planned to say through Ottawa. When Laureen Harper visited Paris and voiced sticker shock at the opulent Right Bank residence that ambassador Marc Lortie had inherited from his predecessors, panicky word spread among Canada’s foreign missions: ixnay on the conspicuous consumption. Don’t make yourself a target.

By 2009, Embassy magazine was reporting that diplomats were barred from using specific terms that smelled too strongly of Liberal roots. “Among the changes identified are the excising of the word ‘humanitarian’ from each reference to ‘international humanitarian law,’ replacing the term ‘gender equality’ with ‘equality of men and women,’ switching focus from justice for victims of sexual violence to prevention of sexual violence, and replacing the phrase ‘child soldiers’ with ‘children in armed conflict,’ ” the magazine reported.

Experts in the field were outraged. They pointed out, for instance, that “international humanitarian law” is a specific subset of international law with its own jurisprudence, so that eliminating references to it amounted to calling a hammer a saw because “hammer” sounded too Liberal. To say the least, the Harper government was unsympathetic to such arguments.

“I’ve told my people that this is the policy that we carry out,” Lawrence Cannon, the foreign minister, said when the vocabulary story appeared. “And if anybody is not happy with these policies that we’re carrying out, well, all they have to do is go and run in the next election and get themselves elected and support a policy that is different from ours.”

If any foreign policy issue came to define Harper’s time in office, it was the war in Afghanistan. Kandahar was one of his first travel destinations after the election. “There will be some who want to cut and run,” he told about 1,000 cheering soldiers. “But cutting and running is not my way and it’s not the Canadian way.” He took to telephoning the family of every soldier killed in action. That simple decision ensured he would receive regular, harrowing reminders of war’s cost.

Almost immediately, the cost began to skyrocket. Eight Canadians had died in Afghanistan in the four years before Harper was elected. In his first year in office, 36 more died. The escalation in violence would continue.

And so by late 2007, Harper was not disguising his impatience with the fighting. “You know, the United Nations and our allies will have been in Afghanistan 10 years in 2011,” he told Maclean’s. “For God’s sakes, Germany was basically fully restored within four years; Germany joined NATO 10 years after it was conquered.” He wasn’t willing to accept anything like an open-ended commitment in central Asia. “To say that Afghanistan would need decades and decades just to do the basic security work, I think is pushing credibility,” Harper said. “Not just pushing the patience of the Canadian public and the military, pushing the credibility of the effort.”

Which is how Harper came to be sitting down with a roomful of reporters during the 2008 campaign, announcing, as if they had already heard the news, that Canada’s military commitment in Afghanistan would end in 2011. “You have to put an end date on these things.” He repeated this message often, including in December 2009: after 2011, he said, “we will not be undertaking any activities that require any kind of military presence, other than the odd guard guarding an embassy.” When Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, came to Ottawa in April 2010 looking for military trainers to hang around in Afghanistan after 2011, Harper and Lawrence Cannon all but ran her out of town.

What was striking here was that Harper’s government repeatedly dismissed any suggestion that their policy could ever change. Then it changed again. Last November, while Harper was on a trip to China, his staff started to leak word that up to 1,000 military trainers would stay in Kabul after the combat and development-support mission in Kandahar ends this year. This was precisely what Hillary Clinton had asked for. It repudiated Harper’s own call for an end date. “Look, I’m not going to kid you,” Harper said when reporters finally got him to comment. “Down deep, my preference would be, would have been, to see a complete end to the military mission. But as we approach that date, the facts on the ground convince me that the Afghan military needs further training.”

Sources say neither Peter MacKay, the defence minister, nor Canada’s senior military command, had any advance word of the reversal. Harper’s handling of the Afghanistan file reflected a level of incoherence he would not have accepted from a subordinate. But increasingly, he was becoming comfortable with the notion that he had no subordinate on foreign policy.

Diplomats whose predecessors once tried in vain to book a lunch with Harper when he was opposition leader now compared notes on how hard it was to get the attention of his successive and interchangeable foreign ministers. When David Emerson had the job, his staff once blocked a phone call from Germany’s foreign minister. When he had it, Maxime Bernier amazed another European foreign minister with the depth of his ignorance on major bilateral files. “Many, many people trying to hold him up,” an ambassador from that country said later, referring to Bernier’s staff. “It was a disaster.”

No matter. Harper was learning that, contrary to the old adage, foreign policy can win elections, or at least help. He sharply increased the size of Canada’s diplomatic missions in India, a move that was noticed in large South Asian communities around Toronto. He showed unwavering support for Israel’s Likud government.

He paid an extended visit to Ukraine, even though its pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, had been the bad guy during that country’s 2004 Orange Revolution. An Ottawa-based reporter for the Kyiv Post put Harper on the “Ukraine’s 10-best” list for 2010—and Michael Ignatieff on the 10-worst list. The third-largest Ukrainian population in the world, after Ukraine and Russia, is Canada’s. If the world was going to insist on Harper’s time, he was going to make sure the world paid him some political credit in return.

Next page: FRIENDS AND ENEMIES

Tipping the balance of power

Tom Hanson/CP

4. FRIENDS AND ENEMIES: Tipping the balance of power

When you’re trying to remake a country, it helps to have steady allies. Harper had one, for awhile. Then he got distracted. Then he decided he didn’t need an ally after all.

In Quebec, he said a few days before Christmas 2005, the choice was clear. “We can pick the Liberals, who can’t wait to see a PQ government.” Or he said Canadians could elect the Conservatives, who would “work productively with the federalist leader of Quebec, the most federalist premier we’ve had in my lifetime: Mr. Charest.”

It was a familiar ode to an odd champion. Jean Charest and Stephen Harper were not pals. They had often been at loggerheads between 1993 and 1997, when Charest was half the Progressive Conservative caucus and Harper was a rookie Reform MP with a fondness for saying politically incorrect things about Quebec nationalism. But Harper does not base his business on friendships. His business was to remake the federation.

It was high time, he said as early as 2002, to “allow our institutions to evolve away from the 40-year-long Liberal experiment in centralized federalism.”

But his goal was not merely to protect provincial prerogatives. “The call for firewalls is about refocusing the federal government on its own responsibilities as much as it is about giving provinces greater control.” After the Sept. 11 attacks, he said, the cost of Liberal meddling in provincial jurisdictions like health and education was obvious. “The spotlight on Ottawa’s core functions—defence, justice, solicitor general and immigration—revealed that they have been suffering what might at best be called benign neglect.”

In office, he moved quickly to shift the balance. He sharply increased defence spending. He made Justice Minister Rob Nicholson the busiest guy in cabinet—although largely because Nicholson’s tough-on-crime bills kept dying on the order paper and needed to be reintroduced every time Harper prorogued Parliament. In recent years he has made Immigration Minister Jason Kenney one of the most influential ministers in his cabinet. That’s the spotlight on Ottawa’s core functions.

Giving the provinces greater control has been accomplished in a bunch of ways. The GST reduction sharply curtailed Ottawa’s ability to pay for incursions into provincial jurisdictions. Harper’s health ministers have essentially given up policing provincial compliance with the universality and accessibility requirements of the Canada Health Act.

Harper’s government has refused to renew the Vancouver Agreement, which made the federal government a partner with British Columbia and Vancouver city hall in developing the city’s downtown core. The Harper team argues that is none of Ottawa’s business. (How can that position be squared with the Harper government’s continuing court fight to shut down Vancouver’s InSite safe-injection drug facility—which means appealing a lower-court ruling that said InSite is none of Ottawa’s business? It can’t. Consistency is for monks.)

If any provincial premier could be expected to welcome these moves, it was Charest. After 15 years in federal politics, he has never had to stop proving his bona fides as a true Quebec nationalist. Any transfer of power from Ottawa to Quebec City is good news to him. In office, Harper concentrated on Charest more than any other premier. He travelled to Quebec City for their first meeting, in itself an almost unheard-of concession by a sitting prime minister of any party. He gave Quebec a permanent representative in Canada’s delegation to UNESCO. He turned Jim Flaherty’s second budget into a huge transfer giveaway to the provinces and billed it as the settlement of the “fiscal imbalance,” a term that had political resonance only in Quebec. Quebec’s share alone came to $700 million.

At which point the relationship between Charest and Harper went right down the tubes. Dan Gagnier watched it all and he still has trouble explaining it. Gagnier became Charest’s chief of staff in mid-2007 and left in 2009. He had served the same role for an Ontario premier, David Peterson, in the late 1980s. To him the relationship between Harper and Charest was based on mutual interest. When the interests diverged, the relationship evaporated.

“They’re different people, right?” Gagnier said of his former boss and the Prime Minister. “One’s a Progressive Conservative and the other is—well, he’s much more conservative, let’s put it that way.”

Two events turned the Harper-Charest alliance sour. Each man did something that got on the other’s nerves something fierce. First, Charest used every dime of the $700 million windfall to finance personal income-tax cuts, a Hail Mary pass during a 2007 election he was on his way to losing. Harper likes to proclaim that there are no bad tax cuts, but this one comes close. Quebec still receives equalization payments, financed by taxpayers in other provinces, and delivers generous social programs other provinces can’t match. Cutting Quebecers’ tax bill in those circumstances just didn’t seem cricket.

WATCH COYNE V. WELLS ON FIVE YEARS OF HARPER (VIDEO)

But neither, to Charest, did Harper’s decision soon after to attend a lunch in Rivière-du-Loup accompanied by the local member of the national assembly: Mario Dumont, Charest’s hated opposition leader. “It was an unpleasant moment, if I can put it that way,” Gagnier recalls.

Diverging interests. Charest needed to save his bacon on the federal dime. Harper sought to build a durable Conservative electoral base in Quebec. Since most Quebec Liberals who own a federal party card are federal Liberals, he saw Dumont as a more consistent ally.

In each case, it was nothing personal. The two men finally concluded there simply couldn’t be anything personal between them. After the 2007 election, Charest decided a friend in Ottawa was not nearly as handy as an opponent in Ottawa. “It was Charest realizing that within the bubble, the way you do politics in the national assembly, you can work together and get results with the federal government, but there’s always got to be a list of demands,” Gagnier says.

But what a lot of people are learning is that Harper is good at ignoring demands he doesn’t want to hear. Early on, he invited premiers to 24 Sussex for a traditional first ministers’ dinner. Speaking to reporters afterward, he quipped, “I’m glad I didn’t bring my wallet.” It was a signal: he would transfer power and resources to the provinces, but only on his terms.

These days Harper meets with his provincial counterparts far more rarely than Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien did, and almost never as a group, where they could outnumber him. Earlier prime ministers had a powerful intergovernmental affairs minister to coordinate the interrelationships between Ottawa and the provinces. Harper does not believe there should be close interrelationships, so his intergovernmental affairs minister is the answer to a trivia question. (Josée Verner. Don’t worry, it won’t be on the exam.)

Harper and Charest no longer bother even keeping their antagonism fresh. “It’s probably matured to the point where there’s a respect for the two offices, but it’s a cool thing,” Gagnier says. “Not a warm relationship.” In federalism as in world affairs and political strategy, Harper finds himself alone.

But here too, he rather likes it that way. The agenda he described in that 2002 speech remains. Provincial revenues, after cash transfers from Ottawa, are much higher than federal revenues. Federal tax revenue, as a portion of GDP, is at its lowest since the mid-1960s.

Of course, deficits and federal spending have been sky high. Harper’s failure to announce stimulus spending was the opposition’s pretext for launching the 2008 coalition bid. He had to spend big to survive. He has worked hard to make that necessity a virtue.

It helped that his finance minister was as flexible as he is. Jim Flaherty entered Harper’s government as a paragon of small-government conservatism, a man who’d run unsuccessfully as a right-wing outlier to replace Mike Harris as the Ontario Conservative leader in 2002. He has presided over ballooning spending and deficits. It doesn’t seem to have hurt his good cheer.

Flaherty has no equivalent in cabinet. While foreign ministers and environment ministers come and go, he is the only minister (save Marjorie LeBreton as Senate leader) to have held the same cabinet job for the full five years of the Harper government.

The wild ride of late 2008 sorely tested that relationship. During the campaign, Harper and Flaherty sounded like they were living in different economic universes. Harper called the battered stock markets “some great buying opportunities.” Three days later, Flaherty injected $25 billion into the banks. His sense of urgency was much closer to the real world than Harper’s nonchalance. Was the Prime Minister caught off guard? Far from it.

As early as the summer of 2007, insiders say, Bank of Canada officials were conveying a sense of deep, growing unease in their regular briefings to the Prime Minister’s Office. Harper was fully briefed on trouble in the U.S. subprime mortgage markets. Reporters and the opposition remained oblivious. “It was amazing: a huge s–tstorm could hit the markets and not affect the political class in Ottawa,” marvels one Conservative strategist.

After the 2008 election, of course, the cat was out of the bag. Flaherty and Harper hunkered down for some emergency budget-making.

“It strikes you how seriously Harper takes this,” says one person who was in the room for key budget planning sessions. “Sometimes we have a tendency to overstate how Harper micromanages. But when it comes to the big things, he’s involved.”

“Flaherty’s mindset was that his biggest concern was that we wouldn’t do enough,” another participant in the budget process says. “He wanted to act as boldly as he possibly could. He wasn’t concerned about the size of the deficit, he wasn’t concerned about the short-term political prospects. He wanted to make sure it would happen quickly.”

Harper worked with him constantly. Finance officials drove up to the Langevin Building, where Harper keeps his office, constantly. Sometimes the group was very small: Harper, Flaherty, Kevin Lynch, who was then the clerk of the Privy Council, and Derek Vanstone, who was Flaherty’s chief of staff and has since moved to the PMO as deputy chief of staff.

The budget they crafted, which kicked off at least three years of deep deficits and probably more, is in many ways a huge departure for a Prime Minister who likes to think of himself as a small-government conservative. But if he stays in office, it will all become part of his long game. He has already said he will protect transfer payments to the provinces when it comes time to cut spending and rein in those deficits. That means the only place he can cut is in areas of federal activity.

In 1995 and 1996, the Liberals cut heavily into transfers when they finally vanquished a generation of deficits. They used their restoration of transfers as a chance to enforce national standards, set by Ottawa with the help of a few allies among the premiers, on provincial spending.

Harper remains fully capable of flip-flopping, here as everywhere. But his statements so far suggest he will play this recovery very differently from the way the Liberals played the late ’90s. The flow of money and power from Ottawa to the provinces, unaccompanied by federal oversight into how the provinces use their relative bounty, will continue.

Next page: MIND GAMES

What Harper really thinks

Lyle Stafford/Reuters

5. MIND GAMES: What Harper really thinks

When Stephen Harper had been prime minister for only a few months, a visitor to his office asked what he had learned so far on the job. Harper considered the question briefly. “I just wish I’d been tougher,” he said.

Tougher how? On which files? Against whom?

“Just…tougher,” Harper said, before ushering his visitor out of his Centre Block office.

Most voters supported somebody else’s party over his. On any day of the week, his opponents could try again what they tried to do in 2008. He is persuaded they will try again after the next election, should the Conservatives get another minority. In the meanwhile he sees them scheming against him, ganging up in committees, sucking up to reporters. If he is not tough they will cut him down.

But then toughness is a relative thing, isn’t it? A member of his government notes that Harper’s cabinet has grown steadily, due partly to his aversion to firing anyone. Max Bernier had to go because of the documents at the girlfriend’s house. Helena Guergis had to go because of all the icky claims against her. Lawrence Cannon is fine. Bev Oda is fine. Diane Ablonczy was too quick to lecture young Stephen when they were both rookie Reform MPs, so he has made sure she rises very slowly indeed. But she rises.

So he’s a pussycat? That may be overstating things. But Harper’s bark is so fierce that few have ever bothered to test his bite. It’s easy in Ottawa to find prematurely retired bureaucrats who decry Harper’s management style. But just try to get one of them to detail their complaints for the public record. Even when they’re off the public payroll, they would rather avoid the trouble. You will already have noticed that close collaborators of Harper prefer not to speak for the record—even when they’re saying nice things about him.

It all baffles Derek Burney, who has been a public servant and a political staffer and who marvels at how cowed the bureaucracy, and Harper’s own ministers, are. “If you joust with these guys, you just might win a few,” he said.

For now almost nobody is in a mood to joust with Harper. The opposition parties deny they are plotting to form a coalition to replace him. And you know what? They are not plotting to form a coalition. But neither are they performing the day-to-day consultation and collaboration opposition parties always do to clip a government’s wings, because they are too afraid of looking like the coalition he warns against. They have had him outnumbered for five years. For a week in 2008 they acted like it. Now he will not stop using that week as a stick to beat them with.

It is a cliché to say somebody is his own worst critic. In Harper’s case it is true in two ways. First, he has not exactly surrounded himself with the kind of person who is fearless about speaking truth to power. “Stephen Harper is always at his best when there are people who say, ‘What the f— are you doing?’ ” says a former staffer from his first years in office. “But he organized his life so that nobody was saying that to him.”

This produces nasty surprises. He was amazed at the political turmoil that followed when he had Linda Keen, head of the Nuclear Safety Commission, fired for refusing to run the Chalk River reactor, and then called her a Liberal plant with a mandate to safeguard the Liberals’ legacy “from the grave.” He’d managed to make Keen a martyr. “Why did nobody tell me that?” he asked later when an acquaintance told him what he’d managed to do.

But the “own worst critic” label also really does mean he is often harshly self-critical. As a result, he goes through a conscious and intense process of preparation—before every public appearance—to convey an aura of unflappable certitude.

“It’s not like people who have to go and check their hair or tie,” says one Conservative insider who has worked closely with the Prime Minister. “To prepare for making sure that every word that he plans to say is delivered correctly, and that he’s leaving the right emphasis, and he’s not going to be caught out by questions that he’s not going to want to answer, and he’s going to limit how he reacts—does he want to be angry? Does he want to be more placid?—this doesn’t come naturally to him. His own personal emotional preparation for a press scrum takes up a lot of energy.”

His aim is to avoid the sorts of blunt, impolitic assertions that plagued him before he took office—like his reference to the “culture of defeatism” in Atlantic Canada. Mistakes from others are easy enough to correct. Harper simply shuts them out, denies them plum posts, ignores their counsel. He did it to Scott Reid, the eastern Ontario MP who used to be one of his closest advisers, after Reid made comments about bilingualism in 2004 that gave Harper a rough couple of days on the campaign trail.

But Harper cannot shut himself down after a gaffe. So he goes to extreme lengths to avoid making them.

Does all this effort and calculation, all these years of survival, add up to anything? Opinions on that question diverge so wildly that claiming Harper is a significant prime minister will not change the minds of anyone who thinks otherwise. At a minimum, he endures.

“I don’t think there’s a Harper conservatism in the sense of an easily identifiable ideology,” a member of his government says. “There’s an approach to government, which is informed by what some would call principled, others would call ideological conservatism. But it’s conditioned by the day-to-day requirements of running a government and maintaining a broad base of support.”

Yes, but again: does this add up to anything? This source decided to try explaining it a different way. “He has a clear set of principles, which he tries to implement in a responsible and prudent way. That may sound trite, but it’s actually, in the history of modern Canadian conservatism, almost revolutionary at the federal level. Previous conservative governments were simply brokerage parties, all about constant calculation of electoral advantage.”

Surely nobody would claim Harper is immune to the temptation to calculate electoral advantage. “The Mulroney refrain, when the base was complaining about that government’s profligacy…they would always say politics is the art of the possible,” this Conservative said. “Margaret Thatcher said, what is your sense of what’s possible?

WATCH COYNE V. WELLS ON FIVE YEARS OF HARPER (VIDEO)

“Stephen Harper has a much more expansive sense of what’s possible than his predecessors as national conservative leaders. That is understood implicitly in the party. That’s why the right wing of the party continues to support him, notwithstanding particular policies that bug them. They understand he’s more Thatcher than Mulroney.”

His first big decision in electoral politics was to abandon the Mulroney Progressive Conservatives in 1987 for an upstart movement that wasn’t even named the Reform party yet. He knows what a furious conservative base looks like. It looks like him. He pays it much closer heed than he does a bunch of Ottawa columnists. Why did he hold his ground on the long-form census, but abandon a Throne Speech promise to find gender-neutral lyrics for O Canada? “The census wasn’t burning up Lowell Green’s show,” says one former staffer, referring to a popular Ottawa talk-radio host. “But O Canada sure was.”

His national campaign director, Doug Finley, has been responsible for implementing Harper’s plans since 2004. Already they are well ahead of the schedule they imagined they would adhere to. “Certainly Stephen Harper’s first goal was to unite the parties,” Finley says. “Having done that, we felt at the time that it would take probably at least one full election cycle—by that I mean five years—to get us in a position where we could aspire to government.”

The sponsorship scandal and the Gomery inquiry sped everything up considerably. Where are they heading now? Finley is responsible for delivering a majority to Harper. He is realistic about the odds.

“The reality is, with four parties, each capable of getting around 40 seats, the continuing likelihood of minority governments is strong. And you would be a fool not to be ready for an election at any time. We’re now at a stage, I think, where our base is strong. We’ve shown five years of stable government. Our attention to our knitting, which is particularly the economy, job creation, tax reduction, is resonating well with the Canadian public.

“I believe we’re ready for a majority. Certainly the seats are there. Will the tactics change? No, not considerably.”

What’s the goal? A majority for what end? “I’ve heard people say that Stephen Harper’s number one goal in political life is to get rid of the Liberal party. I’ve never heard him say that. Obviously we’d like to beat them every time we run against them.”

All of which is fine enough, but it still doesn’t address what Harper would do with five more years if he had them. Probably it’s safest to say he will do more of the same: incremental changes that change the country in ways his opponents, when they finally do push Harper or his successors out of office, will have trouble ratcheting back. Money out of Ottawa. Ottawa out of the provinces’ business. An alternative narrative of Canadian patriotism that gives conservatives a flag to rally around.

“I’m pretty sure the Prime Minister has a pretty good idea where he’s going,” Doug Finley says. “He is, as many in the media have described, the prime strategist. He’s the leader in every sense of the word. He’s not the micromanager that people describe, or the sort of sour-faced bully or whatever. I’ve never seen that in the years that I’ve known him.

“But I know in his mind there are plans constantly forming.”

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