Maximum Harper

The Conservatives in Calgary: Paul Wells explains why Stephen Harper is not about to change

Philip Kaufman’s great 1983 film The Right Stuff opens with a shot of sky and a voice-over (Levon Helm’s, I learn):

There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, 750 miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the sound barrier.

I have been quoting that monologue, not very accurately, at book events when people ask me to predict Stephen Harper’s future. Here is what I know about Stephen Harper’s future: nothing. But people expect some song and dance, so I mention the demon in Philip Kaufman’s sky, and I say that in Canadian prime ministerial politics that demon lives at about nine years.

In January, Harper will have been prime minister for eight years, longer than 13 of his predecessors, not as long as eight others. At the 2015 election — assuming it’s held on the date “fixed by law,” haw haw, of October 2015 — he’ll have had the job for pretty close to 10 years and outlasted three more men, if he’s still in the top job: St. Laurent, Borden and Mulroney. All those great careers fell apart a little short of nine years. Jean Chrétien, his career mortally wounded before the nine-year mark, hung on until 10 years and 38 days out of sheer cussedness.

Harper’s goal is to outlast them all, to be prime minister for almost as long as Laurier’s and Trudeau’s 15 years (and even Trudeau was beaten and thought himself done after 11 years), to settle in as a kind of epoch. His goal lies behind a barrier through which very few men have ever passed. This thing he wants to do is hard.

His current situation is mixed. Conservatives still out-fundraise the other parties, by thumping margins, every quarter. The Liberals narrowed the Conservative dollar lead in the last quarter to “only” 54%. But a database development fiasco has cost the party many millions of dollars — the donations of many tens of thousands of ordinary Conservatives — with nothing to show for it. But the database they’re stuck with is the one they used to win the last three elections, which is a high-class problem. But the Liberals’ polling advantage has, under Justin Trudeau, been durable. Most Conservatives I spoke to here think Trudeau is the least of their worries. But the largest of their worries is a Senate mess Harper seems unskilled at putting behind him.

Like I said, mixed. He comes dragging a bunch of nasty headlines about the Senate mix, and as I did broadcast interviews about my book this week, I kept hearing learned academics telling radio reporters that Harper had to show contrition, deliver a full explanation of the Senate uproar, reveal a vulnerable human side, yadda yadda.

He did nothing of the sort. He was more populist, more greatest-hits (GST cuts? Still? But then, the Liberals still talk about the Charter of Rights, and it’s been 31 years), more unapologetic and confrontational than he’s been in a while. As a bonus, his minions sent minions to box reporters into measurably less floor space than at the party’s last national convention in Ottawa in 2011. Just for fun, mostly, because delegates still came to chat.

In 2008, at the height of the coalition crisis, I asked Doug Finley which way the government had plotted out of the existential crisis it had provoked: Fight? Or contrite? “Oh, we won’t be contrite,” Finley said. Harper never is, not on the big things. But here’s the thing: Preferring fight over contrite got him this far, and he will not change now.

My blog post last night read the prime minister’s speech as a sign he was burying Senate reform. The Globe this morning has an article suggesting he is heading toward a referendum on Senate abolition. The two articles are contradictory. This is the glory of a free press. I’m not particularly worried I’m wrong on this.

As Justice Department lawyers are arguing right now in the court challenge to Quebec’s Law 99, and as everyone except Quebec’s noted intergovernmental-affairs minister I.M. Whosis learned in school, a referendum is not magical. The law persists after a vote. And the law, as interpreted last month by the Quebec Court of Appeals in line with arguments delivered by (life is funny sometimes) the government of Quebec, holds that every provincial legislature must consent to Senate abolition. (The Supreme Court has yet to deliver its own opinion, but even if it grants the feds’ argument that they can get away with 7 provinces and half the population, Ottawa would be barely further ahead.)

So say Stephen Harper rides a Senate abolition referendum to re-election. Eighty per cent of Canadians vote to shuter the red chamber, and Harper uses that number to browbeat the premiers of the half-dozen or more provinces that resist Senate abolition. Do you really think every one of those premiers will knuckle under? And even if they do, they must win ratification votes in their legislatures. Elijah Harpers would start popping up like spring daisies.

And do you really think that infernal mess is the way Stephen Harper wants to live the next five years? I don’t buy it. He told the convention on Friday night what he wants: more of the economic populism that got him this far, delivered in the style that got him this far. Anyone who doesn’t like it can vote Liberal or NDP, as, he is quite sure, they already were doing anyway. I can’t see Stephen Harper’s future any better than you can, but this weekend confirmed a hunch that should not have come as a surprise: if he leads the Conservative into another election, he plans to run as Stephen Harper.

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