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I have awful news for people who wish Stephen Harper would just go away: He has begun to spawn.
Three former members of Harper’s federal Conservative caucus are now at, or approaching, positions of leadership in provincial politics. Even as the Prime Minister gears up for his fifth national campaign, the post-Harper generation of Conservative political leaders is already here.
Two former Harper MPs, Jim Prentice and Brian Jean, are duking it out in the Alberta provincial election campaign. Prentice is the province’s premier, of course, and leads the Progressive Conservatives. For years, he was a minister in assorted Harper cabinets. Jean used to sit quietly in a sunless corner of the Conservative caucus in the House of Commons, clapping when asked and shushing when shushed. Suddenly, he finds himself leader of the Wildrose Party. Of all the odd ways this odd campaign could end, Jean defeating Prentice would not be the strangest. No wait, I take that back. It would be really strange. But it’s possible.
Our third Harper halfling remains obscure. But Patrick Brown is all Ontario’s provincial Conservatives are talking about these days. He’s young—at 36, 16 years younger than Brian Jean—and when he announced last September that he was running for the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership, almost nobody took his candidacy seriously. You can count the independent-minded policy entrepreneurs in the federal Conservative caucus on one hand, and Brown would not have been on that hand. But when the Ontario PCs choose their leader on May 9, Brown will be one of only two candidates on the ballot. Three others have dropped off, and although Brown started this campaign as the longest of long shots, he must now be counted the front-runner.
What do these three have in common? Not a lot. They’re like that episode of Star Trek where Captain Kirk beams down to the planet and returns as two different Kirks, one meek, the other mean. Eventually, the crew realizes they need both Kirks in one body to survive. Prentice, Jean and Brown each represent a facet of the Harper personality.
Jean used the televised Alberta leaders’ debate to repeat, with robotic insistence, a dead-simple talking point: Wildrose won’t raise your taxes. He actually led an interesting life until 2004, attending law school in Australia and working stints as a logger and as an inspirational speaker, the latter I’d pay to see. Then he spent years observing the obsessive message control of Harper in power. Harper believes thoughtful debates don’t change minds and are therefore a waste of time. What’s important is to repeat a clear message until you are sick of it, then some more, so people know what you stand for. Jean emerges from the transporter as Message Control Harper.
Prentice, if he wins, will go back to being what he seemed to be until this spring: Managerial Competence Harper. Prentice never gets angry, a guy whose low-key persuasiveness lures blue-chip associates into public service. He must have believed, when he introduced a budget that would eliminate Alberta’s deficit over three years, that he was showing the incrementalism that has been a trademark of the Harper style. Harper took five years to eliminate his own federal deficit, after all.
But the lesson of that Star Trek episode is that you need all the parts of Captain Kirk. Prentice regards Jean as a simple sort, but, if Prentice manages to lose this campaign, it’ll be because he never did frame his incremental mission in the polarizing terms of partisan combat. Prentice is pleased to be a fellow everybody can live with, but, by mid-campaign, he was looking like a guy everybody could live without.
Brown is turning into a huge surprise. Compact, wiry, a teetotaller with the energy of a wind-up toy, he’s been orbiting near Conservative circles since he was a city councillor in Barrie, Ont., more than a decade ago. I never really noticed him in Ottawa. But he turns out to be Thousand Levers Harper, working every angle to win the Ontario Conservative leadership.
The PCs have no strength in northern Ontario? He toured the region seven times, sold 50 memberships in Moosonee. The million Ontarians who’ve been voting Conservative federally and not provincially include huge numbers of immigrants? He’s been to India 15 times. He struck up a friendship with a regional player, Narendra Modi, who’s now India’s prime minister. He organizes charity hockey tournaments, which is the short version of the way he landed Wayne Gretzky’s endorsement, though Gretzky moved out of Ontario the year Brown was born.
Brown’s competition is Christine Elliott, a veteran MPP he’s managed to depict as the establishment candidate in a party that has lost four straight elections. When this began, he couldn’t catch her. Now she may not be able to stop him.
What lessons can we draw from this teeny Harper brigade? First, that Harperism is broad enough to accommodate contrasting styles. Second, don’t bet everything on the early front-runners. If Brown and Jean can rise, more surprises might be in store, even in the race to succeed Harper. After all, the big guy himself was the longest of long shots when he started out.
Of course, Jean and Prentice can’t both win. Perhaps neither will. As for Brown, the prize he’s seeking has lately constituted a licence to lose to the Ontario Liberals. The first post-Harper generation in Canadian politics may be short-lived. Nobody’s eternal. Not even he.