Two anxieties, neither wholly irrational, have attached themselves to Stephen Harper in his years as a contender for and holder of the top political office in the land. The first is that he is a right-wing ideologue, badly out of sync with mainstream Canadian values and sentiments. The second is that he is possessed by a mean-spirited and controlling nature; that his emotional intelligence isn't up to his mental level.
These dual anxieties continue to fuel a passionate anti-Harper streak in Canadian politics. Certainly, he has been far too much a solo runner in the team game of politics. He doesn't trust easily and so isn't trusted much. He is prone to savage attacks on his opponents and detractors, such as his gratuitous characterizations of parliamentary critics as Taliban sympathizers or artists as rich gala-goers. He also shows an underdeveloped appreciation for the basic tenets of pluralism with his denigrations of the keepers of critical checks and balances in our political system, from officers of Parliament to members of the press.
But despite these personality traits, Mr. Harper has governed moderately and competently for nearly three years. He has not taken the country in dangerous new directions or significantly eroded the capacity of the government to act, when necessary, in the public interest. He has been side-swiped, at least on the emotional level, by an international economic crisis of epic proportions. But he has gotten the big things right.
An election rarely offers perfect choices. Voters are called upon to sort through a catalogue of inputs — issues, policies, past records, regional affiliations, personalities, etc. — in casting their ballots. On balance, Mr. Harper remains the best man for the job in the tough times now upon us. He deserves if not four more years, at least two more years. By all logic, he should be cruising to an easy majority. That he is not, and has proven incapable of holding north of 40 per cent in public support, will hopefully persuade him to be mindful of the penalty he pays for failing to address these two persisting anxieties.
That said, the anxious among us should also be mindful that the exercise of power is inherently moderating in a democracy. Elected officials need to balance competing interests and be able to justify their actions. Public opinion weighs constantly on a political leader; the knowledge is always there that his or her political strength is directly co-related with approval ratings.
In this campaign, Mr. Harper and his Conservative party are only seriously challenged for government by Stéphane Dion's Liberals. (For all the flourish of his introductory line — "I'm Jack Layton and I'm running for Prime Minister" — history and political culture suggest otherwise.) Mr. Dion is a decent man of great integrity and tremendous courage, most evident in his years as minister of intergovernmental affairs under Jean Chrétien. But a leader he is not.
If you want to meet the most inflexible head of a major political party, Mr. Dion takes it in a cakewalk. He's had a relatively strong week to be sure, but has never been much inclined to make the kind of mid-course corrections required in uncharted waters. He is a priest not a proselytizer, better at righteousness than salesmanship. The Green Shift has been an electoral disaster not because a carbon tax/income tax swap is a bad idea, but because his proposal is ill-timed, ill-considered (why mix an anti-poverty initiative into a tax on greenhouse gas emissions?) and ill-presented. You cannot be a leader without creating followers and Mr. Dion has failed to attract followers to his signature policy.
Some Liberals already have taken aim at Mr. Dion in the midst of the campaign, but they should engage in a more sophisticated diagnostic. The party-writ-large has failed to reinvent itself for the 21st century and public opinion research shows, perhaps as a result, that fewer and fewer Canadians identify themselves as "liberal." With the exception of the halcyon years of a badly divided political right, the Liberal Party of Canada has been shedding core supporters for decades, starting with Western and rural Canadians, then small business operators and Quebec nationalists and perhaps now extending even into the more entrepreneurial and socially conservative immigrant communities. It has not made adequate use of its time out.
Meanwhile, the supposedly obstinate Mr. Harper has been nothing if not open to adjusting as circumstances change. He was masterful in building a "big tent" centre-right alternative to the "natural governing" Liberals. His vision, determination and adroitness restored political competition to Canada, not an insignificant accomplishment.
Mr. Harper has done well on other fronts, too. He has spoken with refreshing candour and courage on foreign affairs, especially on the Middle East, and he was nimble in fulfilling his regrettable promise to hold a free vote on same-sex marriage while depriving the matter of any combustible material. He controlled his party's extreme social conservative rump, not vice versa.
He was shrewd and deft when the sensitive issue of recognizing Quebec as a nation was dropped in his lap by the machinations of Liberal Michael Ignatieff. He acted calmly and decisively to forge a cross-party consensus and made sure the status of nationhood went to the Québécois people, not to Quebec. As with Afghanistan, he played a bad hand very well — an example worth remembering as the economy poses unprecedented challenges.
Indeed, the most important characteristic Mr. Harper has shown over 33 months in office is a capacity to grow. There is no reason to think he won't continue along the same trajectory if re-elected — a good thing, too, since there is much more for him to learn.
Instead of carping about a dysfunctional Parliament, for which he holds much responsibility, Mr. Harper should throw out his previous playbook and try making the institution work. It would mean displaying the confidence to operate outside his comfort zone of near-absolute control, but it is a mission built for a true conservative. And, no, Senate reform is no substitute for getting the House of Commons operating well.
Mr. Harper should also use his political skills to wring real meaning out of last spring's apology to aboriginals. The rampant social pathologies afflicting native Canadians — from suicide to alcoholism to poor educational outcomes — remain the greatest stain on Canada's history and reputation. Coaxing First nations peoples into a full partnership with other Canadians and full participation in the Canadian economy and society would be the stuff of a prime minister intent on real achievement.
We also urge Mr. Harper to revisit his wholly inadequate climate-change plan. Canada and the world need to develop alternatives to fossil fuels. Counterintuitively, Mr. Harper may be the best-positioned Canadian politician to lead on this important issue, should he ever condescend to take it seriously. Given the impregnability of his Alberta base, he could strike a modern Nixon-to-China on climate change.
His attitude toward China, which thankfully looks to be in transition, has been rooted in old-fashioned, missionary-driven zeal. Human rights matter and should be part of the discussion. But managing relations with China, as with the United States, calls for balance and the pursuit of national interest, not personal ideology. Mr. Harper needs to recalibrate his approach to this proud and flawed world power.
Finally, the economy. Mr. Harper has to temper his distrust of the national government as a force in domestic policy with an understanding that Canadians always look to Ottawa in times of trouble. His instincts to play as small a role as possible, other than for electoral gain, are perhaps not as wrong-headed as those who would have the state play too big a role, given the excesses of past interventions. But we have entered an unprecedented period of market breakdown and Canadians need their government to be attentive and responsive. Mr. Harper possesses the competence and flexibility to pull this off, notwithstanding his awkwardness over the past week, including the rollout of a policy to shore up lending reserves.
Whatever you think of him, the Stephen Harper of today is not the Stephen Harper of 2004 or earlier. The "firewall" temperament has largely subsided, despite the odd recurrence on matters such as artists who choose free expression over popularity. He is in better control of his emotions. He is smart enough and adaptable enough to recognize that his tendencies toward pettiness and hyper-partisanship hold him and his party back.
By and large, Canadians still don't really trust Mr. Harper and so he has not yet earned their comfort with a majority government. If he prevails next Tuesday, it will be as a default choice, not a popular choice. Voters generally respect him — and, right now, competence trumps the unknown — but if he ever hopes to complete the construction of a governing party of the right and be remembered as more than a middling, minority prime minister, Mr. Harper will have to show as much capacity to grow over the next four years as he has over the past four.