Inside the fight of Stephen Harper’s life

The Prime Minister has outlasted and outplayed three Liberal leaders. The fourth may well trip him up. And this time, it’s deeply personal.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper speaks during a campaign stop in Toronto, Monday, September 7, 2015.. (Adrian Wyld/CP)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper visits Governor General David Johnston, along with his wife Laureen, to dissolve parliament and trigger an election campaign at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Sunday, August 2, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen, on Aug. 2, 2015—back when it all began (Justin Tang, The Canadian Press)

As the last week of what must surely be his final election campaign began, Stephen Harper was in Etobicoke, at the west end of Toronto, trying to hold down a seat the Conservatives risk losing. Etobicoke–Lakeshore has symbolic value: Its member of Parliament between 2006 and 2011 was Michael Ignatieff, before the former Liberal leader lost his seat, and everything else, in the last election.

The end of a campaign is a clarifying moment, because there is no longer any room for pretense. At various times, it looked as though this campaign would be about various things: Mike Duffy’s fraud trial, the Syrian refugee crisis, the court’s position on veils and citizenship oaths. But Harper had precisely one message in Etobicoke: The next government would be charged with protecting Canada’s economy “in a time of growing economic uncertainty,” Harper said. “For our Conservative party, protecting the economy is the No. 1 priority in this election.”

Economic issues—keeping “all that money” from “going to bureaucracies and special interests”—had been what inspired him to run for public office for the first time, in 1988. And the distinction between frugal Conservatives and spendthrift Liberals is “one of the most basic differences between a Conservative government and a Liberal or NDP government,” he said.

But, of course, he has been saying that all along and, yet, the Harper Conservatives are in worse trouble now than at any point in the 12 years since they lost the 2004 election. Harper can’t visit the Governor General to postpone this vote. He can’t prorogue his appointment with the Canadian electorate. So in Etobicoke, for the second day in a row, he set about making things more concrete.

Up from the audience came Dino Ari from Dino’s Wood Burning Pizza, a well-regarded local fast-food joint. Dino’s website, I learned later, features a photo of Dino smiling broadly as he poses with Rob Ford, the former Toronto mayor. Ford and his brother Doug were sitting in the front row for this campaign event. Everywhere else in Canada, Harper campaigns against the Liberals for being soft on drugs. In Etobicoke, he campaigns with Rob Ford.

Dino Ari’s job was to make a great show of plunking down fake banknotes while Harper counted off the cost of Liberal tax hikes. A sign on the tabletop bore the helpful message, “The cost of Liberal tax hikes.” Loudspeakers emitted cartoonish “Ka-ching!” sounds while Dino dealt the bills.

This bit of theatre did not mention the countervailing benefit of assorted Liberal tax cuts and new family cheques, so the bill Dino helped Harper to add up was one-sided. But everyone exaggerates his opponent’s dark side and is silent about light. That wasn’t the problem with this event, or not the unique problem, at least. What was most striking was, simply, that it has come to this.

Former Toronto Mayor and current city Councillor Rob Ford arrives to show support for Canada's Prime Minister and Conservative leader Stephen Harper at a campaign rally at William F. White International Inc, a stage lighting equipment supplier in Etobicoke, a suburb of Toronto, October 13, 2015.  Ford, was a larger-than-life figure who made international headlines with his admission that he smoked crack cocaine while he was Toronto Mayor, arrived wearing a sweatsuit to remain comfortable while he recovers from surgery to remove a cancerous tumour in his abdomen earlier this year. Canadians will go to the polls for a federal election on October 19. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)
Only in Etobicoke: The Fords turn out for Stephen Harper. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Stephen Harper is, after Angela Merkel, the most experienced leader in the G7, a man who reminded voters at every stop in 2011 that he is an economist. The Liberal leaders he has defeated—the legendary finance minister Paul Martin; the world-renowned theorist of federalism, Stéphane Dion; the novelist, BBC crumpet and Harvard foreign-policy hawk Michael Ignatieff—were more or less serious men and, in defeating them, Harper managed to keep his jacket on and his sound effects stowed.

Only days before the Etobicoke game show featuring the disgraced and routed Ford and his creepy brother, Harper stood behind a podium decorated with Canada’s coat of arms at the Foreign Affairs departmental headquarters on Sussex Drive, fielding complex questions from several of the country’s best economics reporters as he announced the triumphant conclusion of Pacific Rim trade negotiations. At that other event, he looked once again like a formidable Prime Minister. Now he was playing ventriloquist’s doll to a pizza man.

It has been a central thesis of the Conservative campaign this year that they are running against a lightweight whose notions of the world are laughable caricatures. But Justin Trudeau isn’t the one campaigning with props, sound effects and 300 lb. of entropy in a track suit.

Harper may even win this thing, in the narrow sense that it is fair to imagine the Conservatives could win more seats than the other parties on Monday night. As the campaign entered its final week, polls suggested the Conservatives remain, at worst, within shouting distance of the Liberals.

But it is beyond our poor capacity to guess what will happen if the Liberals or Conservatives (or NDP!) finish six or eight seats ahead of the other parties. Let us make an appointment to cross that bridge after Oct. 19, if we come to it. But, in the meantime, perhaps it’s not too early to take due note of Harper’s triumph, and to marvel at the fact that the final instrument of his undoing might turn out to be a guy named Trudeau.

‘Who ever thought he would last this long?’

These are large ideas. Let’s take them in order. First, Harper’s triumph. I say again, triumph. Who thought he would last this long?

When he took over the dented and wheezing Canadian Alliance party from Stockwell Day in 2002, even Laureen Harper wondered why he would bother. (He reminded her that, in all of Canadian history, every time a government had been defeated at the polls, it had been the opposition leader who became the new prime minister. That would be he, if he could win the Alliance. She remained skeptical for some time.) He became Prime Minister, in 2006, with the smallest share of seats in the Commons of any government since Confederation—the slimmest possible toehold on power.

In 2008, he won again, only to have the opposition parties align against him in a coalition crisis. In 2011, he won yet again, finally with a majority in the House of Commons. Life with a majority cannot have been what he dreamed it would be. He seemed listless and without a plan for months afterward, demoralizing his supporters and suffering a succession of scandals. At the height of the uproar over Nigel Wright’s cheque to Mike Duffy in 2013, columnists were lining up to predict Harper’s political demise. His resignation that summer was “less and less far-fetched,” Chantal Hébert wrote. Tim Harper said the Conservatives “might need fresh leadership.”

He declined to throw in the towel. Facing no serious internal challenge to his leadership, he stayed at his post until this campaign began. Even if he loses, it is hard to imagine a rout. Compare this record with that of the last two prime ministers to last as long as Harper has.

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By 2003, Jean Chrétien was preparing to retire, the timing of his departure coerced by an ungrateful Liberal party, egged on by a grasping and impatient internal rival. The smell of the sponsorship scandal was rising. In successive defeats over the next 12 years, the Liberals would lose four-fifths of the seats they held in Chrétien’s prime. The party would be lucky to survive.

By 1993, Brian Mulroney had retired, handing over his Progressive Conservative party to a hapless successor who could not durably reverse its collapsing popularity. The voter coalition that had, in 1984, given Mulroney the biggest majority victory in Canada’s history had begun to fly apart soon after, with the birth of the Reform party in 1987 and the Bloc Québécois in 1990. So, by the time Mulroney was done with it, the Progressive Conservative party was doomed—it would never win again—and the country itself was in a national-unity crisis.

‘Justin Trudeau on the brain’

Compare and contrast. Harper has deepened Canada’s trade ties to Europe and Asia, reimagined federalism in ways his successors would do well to contemplate, and constrained the growth of the federal government in ways future prime ministers will have to take into account, whether they like it or not. The party he leads, a freshly knit-together Frankenstein contraption when he led his first national campaign in 2004, is today intact and united behind his leadership. It will probably stay united after him. He has also made a hash of military procurement, watched bailiffs march his former parliamentary secretary, Dean Del Mastro, in leg irons into a paddy wagon, and held, at various times, every conceivable position on the future of the Senate and on Canada’s relations with China. The spectacle he presents today is not lovely. But it is beyond the dreams of his most ardent supporters a decade ago.

It would not be a bad way to go, all things considered, except that the son of Pierre Elliot Trudeau is the one preparing to deliver the coup de grâce.

Harper has had Justin Trudeau on the brain for years already, and Trudeau’s father for much longer than that. In the spring of 2012, as I hurried to write a book about Harper, I showed up at a party he threw for reporters at 24 Sussex Drive. I stood in line for a photo with him, the only way to cadge a few minutes of small talk. (I never collected a print of that photo. The small talk was the point of the exercise.) We discussed the eternal debt crisis in Europe and, as we turned to pose for the photographer, the Prime Minister said to me, “So, are you ready for Justin Trudeau?” It was an odd question: Trudeau wouldn’t even launch his campaign for the Liberal leadership for four more months. Tom Mulcair’s NDP was enjoying one of its periodic rides across the top of the public opinion polls.

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But Harper has never viewed the Trudeaus as a normal species of opponent. In 2000, Pierre Trudeau died. Amid the outpouring of grief from Trudeau’s admirers, the National Post’s editor, Ken Whyte, declined to publish several days’ worth of opinion articles from his detractors. Finally, Whyte ran a scathing article by a former Reform Party MP, Stephen Harper, that offered as much autobiography as policy analysis.

This is the article in which Harper described meeting an elderly Pierre Trudeau in Montreal, a man who “had provoked both the loves and hatreds of my political passion.” Little love remained. Harper called Trudeau “a distant leader who neither understood, nor cared to understand, a group of people over whom his actions had immense impact”—in this case, Western farmers. He wrote off Trudeau’s economic stewardship: “Flailing from one pet policy objective to another, he expanded the welfare state, created scores of bureaucratic agencies, offices and ministries and encouraged the regulation and government control of major industrial sectors.”

But Harper’s most bitter criticism essentially dismissed Pierre Trudeau as a lapdog to global evil. Trudeau’s generation “defeated the Nazis in war and resolutely stood down the Soviets,” but the man himself “took a pass” on those epic struggles.

In the last two years, Harper has neither amended his diagnosis of Pierre Trudeau nor drawn any substantive distinction between father and son. He seems to reserve the darkest corner of his political passion for Justin Trudeau, whom the Conservatives have depicted as “in over his head,” as “not ready,” as a man who would speed the delivery of drugs to children and whose MPs were not worthy of visiting a proper democracy like Ukraine.

Within the broad rules of political cut and thrust, all of this is fair, and no worse than what Harper’s opponents have often said of him. But, again and again, it has distorted Harper’s once-formidable judgment until now, when he is running with gadgets and sound effects against a man he once dismissed as a drama teacher. The goal of the lurid theatre in Etobicoke was to draw a distinction between the leaders of the two front-running parties. One of them isn’t serious. It used to be easier to tell which one.