A page out of Harper’s playbook

Harper’s most important gestures are often things he doesn’t do, places he doesn’t go

When 2009 began, Stephen Harper was rattled and exhausted. His attempt to cut off public funding for political parties had led every opposition MP to unite against him. He survived only by shutting down a parliamentary session that was weeks old. He spent most of January licking his wounds while Michael Ignatieff settled in as the popular leader of a newly united Liberal party.

Very little that has happened since could have been predicted. By autumn, Harper was, briefly, a sort of media darling, popping up on the stage of the National Arts Centre to serenade the audience while his Conservatives flirted with levels of public support that would, if sustained, ensure them a majority in the next election. Ignatieff’s Liberals sank as low as 22 per cent in internal tracking polls—comfortably lower than Stockwell Day’s Canadian Alliance scored in the 2000 general election. Ignatieff replaced just about all of his senior advisers. The Conservative lead has since shrunk, but only a little. The election that reared its head a couple of times during the year seems distant today.

Yet the Prime Minister’s grasp on power remains shaky. In January, he held his office only after getting the Governor General to shut Parliament down. In December, he devotes much of his time to ignoring Parliament. Your MPs voted, in a clear majority, to require the government to produce documents relating to the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan. The government is ignoring the demand. On Tuesday, a parliamentary committee on the Afghanistan mission met. Conservative MPs didn’t attend.

In 2002, when he was running in a by-election in Calgary Centre to get back into Parliament after five years in charge of the National Citizens Coalition, Harper refused to show up for debates with his opponents. That, we understand now, was foreshadowing.

Harper’s most important gestures are often the things he doesn’t do and the places he doesn’t go. It makes him elusive at best, wildly undemocratic at worst. But in this Parliament, his government can never win a party-line vote in which the opposition unites against him. So he only really has two possible responses. He can make them afraid of uniting by conjuring memories of the December 2008 “coalition” psychodrama. Or he can ignore them when they do unite. It’s inglorious, but it works, and the successful politicians have always been more attracted than the popular ones to what works.

So much dodging and weaving. And to what end? It’s a fair question. Today Stephen Harper presides over budget deficits as far as the eye can see. The fiercest opponent of the Meech and Charlottetown accords led the charge to recognize Quebec—sorry, the Québécois; there is apparently a difference, though he has never seen fit to explain it—as a nation. There are days when even his admirers wonder whether, if this is a Conservative government, it is worth working so hard to keep Liberals out.

I think Harper would reply that there are many ways to be a Conservative, and that if budget balance was the only one then Ronald Reagan would not be in anyone’s pantheon. On his website, the Prime Minister lists his government’s accomplishments during the fall legislative session. The list is padded, because in truth the government didn’t get much through a Parliament the boss lately prefers to avoid. Harper takes credit for introducing new measures in Parliament, for passing measures that were introduced months ago, and for trying to pass measures the opposition blocked. But still, the list remains a useful summary of the Conservatives’ work as the Conservatives see it.

After itemizing all the “fiscal stimulus” spending that any Canadian government would have implemented in 2009, and which Harper implemented at the opposition’s behest, the list identifies seven criminal-justice measures, such as “cracking down” on identity theft and child pornography and removing “loopholes” and “volume discounts” in sentencing for multiple offenders. The rest of the list includes consumer safety measures, “action for rural Canada” and various interventions on the world stage, notably in India.

The least that can be said about all of this is that it happened while Harper was Prime Minister and that if credit flows from it, it’s credit his opponents can’t claim. More to the point, no Liberal government would have done much of this. And a lot of things a Liberal government might have done—expanding safe-injection sites for intravenous drug users, or finally getting serious about reducing carbon emissions—didn’t happen.

The gap between what his government did and what a Liberal government would do is Harper’s game. It is a game of inches, and often it is so full of contradictions and retreats that it is impossible to take the right measure of its effect. It relies on time. Every year he is in power, he puts a little more distance between the real Canada and the one the Liberals wanted. Every year he can do that, and stay popular enough to keep going, is a year he shifts public opinion, just a few degrees, toward his way of thinking and away from his opponents. And 2010 will be the fifth year in a row Harper has managed to keep pursuing that game of inches.

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