IN JANUARY, Stephen Harper pulled off a surprise election victory, ending a dozen years of Liberal rule. His Conservative minority government has since got off to a quiet, but not ineffective, start. The "throne speech", delivered to a new session of parliament on April 4th by the governor-general, was Mr Harper's big chance to set out a sweeping vision of Canada's future. He chose not to take it: the speech was perfunctory (just 20 minutes) and largely confined to the same five promises that he had campaigned on. So Canadians were left unsurprised but little wiser about their new prime minister.
The five promises comprise an anti-sleaze law to make government more open, a cut in the sales tax, and moves to reduce waiting times for health care, give parents cash for child care and impose tougher sentences for gun crime. There were a couple of other signals. In deference to its minority status, the government would listen to opposition concerns, such as over the environment. The speech stressed that the United States was "our best friend". Under the Liberals, relations with Canada's main trading partner were strained after George Bush took office.
For all the modesty of his ambitions, the speech revealed a stark contrast with Mr Harper's Liberal predecessor, Paul Martin, who had so many priorities he appeared to have none. Mr Harper's strategy is "don't overload yourself because lots of things will come up that aren't part of your plans," he has said. The underlying plan is to do enough to win a majority when Canadians are ready for another election.
His first eight weeks have seen a few small stumbles. He enticed David Emerson, a minister in Mr Martin's government who had been re-elected as a Liberal MP, to join his cabinet. This brazen move still provokes bitterness in Vancouver. Mr Harper riled the Ottawa press corps by curtailing their access to ministers.
On the other hand, he acquitted himself well in his first forays abroad. A sudden trip to Afghanistan to visit the 2,200 Canadian troops there dampened a heated debate about their deployment. At a meeting with Mr Bush and Mexico's Vicente Fox at Cancún in Mexico on March 30th-31st, Mr Harper was ridiculed by reporters for wearing a waistcoat of the kind used by press photographers. Canadians may have taken more notice of Mr Bush's reference to the prime minister's "steely resolve" in the country's trade battle with its neighbour over softwood lumber.
At home, Mr Harper has assiduously courted French-speaking Quebec, where the Conservatives must win more seats if they are ever to form a majority government. He has met its Liberal premier, Jean Charest, three times, and promised the province a voice at some international gatherings. He makes a point of starting most of his speeches in French.
Although the Conservatives have only 125 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons, Mr Harper stands a good chance of getting his five measures approved, starting with the accountability bill expected next week. Most are uncontroversial, the Liberals are leaderless, and the separatists of the Bloc Québécois have their minds on matters in Quebec.
Other issues are trickier. In the campaign, Mr Harper seemed sympathetic to provincial demands for more federal money. But only two of the ten provinces had budget deficits last year. In office, the prime minister may be more reluctant to loosen the federal purse strings.
For now, banging out his five-note tune may work for Mr Harper. But many interest groups are pressing for a more detailed vision. Business organisations sense a kindred spirit. They will be watching the budget, due in a few weeks, to see if action will follow the speech's throwaway reference to competitiveness and productivity.
Others want more details because they suspect that the moderate and centrist positions Mr Harper adopted to win the election do not reflect his real leanings. For most of his political career he has campaigned for smaller government and family values, causes championed by the Conservative government in his adopted province of Alberta (see next story).
"He's more ideological than he makes out," says Jim Stanford, an economist at the Canadian Auto Workers Union. He compares Mr Harper with John Howard, Australia's conservative prime minister, whose agenda did not become clear until after he won a majority. Since Mr Howard has been in office for a decade, that comparison might not displease Mr Harper. In fact, the Australian is more moderate than he sounds. And for now, Mr Harper seems happy to keep Canadians guessing.
Harper's five easy pieces; Politics in Canada
The new prime minister stays strictly on message, offering few changes to a politically divided nation