Getting inside Harper’s headspace

'Everybody knows final decisions are made by the PM'

Getting inside Harper’s headspace

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

The Cabinet committee on priorities and planning meets on Tuesdays, usually with Stephen Harper as chairman. He calls a lot of decisions on the spot. But not all. Sometimes decision is reserved pending the Prime Minister’s private decision.

When it came time to decide how many seats each province would get in an enlarged House of Commons, a senior source close to the government says, the Prime Minister took the briefing books and spreadsheets and sat alone for hours, juggling options, weighing the political fallout from every scenario.

Three days before Minister of State for Democratic Reform Tim Uppal announced the new numbers—15 new seats for Ontario, six each for Alberta and British Columbia, three for Quebec—Conservative MPs were called to a rare Monday caucus meeting so the plan could be run by them. Harper has his control-freak moments, but he prefers to hear complaints from his MPs quietly, before an announcement, rather than loudly after it.

All of this is to say that Stephen Harper is still in charge of the Stephen Harper government. Half a year after voters gave that government a majority, it’s still not clear what Harper’s plans are beyond, say, next spring.

For now the government is moving forward at full tilt. Peter Van Loan, the government House leader, has moved to limit debate on bills to implement the budget, end the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly, shut down the long-gun registry, and introduce a constellation of tough-on-crime measures.

These are good issues for this government. They’re the sort of things Conservative voters were looking for when they voted Conservative. In fact, there won’t be a lot left from the Conservatives’ 2011 platform for them to deliver on, once they’ve cleared this stuff through Parliament.

Now here’s the thing. According to the Conservatives’ own fixed election-date law, the next election should in theory be in October 2015. That leaves 3½ years after next spring for them to fill with . . . something. The fun parlour game on Parliament Hill consists of speculating about what that something might be.

The game is all the more fun because we get so few hints.

A senior government staffer swore me to six kinds of secrecy and then confessed, “Generally speaking, the government is having a difficult time moving from minority to majority in its headspace.”

What do headspace transition difficulties look like? Various sources around the Hill point to short-term focus, a reluctance to plan much past the next couple of years, and a continuation of the iron discipline that became a trademark of the Harper minority governments.

One rumour is that all the rushing on bills this autumn is a way to clear the decks in the New Year so Harper can prorogue the House, bring in a long-term, big-vision Speech from the Throne, and use the budget to inaugurate a new era of strong, stable, national, majority Conservative vision and ambition.

Well, that’s the rumour. I asked my six-kinds-of-secrecy staffer whether this was actually something that will happen or whether I was making it up. “Currently, you’re making that up,” Six Secrets said. “But boy, would that ever be awesome. God, that would be great. Can you make it true?”

I asked a source close to Harper (what, you expect these people to have names?) and was promptly and forcefully discouraged in all this talk of a New Year’s Throne Speech.

“Even at the current clip the government will not be able to get its legislation through before the budget in the spring,” Close To Harper told me. And don’t even think about throttling the current parliamentary session where it lies before those bills pass. “How could we, after having bills die on the order paper several times in minority, let it happen to us in a majority? That would be a bit odd.”

Veteran observers of Harper will note that “That would be a bit odd” is not quite the same as saying “We won’t do it,” but I’m willing to take it at face value for now.

The first priority is the ambitious spending-reduction exercise now under way. There’s a nine-member cabinet subcommittee meeting regularly and for long hours to find things to cut. But refer back to the Commons seat reallocation. “Everybody knows that the final decisions are made by the PM,” Senior Source Close to Government told me. “This silly committee is not the real game. The game is to get out of this round and into the real game, which is the [Prime Minister’s Office].”

Meanwhile, the “silly committee” is gently rigged. Ministers make proposals to it on options for cuts. But the PMO hasn’t been shy about calling into ministers’ offices to discourage some options from going to committee. Ministers’ staffs take those suggestions seriously, since it’s the PMO that decides where they work, and whether they continue. “Ministers’ presentations to cabinet are the ones the PMO has written for them, or approved, or weeded out stuff they don’t like,” Senior Source said.

With inputs vetted and unpleasant ideas pre-screened, the only surprises are the ones that come from the outside world. More than once lately the PM has responded to surprising news with, “Why wasn’t I told?” Because your staff ensured you wouldn’t be, sir.