The framing of Thomas Mulcair

The Prime Minister (or whichever member of his staff is assigned the task of maintaining the Prime Minister’s Twitter accounted) tweeted mockingly at Thomas Mulcair yesterday after a spirited session of QP.

A message to @ThomasMulcair after today’s QP: Merry Christmas and serenity now!

Forgot to CC: @AngryTomMulcair “A message to @ThomasMulcair after today’s QP: Merry Christmas and serenity now! 

Upon Mr. Mulcair’s election as NDP leader, the Conservative party sent out a note that referenced his “divise personality.” And after last week’s commotion in the House, Peter Van Loan (and Peter MacKay) seemed eager to suggest that it was Mr. Mulcair who had most notably lost his temper.

This is perhaps coincidence, or at least a rather minor part of a larger campaign. But the last two opposition leaders were successfully branded with negative personality traits—”weak” and “phony” respectively—and so it is not inconceivable that “angry” could be the tag the Conservatives attempt to brand Mr. Mulcair with—part in parcel perhaps with allegations of “dangerous economic experiments.”

If so, there will be a certain irony to it. For the sake of comparison and perspective, a few clips from the Stephen Harper file (emphasis mine in all cases).

Martin, Harper set for title bout; New Conservative leader anticipates ‘some fun debates’ Parties not above a little name-calling to goad opponents
The Toronto Star
Mon Mar 22 2004
Page: A8
Section: News
Byline: Susan Delacourt
Dateline: OTTAWA
Source: Toronto Star

Prime Minister Paul Martin and new Conservative Leader Stephen Harper had a friendly telephone chat on Saturday night, politely kicking off what is shaping up to be an intensely personal battle between the two men in the weeks and months ahead.

“He didn’t offer me the date of the election,” Harper said on CTV’s political-affairs show Question Period, noting that the congratulatory call from Martin was brief but amiable. Harper aides even called it “gracious.”

“I’m sure we’re going to have some fun debates in the next little while,” Harper said.

But those debates could easily get nasty, too, between the new Prime Minister, whom Harper keeps calling “old,” and the new Conservative leader, whom Liberals keep calling “dangerous” and “scary.”

“He’s trying to run from his history as an extreme politician,” Liberal party president Mike Eizenga said, even as the confetti was still floating down on the Tory convention stage on Saturday night.

“Stephen Harper is the most right-wing, most socially conservative and most extreme leader that has ever been elected to headline anything purporting to call itself the Conservative party in our nation’s history,” a PMO adviser said yesterday. “The drawing of a real choice just became a lot clearer.”

Nova Scotia’s Scott Brison was a candidate in the last Progressive Conservative leadership convention in 2003, but defected to the Liberals a couple of months ago in protest against the Tory-Alliance merger, which he saw as a far-right takeover of his old party

“I wasn’t looking for vindication but it certainly affirms my decision quite strongly,” Brison said yesterday, as he surveyed the landscape now that Harper, the former Alliance leader, won the leadership with 55.5 per cent of the vote.

Liberals are putting Brison forward as a key spokesperson against Harper’s alleged extremism; a trailblazer for what they hope will be a more massive defection of centre-right leaning voters.

Brison calls Harper an “erudite extremist” and “Stockwell Day with a library card” – a reference to the former Alliance leader who was unable to make any significant breakthroughs in central and Atlantic Canada in the 2000 federal election.

He points out that former Ontario premier Mike Harris supported candidate Belinda Stronach, fearing that Harper also would fail to deliver the central-Canadian breakthrough.

“If Mike Harris believes that Stephen Harper is too extreme for the country, then can you imagine what middle-of-the-road Ontarians will believe?” Brison said.

Liberals are also using the word “trust” a lot and talking about Harper’s reputation for being too fast-lipped. They cite his impulsive remarks after the 2000 election about the need for a “firewall” around Alberta, or his description of Atlantic Canadian attitudes as “defeatist.”

This portrayal of Harper as impulsive is part offence, part defence – a strategy to downplay some of Martin’s weaknesses as much as to attack the new Conservative leader. With Harper repeatedly calling the Liberals “old,” the 20-year age difference between Harper, 44, and Martin, 65, could become an election issue.

Liberals will say Martin’s age means he’s more seasoned, less apt to fly off the handle than the quick-to-temper Harper. They’ll paint Martin’s famed desire for consultation which the Conservatives describe as inaction – as being the good sense to listen before speaking.

Brison’s phone has been ringing since Saturday with calls from dejected Progressive Conservatives who stayed in the merged party with the faint hope that moderates would prevail in the leadership contest.

“I feel sorry for some moderates from the Progressive Conservative tradition, who were clinging to Belinda Stronach like a piece of moderate driftwood, hoping she could take them to an island of centrism,” Brison said. “Instead, they’ve been taken over by the far-right-wing, extremist pirates. This is a sad day for the country.”

The Liberals were highly interested in the Tory convention. Revenue Minister Stan Keyes hovered at the back of the room for the whole two-day show, along with the Liberal party’s president and directors of communication and research. The chief aide to Senate leader Jack Austin also sat in the rows of chairs behind Harper’s contingent, quietly monitoring the proceedings.

The Liberals laughed and elbowed each other when Alberta Premier Ralph Klein made his long, rambling speech, which featured some unflattering impersonations of former prime minister Jean Chretien and a grudging admission that Martin was an improvement.

Keyes honed in on Klein’s remarks about the Conservative party needing four years to heal all its old wounds, which the revenue minister took as an acknowledgment that the party doesn’t have any real hope in the coming election campaign.

The Tories themselves, whether Klein or Harris, have provided some of the best ammunition against Harper, Keyes said.

“It was Tony Clement who said Stephen Harper is reckless with his tongue and that he’s got a lot of bridge-building to do with people he’s alienated over the years,” Keyes said.

Brison, too, predicts the Tories will be their own worst enemies; that the old wounds won’t heal that easily and more will be inflicted as the progressives realize they’re not welcome in Harper’s party.

Harper’s personal popularity rose and fell during election campaign
Canadian Press Newswire
Fri Jun 25 2004
Section: National General News

OTTAWA (CP) There was a telling moment for Stephen Harper late in the election campaign.

The Conservative leader was being grilled over his refusal to apologize to Paul Martin for an odious campaign smear suggesting the Liberal leader favours child pornography.

The damaging Conservative communique had been quickly revised to remove the offending headline: “Paul Martin supports child pornography?”

Days later and only under duress, Harper finally conceded to a persistent TV interviewer that the communique title had been “too clever by half. Obviously, you know, uh, it could be taken the wrong way.”

And . . . so?

“I removed the headline which was subject to misinterpretation.”

Harper will never be accused of being one of those falsely sentimental, I-feel-your-pain politicians.

But in a business where winning voters’ trust and confidence is critical, the 44-year-old father of two children exhibits a lack of grace and people skills that can feel counter-productive.

He’d rather argue a policy point than make a small personal gesture.

On the Conservative campaign plane, where party leader and reporters are locked in a closed working environment for weeks on end, the usual, grudging comaraderie was notably absent. Harper sat rooted at the front, studiously ignoring the media entourage even when it filed past his seat several times a day.

Even among crowds of cheering partisans, Harper’s grin looks forced and his handshakes stiff. When a camera crew in Hamilton, Ont., managed to catch a warm Harper smile that actually extended to his eyes, one of his staffers didn’t dispute the rarity: “That’s the true Stephen Harper.”

In an interview this spring, the former Reform party policy founder said the hardest task in politics is making decisions and sticking with them.

“The things that people pick on me about _ the glad-handing, the schmoozing, the doing interviews _ those are actually the easiest things,” Harper said.

Let the record suggest otherwise.

None of these shortcomings necessarily disqualify Harper from being a good prime minister. Jean Chretien never was big on apologies. Pierre Trudeau was widely known for his aloof, cerebral demeanour and absence of empathy.

According to pollster Donna Dasko, Harper “comes across as very solid and stable. He doesn’t look scary or weird. He looks to be a person of depth.”

But the absence of personal warmth could be one reason why Harper seems detached from voters and thus vulnerable to suggestions by critics that he harbours hidden agendas.

One pollster privately confided that tracking polls had Harper’s personal popularity on the rise until the child porn incident, after which it began ebbing, particularly among urban voters.

Harper, born and raised in Ontario but an adopted Albertan all his adult life, insists there’s no hidden agenda and nothing to fear. He believes in practical, incremental structural change even if his goals may seem at odds with current political orthodoxy.

Indeed, his controversial policy discussions are out there for everyone to examine.

Whether it was past comments on a culture of defeat in the Maritimes, official bilingualism as “a god that failed” or his support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Harper has given his critics plenty of sticks.

What fewer people see is the devoted family man and hockey dad. And almost no one but his inner circle is aware of Harper’s smouldering, white-hot temper directed at staff who mess up.

He is also an evangelical Christian, although he has said he doesn’t “have a theology that requires me to have a detailed political agenda.”

That’s not to say Harper’s faith isn’t a factor in his public life.

“One hopes that people’s moral and ethical views have some influence over how they conduct themselves in any job,” he said in a spring interview.

So Stephen Harper is promising honest, accountable government, even if he won’t make Canadians feel particularly good about it.

Is Tory Leader justifiably hot at Liberals, or just too angry? Harper’s recent outbursts threaten to alienate him from Canadian voters
The Globe And Mail
Sat May 14 2005
Page: A9
Section: National News
Byline: Gloria Galloway

Stephen Harper’s shoulders rose indignantly. His steely blue eyes narrowed and his lip curled slightly to the side.

“It falls to the Leader of the Opposition to tell the Prime Minister and the government that they cannot carry on,” he told the handful of bored Liberals who were serving mid-week House duty on the government side of the Commons.

“It is time — for God’s sake — to go!”

For the past few weeks, ever since Prime Minister Paul Martin appeared on television begging for a delayed election, and Mr. Harper immediately denounced it as a “sad spectacle,” the Conservative Leader seems to have been simmering.

Experts say it is important for politicians to be able to show indignation at the appropriate times, but Mr. Harper risks alienating the public with his anger.

“If somebody only operates in one gear, which is the angry mode, it can be wearying,” said Paul Nesbitt-Larking, who chairs the political science department at the University of Western Ontario in London. Canadians, he said, have shown their distaste for anger in their repeated rejection of political attack ads.

Mr. Harper’s ill humour got worse this week when he learned about a Liberal move to delay a confidence vote until Thursday. That would push the decision to a day when a Conservative MP with cancer was recuperating from a trip to the operating table, thus reducing the opposition’s numbers.

“I’m tired of the games,” he told reporters. “We’re not going to play another week so that the Prime Minister can use the Queen as a prop next week. We’re not going to play another week so he can hope the health of some members of Parliament deteriorates.”

Mr. Harper is angry that the government has the audacity to carry on even as the stain of the sponsorship scandal widens. He is angry that the Liberals refuse to give up power after losing what he believes was a confidence motion. Mr. Harper — a man who began his political life as an unassuming policy wonk — has seemed miffed many times since becoming Conservative Leader last year.

He stopped talking to reporters when a plan to paint Mr. Martin as being soft on child pornography soured during last year’s election campaign. There was a backstage chair-kicking incident at a Conservative convention in Montreal. And there was a reported outburst at a Liberal photographer who tried to take his picture on the plane back from V-E Day celebrations in Europe.

Mr. Martin has his own legendary bad temper. He blows up at staff members he deems to be underperforming. But his outbursts happen behind closed doors. Mr. Harper’s vexation has been public.

Perhaps that helps explain a recent Strategic Counsel poll that found that, while people generally believe Mr. Harper is honest and has a clear vision for the country, more Canadians would rather have Mr. Martin or NDP Leader Jack Layton as a dinner guest.

Those who know Mr. Harper well say his public pique is justified and reflects what they believe to be the mood of the country.

“Stephen is certainly intense and increasingly focused,” said Geoff Norquay, one of the Conservative Leader’s small inner circle. “And yes, some things do make Stephen Harper angry,” Mr. Norquay said.

But, “I’d rather be faced with that problem than people taking a look at the Leader of the Opposition, saying, ‘I don’t think he really gets it. I just paid my taxes and you’d better believe that I’m mad as hell about a hundred million of my tax money disappearing to finance a party’s elections.’ ”

James Rajotte, a Conservative MP from Edmonton who is another of Mr. Harper’s closest advisers, said the anger is a genuine expression of his passion, particularly when it comes to Darrel Stinson and Dave Chatters, the two Conservative MPs who made it to the House this week despite being ill with cancer.

“Put it into context,” Mr. Rajotte said. “When Darrel and Dave come [to Ottawa], we know how sick they are and we know how badly they want to be here and vote to represent, not only their views, but the views of the majority of their constituents . . . and we know they are very much day-to-day in terms of whether they can be here or not.”

Mr. Harper occasionally seems upset, Mr. Rajotte said, “but the reality is the situation demands some passion.”

Every politician has to be able to express righteousness as a theatrical gesture when it is necessary, Dr. Nesbitt-Larking said.

Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau was an intensely shy man who had to learn how to display his anger effectively in the public domain, he said. And Brian Mulroney “said fairly early on in his prime ministership that, once he learned it was theatre, he was okay with it and he could do it. And I don’t know that Mr. Harper has learned that it’s theatre and theatre requires you to bring out a repertoire of roles, not just one monotonic Mr. Angry.”

But Mr. Harper’s close friends say he is actually a calm person.

“His temperament is fairly even-keeled,” Mr. Rajotte said. “He will certainly challenge and try to find where the weaknesses are in an argument. But the side of him I see all the time, the side we see in shadow cabinet and caucus, is his humorous side, which I don’t know how many other Canadians see.”

Mr. Harper makes frequent references to Seinfeld and Monty Python. And he does mean impersonations. On the day he followed Mr. Martin’s address to the nation, he spent a good 10 minutes of preparation time imitating Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“There are times when, the higher the stakes and the greater the pressure, the looser he is,” Mr. Norquay said.

But Mr. Norquay does expect, as an election campaign approaches, that there will be times when his boss will seem less than happy.

“I think we will see an engaged and committed and serious political leader,” he said. “Some people see determined, some people see angry.”

Who is Stephen Harper? Tory Leader seen as confident and incisive by some, arrogant and remote by others
The Globe And Mail
Sat Jan 14 2006
Page: A1
Section: National News
Byline: John Ibbitson

After failing to bring down the Martin government last spring, Stephen Harper disappeared. He didn’t just disappear from public sight. His staff couldn’t reach him either. He wouldn’t return calls, avoided meetings. He was sulking, and he was thinking.

And then he came back. “He decided he was willing to give it one more shot,” as someone who was there describes it. The Conservative Leader threw himself into preparations for the election campaign to come; he subjected himself to a barbecue-circuit pre-election tour; he made changes to his staff, resolved to control his notorious temper, and hammered out a detailed policy platform that aimed to put to rest Liberal accusations of a secret Conservative agenda.

It was worth the effort. Some time in early February, unless the plurality of you who now support him change your mind, Stephen Harper, at the age of 46, will become the 22nd prime minister of Canada. You probably know his policies and his priorities, though some of you still suspect his motives and his agenda.

But voters don’t cast a ballot based exclusively, or even primarily, on the platforms of competing parties. They vote for the guy they trust most, or distrust least. It is probably fair to say that Stephen Harper is winning this election because he is less distrusted than Paul Martin.

But the question still hangs out there: Who is Stephen Harper? What is he like? Is he really that cold and remote? How would he react in a crisis?

What kind of a prime minister would Stephen Harper make?

One clue to an answer might lie in his asthma.

Mr. Harper has suffered from asthma since childhood. Even today, it can hamper his performance, bothering him for weeks at a time, and then abating. When Mr. Harper was young, asthma limited his ability to play team sports, especially his beloved hockey (although he has never been comfortable playing on a team).

He compensated by taking up track and field in high school. One person who has watched him suspects asthma might contribute to a tendency Mr. Harper has to fade in the final stretch of a long campaign.

Mr. Harper is an avid reader of biography (and history and economics and politics and philosophy; as for fiction, not so much), so he will know that a common denominator informs the early lives of most prominent figures. Something — some disability, some circumstance — removes exceptional people from the pack at a young age, leaving them isolated, but also leaving them able to assess objectively, from the outside, what others inside the pack simply take for granted.

This may be reading too much into a common ailment. “Asthma has been a factor, at times,” acknowledges John Weissenberger, one of Mr. Harper’s oldest friends. “But I wouldn’t make too much of it. It comes and goes.”

Whether it was asthma or something else, Mr. Harper arrived in Calgary after a middle-class, suburban Toronto upbringing a formidably intelligent but very introverted young man, attracted to the outsider mythology of the West, angry at the centrist, central-Canadian consensus of this country’s political and intellectual elites, and impatient to shake that consensus.

“What drove him into politics was indignation, outrage,” argues commentator William Johnson, who has written a biography called Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada . It was ideology, not love of the game, that Mr. Johnson believes pushed Mr. Harper into public life.

“One thing that I would say about him, with great conviction, is that he’s a straight arrow,” Mr. Johnson believes. “What you see is what you get. He’s not good at acting or pretending. He doesn’t weep with widows and hug every orphan in sight, and he won’t wear a hundred hearts on his sleeve. By character and by principle he opposes all the photo ops and false sentiments” that are part of political theatre.

(This has contributed to the ongoing tension, sometimes shading into mutual hostility, between Mr. Harper and the media, which he considers too often biased, ill-informed and lazy. It has been said that one of the great transformations of this election campaign is that Mr. Harper no longer displays open contempt for the press gallery. Now he hides his contempt.)

The young Stephen Harper had no ambition, initially, to enter politics, planning instead to pursue a PhD in economics and to craft a persona as a public intellectual.

But the drift of Mulroney conservatism away from any semblance of a libertarian agenda brought Mr. Harper to the Reform Party, and ultimately to a seat in Parliament; his impatience with Preston Manning’s populism sent him fleeing to the ideologically more comforting National Citizens’ Coalition; the disarray of the Canadian Alliance party under Stockwell Day lured him back into politics; the threat of unending hegemonic Liberal government under the then- popular Paul Martin spurred him to negotiate the union of the Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties, and the implosion of the Martin government and its troubled re-election campaign now has Mr. Harper on the cusp of real power.

In all that time, has he changed? Some, but not much.

One person who has known the man for a long time and remains profoundly ambivalent about him (and who asked not to be named), argues that the key to figuring out Mr. Harper is to understand that he always believes he is the smartest person in the room. University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan is perhaps Mr. Harper’s closest political confidant, but the Conservative Leader has had no real mentor (something that personally disappointed Mr. Manning, who had hoped to be one) because he has never encountered anyone he considered markedly wiser than he is.

His enemies consider this arrogant, intolerant and narrow minded.

“He surrounds himself with like-minded people and doesn’t want input from others who have a different viewpoint,” maintains Belinda Stronach, the star Conservative MP whose defection to the Liberal front bench saved the Paul Martin government from defeat last spring.

“Stephen never wanted anyone around who would challenge your ideas. If you did challenge his ideas, he would shut you out.”

To his friends, Mr. Harper’s intellectual confidence is one of his greatest strengths. Someone who knows Mr. Harper very well believes that people don’t understand that he asserts strong views in order to have them challenged. What he really wants, this person believes, is to be confronted by someone who is prepared to stand up and state an opposing case. If that case is compelling enough, Mr. Harper will modify his stand, as he has on everything from bilingualism to multiculturalism to abortion, where his views have migrated closer to the mainstream.

That is not political opportunism, his supporters maintain; that is simply a young man maturing.

Then there is the question of his temper. Mr. Harper’s can be formidable. (It seems to be an occupational hazard with politicians.) The Conservative Leader may end most speeches with “God bless Canada,” but when he loses his temper he can let forth a stream of profanity that would make a longshoreman blanch. When things go very wrong, he simply disappears, something he has done repeatedly during times of political crisis, from the day he discovered Preston Manning wasn’t listening to advice on fighting the Charlottetown accord, to the day Paul Martin kidnapped Belinda Stronach from Mr. Harper’s caucus.

Detractors maintain these retreats are displays of petulance: Stephen picking up the ball and going home. Others say no, it’s simply how he thinks. He expects something to happen, it happens differently, so he retreats to examine his assumptions and plan a response. Considering that he has gone from being a graduate student to prospective prime minister in less than 20 years, this has to be said: It works.

He has succeeded in recent months in keeping his emotions more closely in check. In 2004, a frustrated Mr. Harper lashed out at aides when the campaign stumbled. This time, after a rocky start, he remained calm, rallying the team in a conference call and sloughing off a couple of campaign misfires.

He remains a control freak. Mr. Harper learned to delegate some of the details of campaign strategy this time out, but the word on the ground is that he still makes all the major decisions, including where to tour, and co-writes campaign press releases with Calgary MP Jason Kenney.

Mr. Johnson is right, and Canadians have long since figured it out: Mr. Harper lacks the ability to publicly empathize. It is unlikely that a Prime Minister Harper would ever speak for the people, comfort them, move them, as Bill Clinton did after the Oklahoma bombings, as Tony Blair did by reading from First Corinthians at Diana’s funeral, as Paul Martin did at the memorial service for the police officers killed at Mayerthorpe. Mr. Harper is just not that kind of man.

But he is not an automaton. Mr. Harper was at the Mayerthorpe service, and when he recounted it later to his staff, tears filled his eyes. When the family cat was run over by a car outside Stornoway, Mr. Harper was distraught. The staff in his office circulated a condolence card, and not in jest.

And he has his passions. He is writing a book on the history of hockey, and has been working on it every night, even during the campaign. Mr. Harper knows a lot about hockey. In the last election campaign, the Air Canada crew circulated a hockey trivia quiz, Mr. Harper won, with only one wrong answer, which he promptly challenged, claiming the answer on the quiz was wrong. (Whether Mr. Harper or the quizmaster was right has been lost in the mists.)

He is equally passionate about movies, often citing lines or scenes from films both popular and obscure to make a point with staff. And although Mr. Harper doesn’t appear to have any long-time friends he feels comfortable kicking back with — “Stephen is not a kick-back kind of guy,” one observer puts it — everyone agrees he draws strength from his wife Laureen, his emotional opposite, an outgoing, lively confident woman, “a farm girl from Alberta who drinks beer from a bottle” as one person put it, who travelled the world on her own when she was younger, and who started up and ran her own communications company. They have two children, Ben, 9, and Rachel, 7, who Mr. Harper walks or drives to school every morning.

He has mellowed in recent years, say his defenders; not enough, say his detractors. For Rick Anderson, an independent consultant and former aide to Preston Manning, this is the crucial question.

“If Stephen Harper is a success as a prime minister — and I think all of us would want him to succeed — it will be because of the ways he has matured over the past five or 10 years, as we have all matured, and learned to combine his idealism with respect for the views of others,” Mr. Anderson says.

And if he fails, “it will be because he has not learned that wisdom.”

And what is success? By Mr. Harper’s standards it would be realigning the responsibilities and fiscal resources of the federal and provincial governments, lessening the chronic warfare between them; toughening the federal stand against secessionism in Quebec, while bolstering federalist forces; expanding the military, increasing productivity and lowering taxes, while preserving a balanced budget and paying down the national debt; restoring public trust (or at least reducing public disillusion) in the federal government and its public service.

It is a bold, controversial and potentially polarizing agenda: Only a very skilled prime minister could manage it.

There are two contradictory attitudes that a successful politician must embrace. The first is a sense of confidence: knowing who you are, what you want to accomplish, how you plan to get there. The second is a sense of humility: You must be able to recognize when you have made a mistake, learn the right lessons and grow as a result.

Mr. Harper emphatically possesses the first half of this necessary contradiction. He has demonstrated that he grasps the importance of the second half. But even those who know him best admit he has yet to master the art of reconciling and embracing the two.

And that is where Stephen Harper is at, on the brink.

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