More and more like Bush.. amazing.

Harper doesn't seem to care if we like him, acting like he's got majority

Speculation swirls around his bizarre display of controversy courting
Feb. 11, 2006. 07:38 AM
SUSAN DELACOURT
OTTAWA BUREAU CHIEF


OTTAWA—One week ago today, Stephen Harper was spending his Saturday in much the same way as a lot of other ordinary Canadians.

He went to his son Ben's hockey game in the late afternoon, then spent a low-key evening with friends and family at home, ordering in pizza.

Apart from an autograph or two he signed at the arena and a written statement he issued to condemn the outgoing Liberal government, Harper could have been mistaken for any other citizen, just taking it easy before a busy work week ahead.

But what a week he had in store. On Monday, Harper became Canada's 22nd prime minister and immediately unleashed what can only be called in-your-face government and a week filled with controversy.

How do we like him so far?

Harper doesn't seem to care — shrugging off old associates, old positions and media scrutiny as merely "superficial" distractions on his way to work.

In just five days, he seems to be perfecting the art of governing as if he had a majority — a 12-year-old majority, more to the point, one that's so jaded by constant criticism that it carries on in spite of it.

"Whoa, that was a bad week, tough start," says Deborah Grey, Canada's first Reform Party MP, who was once Harper's boss when he came to work in her office as a legislative assistant at the end of the 1980s. "But I'll give him the benefit of the doubt ... he'll now make it up."

In that same spirit, she delicately notes that Harper is a long-term strategic thinker, and all his actions have to be seen from that perspective. Criticism, controversy and dissent are short-term concerns in Harper's world, Grey says, and so he's probably weighing and measuring all developments according to his longer-term goals of getting a majority.

Good luck, some of the critics may say after this raucous week.

Grey's recently published biography is called Never Retreat, Never Explain, Never Apologize, which could well serve as the motto for Harper's first week in office too. In that book, she describes her old assistant this way:

"He is intense and sometimes brooding; not necessarily desirable characteristics for someone in the political realm. Stephen is not afraid of making decisions, whether people agree with him or not. This looked autocratic, but it shows he has confidence in his own judgment."

It's a prescient description for a new prime minister who shocked a lot of people this week by putting a Liberal defector, David Emerson, into his cabinet as international trade minister, as well as Michael Fortier, a backroom Quebec Conservative, into the Senate and as head of the Public Works Department.

The Emerson appointment has generated the most heat, especially in British Columbia and even inside Harper's own caucus, but it's the Fortier placement that may reveal more about the streak of superior defiance running through this new prime minister.

It's the convergence of symbols in that Fortier decision — putting an unelected party loyalist into the Senate even though he said he would only put elected senators in that chamber; plucking this partisan from Quebec, home of the Liberal sponsorship scandal and finally, with almost a belligerent flourish, putting Fortier in charge of the very department at the centre of the Liberal ethics controversies. It almost seems that Harper is daring his critics in some way.

One long-time Quebec Conservative, closely associated with Premier Jean Charest's government in Quebec, slapped his forehead in exasperation as he talked about the Fortier appointment in the immediate aftermath this week. "What's Harper doing? Is he trying to say that all Quebec wants to be at the trough? Is he trying to tell the rest of Canada something? We don't need this."

Some have speculated that this week's almost bizarre display of controversy courting is a product of Harper's own hard-line attitudes toward the Ottawa establishment. While he was willing to use and accommodate the lobbyists, the media and the political-player class to get to power, Harper has now retreated back again behind "the B team," said one Tory insider.

Skilled and long-time Tory political specialists who lent their experience to the campaign have chosen not to join Harper's team because of the proposed five-year ban on leaving the public service to do lobbying or government relations. So, "it's bad Stephen again," said one long-time strategist, who has no interest in joining the Harper government in any formal capacity, especially after seeing this week unfold.

Ezra Levant, a long-time Reform Party worker but not someone who's been overly close to Harper, described the new Prime Minister's governing style as "unsentimental" this week. Speaking on CBC Newsworld's Politics program, Levant said Harper is showing himself to be someone who won't let emotional distractions interfere with his decisions.

Indeed, Canadians were given fair warning that Harper wasn't a particularly sentimental man, especially not in public.

Grey says she's known that for a long time, too, but that didn't stop her from being a bit taken aback by some of the cold, hard calculations Harper made when putting together his cabinet. Her old friend and colleague, Calgary MP Diane Ablonczy, was pointedly left out of the cabinet, even if Ablonczy did introduce Harper to his wife, Laureen, about a decade ago.

Grey regrets that. "That made my little heart sad," she says. Similarly, Edmonton MP James Rajotte, who may be the original Harper leadership booster in caucus, a long-time friend and admirer and political ally, was excluded to make room for new Environment Minister Rona Ambrose, a woman that Rajotte lured into elected politics only in 2004.

Harper, it's said, did have the grace to warn the excluded folks well in advance that they were going to be disappointed. Publicly, though, he's shown little trace of compassion for them. Actually, he hasn't seemed very interested in presenting any side of himself to the public this week, ducking cameras and presiding over a communications regime that shows signs of regarding the media as public enemy No. 1.

Press aide Carolyn Olsen, unusually, has been installed in an office directly adjacent to Harper's in Centre Block, separate from the rest of the communications unit at Langevin Block across the road — underlining Harper's desire to keep a constant shield between himself and media dealings.

Grey attributes much of this to Harper's "shyness."

It's not how he presented himself during the campaign, when he seemed to be trying hard to be more open and warm, says Grey, and she advises him to draw on that effort again if he wants to get back on track.