In the Spotlight: Stephen Harper – Canada’s conservative man of action

Sommet de Montebello - 20 et 21 août 2007

Daina Lawrence - Stephen Harper will on Monday be host to US president George W.Bush and Mexican president Felipe Calderon at the third North American leaders’ summit in Quebec.
The meeting demonstrates how, even though Canada’s prime minister has been towing a minority government since he was elected leader 19 months ago, Mr Harper still has something to say on international issues.
Comedian Robin Williams once described Canada as being “like a loft apartment over a really great party” but it’s doubtful Mr Harper was laughing. Much of his time as prime minister has been spent trying to build Canada-US relations and making sure his country is taken seriously the world over.
During a speech in October, Mr Harper made clear he does not want Canada to sit back and watch the rest of the world act and react, saying the “objective is to make Canada a leader on the international stage...If there is any one thing that has struck me for the short time I have been in this job, it is how critically important foreign affairs has become in everything that we do”.
Mr Harper was described as a man who ran on “policy over pizazz” during his 2006 election campaign, himself admitting that charisma was not his forte.
“My strengths are not spin or passion, you know that,” Mr Harper said during his campaign. “It’s better to light one candle than to promise 1m light bulbs.”
The Toronto-born politician’s style of governing has been criticised for being too militant and taking an “unCanadian” approach on issues. This was highlighted after he committed Canadian troops to Afghanistan, telling soldiers: “You can’t lead from the bleachers.”
Stéphane Dion, opposition leader, recently said his opponent’s political technique mimicked that of Mr Bush, referring to the US president as Mr Harper’s “American Idol”.
But in spite of not dazzling voters with his charm, Mr Harper has managed to make his mark on Canadian politics through his hardline style on issues such as Canada’s role in Afghanistan and national sovereignty in the Arctic.
Mr Harper has been a player in the political game since the late 1980s. After graduating from the University of Calgary with a BA in economics, he took a job as an executive assistant to Jim Hawkes, the conservative MP for Calgary West – a man he ran against, and lost to, three years later.
Today’s Conservative party of Canada has a different look than when it was created in 2004. A marriage between the former Progressive Conservative party of Canada and the Canadian Alliance, the party is a mishmash combination of old and even older right-of-centre groups. Few will argue there is anything “red” about these Tories.
Mr Harper has had a fast-paced ride in politics after being thrown into an election – where he was defeated by Paul Martin, Liberal leader – called just weeks after taking the helm of the Conservative party in 2004.
Since beating the Liberals in 2006, he has had an eventful year and a half filled with topical issues. Most recently Mr Harper was thrown into the international spotlight after he announced Canada’s plans to increase its military presence in the Arctic.
Before that, there was the same-sex marriage debate – an issue Mr Harper’s Conservatives did not support and wanted re-examined as the previous government had already passed legislation supporting the matter. It was put to a free vote in the House of Commons and same-sex marriage remains legal today.
The party had difficulties, both internally and publicly, with its environmental policy, receiving severe criticism over its Clean Air Act – the Conservatives’ “made in Canada” version of the Kyoto treaty.
Mr Harper’s party also shocked the Canadian business community last Hallowe’en when Jim Flaherty, finance minister, announced the Conservatives would be putting a stop to lightly taxed income trusts to avoid “billions of dollars less revenue for the federal government to invest in the priorities of Canadians” down the line. Harper had promised not to touch income trusts during his 2006 campaign.
His open disdain and occasional acidic comments towards the media has also made the 48-year-old a conversation topic across the country. During his first few months as prime minister, Mr Harper made national headlines after he authorised a series of media access restrictions towards the parliamentary press gallery, claiming they were biased against him and his party.
With the North American leaders’ summit and the Arctic sovereignty debate making global headlines, it looks like Mr Harper and his policy-driven political style will be part of the international discourse, at least until the next election. With a minority government, that could come soon.

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