Stephen Harper: a man in a hurry

Making his debut as PM in the House today, he is in a rush to create a record, says biographer WILLIAM JOHNSON

2006 textes seuls

No Mr. Dithers, he. The Stephen Harper who meets Parliament today for the first time as Prime Minister is better known than the man who won a plurality on Jan. 23. Since then, he has gored some sacred cows -- including a whole parliamentary press gallery stocked with them. He established himself as extraordinarily focused and rather a control freak. He knows what he wants, pursues it single-mindedly while imposing an iron discipline on caucus and staff.
At his first postelection press conference, he rebuked U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins undiplomatically -- for restating that the United States does not recognize Canadian sovereignty over the Northwest Passage. "The Canadian government will defend our sovereignty. . . . It is the Canadian people we get our mandate from, not the Ambassador of the United States." On Thursday, in Cancun, he won from President George W. Bush words to die for: "I appreciate his steely resolve to get something done." He also made Canada the first country after Israel to break ties with the new Hamas government in the Palestinian Authority.
In choosing his cabinet, he passed over faithful supporters such as James Rajotte and James Moore, and the iconic Reformer of the first hour, Diane Ablonczy, while appointing the unelected Michael Fortier. He turned around the anti-Conservative fire-breather, David Emerson, just re-elected as a Liberal. When Ethics Commissioner Bernard Shapiro announced an investigation, Mr. Harper attacked him contemptuously and sought his replacement. Even when Mr. Shapiro exonerated him and Mr. Emerson, the PM curtly criticized him for investigating at all. He also fired his director of communications, William Stairs, when they disagreed on how to deal with the controversy.
He's a man in a hurry who won't waste a moment in his rush to create a record by passing the five priority promises of his election campaign. That means wasting little time or deflected attention by responding to the unquenchable, ephemeral questions of journalists. It means putting a clamp on the ministers unless they have his permission to wander from the script.
It's all been a culture shock for the parliamentary press. Here a Stephen-come-lately breaches their established tradition of waylaying ministers emerging from a cabinet meeting. When summoned to explain, he answered coldly: "I am here to answer the questions." Where is the deference accumulated over past prime ministers? One columnist compared Mr. Harper's obsession for control to that of Joseph Stalin. Twice, the president of the press gallery fired off letters of protest: "Switching the location of the availability of ministers would roll back decades of tradition and impede the freedom of the press to have access to our country's top decision-makers." Instead of backing down, the PM decreed the timing of cabinet meetings could henceforth be confidential.
To TVA interviewer Claude Charron, he insisted that any government "that is going to succeed" must "speak with one voice and the ministers must know what other ministers have said before they speak to the newspapers." He also pointed out that Parliament would shortly meet and "the actions of the government and our decisions will be up for democratic debate in the House of Commons." He was invoking the British tradition of answering in the House to the elected representatives of the people rather than the American tradition of answering to journalists.
While polls showed most Canadians averse to a military engagement in Afghanistan that entailed casualties, he flew to Camp Julian, ate and slept with the soldiers at the desert base, visited the insecure city of Kandahar where Canadians were rebuilding, and refused to hold a vote on the mission lest it suggest a wavering political will.
Single-mindedly, he cultivated Quebec from the time he became Conservative Party leader in 2004, investing time, attention and money despite warnings that he was wasting all three. As late as Dec. 20, in mid-campaign, a CROP/La Presse poll showed the Conservatives at only 9 per cent. But he persisted and the breakthrough followed, with 10 seats and 25 per cent of the Quebec vote. Now Mr. Harper aims higher: to displace the Liberals as the party of national unity, to change the terms of the national unity deadlock, and cut the Bloc down to size.
So he is relentless in his wooing. He not only begins his news conferences in French; he appointed five Quebeckers to the cabinet, gave his first televised interview to a French network, promised a Quebec voice at UNESCO, and met Premier Jean Charest three times, once travelling to Quebec City. He signalled his seriousness about redressing the fiscal imbalance when, on March 23, he appointed economist Louis Lévesque, then associate deputy minister of finance, as his deputy minister for Intergovernmental Affairs. Mr. Lévesque, a graduate of Laval University, replaced University of Ottawa graduate Marie Fortier, a specialist in health administration. Paul Martin had appointed her because his priority was health. Mr. Harper's is federal-provincial finances.
Another message to Quebec was cancelling the $12-million annual subsidy for the Canadian Unity Council. Established in 1964, the CUC had defended Canada during the 1995 referendum by propaganda and shady deals involving the clandestine Option Canada. It had failed to assert the constitutional order. Instead of propaganda and flags, Mr. Harper will unveil in tomorrow's Throne Speech proposals for a "Charter of Open Federalism," promised during the campaign in the pivotal Dec. 19 speech in Quebec that turned the campaign around.
This new government has a different vision on such issues as the Kyoto treaty, aboriginal government, elected senators, child care, health care, defence and Canadian sovereignty. Its approach will be populist rather than elitist and statist. Its Accountability Act alone will change the face of Canadian politics, eliminating all corporate and union donations and reducing annual individual political donations to $1,000.
As a minority government with only 125 seats out of 308, Mr. Harper's position is numerically precarious. But his political position is strong. The Bloc Québécois, holding the balance of power with 51 seats, will not defeat the government because its priority is not in Ottawa but in supporting the Parti Québécois in elections that are likely next year. Federal elections would reduce its numbers and influence.
The Liberals will be preoccupied until December with choosing a new leader. The plethora of candidates will drain the party's resources. Until they learn the art of grassroots fundraising, they will be too financially crippled to provoke an early election.
William Johnson is the author of Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada.

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