Negative Statesmanship

Stephen Harper may end up being known for what he does not do more than for what he does.

For decades, academics such as Donald Savoie and journalists such as Jeffrey Simpson have been documenting the concentration of power in the central structures of government around the prime minister. Some have attributed this centralization to political ambition, while others cite the more benign necessity of managing an increasingly fragmented and continuous news cycle. Invariably, however, this analysis has been accompanied by warnings that this trend poses a direct threat to our traditions of parliamentary democracy.

Now, with the publication of Harperland: The Politics of Control, Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin has entered this fray and one-upped past observers by claiming that Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has taken “the politics of control” to an entirely new level—and in this case, the intent is most emphatically personal. For Martin, this tendency is no mere response to a more fractured and frenzied media, but a studied, long-term strategy designed “to break the [Liberal] brand.” The result has become “a Soviet-style monitoring maze” and “a vetting operation unlike any ever seen in the capital” that demands all aspects of government pay unwavering obedience to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Even though it has become a cliché to refer to Stephen Harper as a control freak, the power of Martin’s argument hits you like a jackhammer. Those of us who follow these things quite closely remember a number of occasions when the Conservatives have found themselves in hot water because of allegations of abuse of power, but we tend to forget just how frequently this has occurred and the myriad forms this malfeasance has taken over the last four and a half years. Crammed into a compact 301 pages, Martin’s book itemizes an endless series of occasions where Harper exercises his “Control Fixation”—obsessive secrecy often around inconsequential matters (like black bear mating habits), “clampdown strategies” aimed at squelching unwanted announcements (including a failed attempt to muzzle the auditor general), a “permanent campaign” of pre-writ advertising and ad hominem attacks on “enemies everywhere,” ignoring his own election laws and disregarding judicial and court rulings, dumping or refusing to appoint numerous heads of arm’s-length agencies and commissions who fail to “toe the government line,” defending policies and record not with facts or reason but by a constant refrain of “attack and obstruct,” and the imperious proroguing of Parliament—not once, but twice—for no reason greater than a desire to save his own political skin.

In total, Martin cites some 70-odd cases of these types of abuse and the combined effect is almost dizzying.

As if to make Martin’s case, the day Harperland was released (and before anyone could have read it in full), Harper’s mouthpiece, Dimitri Soudas, offered this reaction to The Globe and Mail: “the book should be read through the prism of Mr. Martin being a big-L Liberal sympathizer and columnist.”

But in Harperland, it is not just the quantity of abuse that sets the prime minister apart from his predecessors; it is the nature of his obsession for control that is qualitatively different as well. In other words, not only has Harper gone further than previous prime ministers in his efforts to centralize power, but the reason he is doing it is much different too.

In what is arguably the strongest part of the book, Martin sets out to describe Harper as “A Different Conservative.” Drawing upon numerous quotes from past advisors and intimates (given Harper’s reputed vindictiveness and disdain for insider tell-alls, it is surprising that Martin has been able to get as many insiders on the record as appear here), Martin endeavours to give real context and understanding to why the prime minister behaves as he does. He paraphrases a close friend who offers that “to understand Harper … it was necessary to understand that he’s an outsider.” Former chief of staff Tom Flanagan (who is now on the outs with Harper for his outspokenness) chimes in—“His first reaction to anything new is almost always negative. It’s a personality trait.” A former university colleague relates an evening of youthful revelry, where Harper would “be the guy in the corner, pen and paper in pocket, looking at us in a kind of condescending way.”

In sum, Martin provides a not particularly flattering (or totally unfamiliar) portrait of a man who is awkward, introverted, cerebral, vindictive and controlling and who entered politics with a “drive to dominate.”

Martin also taps into David Emerson, Scott Brison and Keith Martin, each of whom sat on both Conservative and Liberal benches. All of them commented how, compared to others in public life, Harper and his brethren harbour “hate.”

While Martin does not put Harper on the psychiatrist’s couch or attempt a Laswellian study of power and personality, to his credit he does try to explore where this anger comes from and astutely concludes that it is an “anger born of a sense of exclusion.” Again, we see Harper the outsider: not merely an outsider lashing out without purpose, but one who is intent on “slowly [shaping] the country into something more Conservative.” And it is not just ideology that drives this ambition or fuels his hatred. Rather, Harper’s goal of reshaping the country is rooted in a desire to right and rebalance long-standing wrongs that have been perpetrated by Liberals and other insiders—the same people who looked down their noses at people like Stephen Harper and (as quoted by another chief of staff, Ian Brodie) “treated Conservatives as if we were un-Canadian” for believing the things they do. Draconian measures therefore are justified as necessary because these wrongs have become embedded in our political institutions and culture. As a consequence of this pervasive culture, the voice and wishes of all those Canadians who sip Tim’s coffee or take their kids to the rink on Saturday have been either unheard or unheeded by Liberal elites who have run Canada forever.

For Martin, this is what makes Harper a truly “Different Conservative,” because Canadians have never seen a (successful) politician like him. Rather than an elite from the mainstream, attempting to increase his base of support by appealing to the broadest common denominator, we are being led by an outsider who has always seen himself on the periphery and is now intent on giving voice to (what he sees as) a silenced minority.

As if to anticipate Dimitri Soudas’s allegation of the author’s partisan leanings, Martin seems to go out of his way to add balance, nuance and multi-dimensionality to his character sketch of Stephen Harper. For example, in addition to quoting David Emerson’s bewilderment at his new-found colleague’s anger and visceral hated for Liberals, Martin also relates the former trade minister’s preference for Harper’s “efficient” way of running Cabinet compared to the chaos marked by Paul Martin’s chairmanship. The author also discovers that Harper resisted advice to call an election in 2007 over Afghanistan because “he didn’t want a campaign that would be so divisive for the country.” (That is hardly the thinking of a vengeful ultra-partisan intent on winning at all costs.)

Harper’s self-penned apology on the floor of the House of Commons to First Nations people for their shameful treatment at residential schools is described by Martin as “one of the most moving ceremonies in years.” And in foreign policy, the prime minister is credited with having “matured” in his views on China and India. Martin then quotes an unnamed senior bureaucrat in the Privy Council Office as saying that Harper is “the best-informed prime minister [he] had ever worked with.”

If covering the news amounts to creating the first draft of history, Lawrence Martin has given us a very good second draft of the four and a half years (so far) of Stephen Harper’s rule.

He has applied real journalistic rigour by digging deeper into the chronology of the Harper years than we could have ever hoped to get from a mere rereading of the news of the day. He shines light in places where few journalists are either allowed or choose to go. “A Day in a Life” gives us a real sense of the remarkable workload placed on our leaders. Martin has also sussed out a wide array of bureaucratic, political and backroom sources who normally are faceless and voiceless, even to followers of current affairs. And most importantly, he has attempted to provide context and understanding of Stephen Harper’s behaviour, which he readily admits “confounded analysts, who wondered how the prime minister thought he could profit from appearing so mean-spirited.”

As good a record as this is, however, Martin need not sit by the phone waiting for Bob Woodward or Mark Halperin to call and compare notes.

Whenever books are rushed to press to be as timely as possible, errors are bound to occur and Harperland is no exception to this rule. Probably the biggest gaffe is on page 93 where the Reform Party is credited (disgraced?) with producing and airing the “Chrétien Face” ad in the 1993 election campaign, when it has been clearly documented that this was a Progressive Conservative initiative. To say, as Martin does, that Harper’s first Cabinet contained “barely a single soul of distinguished pedigree” is to ignore that its membership included six former Cabinet ministers, hugely successful lawyers from both the West and Quebec (the likes of Jim Prentice and Michael Fortier), a former leader of a national party and a decorated member of the Armed Forces. He sometimes also sees dark (most often, wedge) strategies where simple blundering and miscommunication were a more likely cause of blow-ups—the abortion side-bar to Harper’s maternal health initiative being but one case in point. And for someone who is intent on building a comprehensive and seamless case for Harper’s politics of control, the book offers nary a mention of the hapless Helena Guergis, who together with her husband, was banished, vilified and humiliated by the prime minister for what now appears to be nothing more than a lifestyle that is frowned upon in Harperland.

But probably what makes this a good but not great book is that Martin raises the many riddles that make up Stephen Harper, but often provides either meek or contradictory answers to what they mean for Canada and the future. For example, he seems to feel that the Harper Conservatives rationalize their tactics by believing they are pursuing a greater good. After reading Harperland, you know everything you ever wanted to know about these tactics, but it still is not clear what exactly this greater good they are pursuing is supposed to look like. Similarly, while Martin’s character portrait of Harper, the man and politician, is without question the best on record, the reader is still left not fully understanding what, as Prime Minister, his end game is.

So, help me here. Are these a bunch of wild-eyed radicals who believe (as Harper has often been misquoted as declaring) that “when they get finished with Canada, we won’t recognize it” or are they merely a bunch of cynical nerds who, having finally bested the school bully, will now stoop to almost anything to stay in power? I am still not sure.

Martin does concede that Harper has been much more successful as a “basher than a builder.” In the same way that Margaret Thatcher claimed her greatest accomplishment was how she changed the Labour Party, there is not much doubt that Harper has successfully cowed the Liberals into a quivering shadow of their former selves. There is also little question that Harper’s legislative record is pretty skinny and pathetic for someone who has grandiose plans to redefine Canada. But how much of his Liberal bashing, as well as his anemic legislative accomplishments, is a function of operating a minority Parliament without any allies (a pretty fundamental difference from the Pearson and Trudeau minorities to which the Conservatives are so often inappropriately compared)? Even more tantalizingly, if Harper ever received a majority, would a different and more substantive agenda appear from the one we have witnessed so far, or would he continue to muddle along, making changes around the edges? Again, Martin resists the question, let alone a bold prediction.

Martin does offer some hints though. For him, Harper is an incrementalist, with an agenda. His accomplishments may be modest but his destination is distant, and he is a marathoner, not a sprinter. I suspect, however, it is the journalist in Martin that has brought him to this (albeit hesitant) conclusion. Because the Conservatives have only taken baby steps in most policy areas (the exceptions being the Arctic and the military), the journalist’s natural tendency is to report what can be observed. In Harper’s case, if there is a grand agenda (something Martin never really makes clear), it is tempered by political necessity and therefore, by definition, is incremental. As valid as this approach is, what it fails to consider are the things that do not happen and that therefore do not qualify as news.

Upon assuming power—and without a moment’s hesitation—Harper abolished an already-negotiated national daycare program and the landmark First Nations Kelowna Accord. Since then, not only has he refused to resurrect or replace these initiatives, but he has also made it clear that he has absolutely no plans for any significant reforms in health care or the environment. In his tenure, he has roundly turned his back on the tradition of federal-provincial decision making and has never bothered to call a single First Ministers’ Conference. In all these cases, Harper did not do anything. But in not doing, he has revealed a vision that is no less clear—and arguably more radical—than Diefenbaker’s un-hyphenated Canadianism, or Trudeau’s Just Society. Harper’s refusal to use his spending power to enter provincial jurisdiction suggests he is a BNA purist who sees little, if any, role for the federal government in social policy. He has no desire to sit cheek by jowl with provincial premiers because he has no intention of entertaining any act of national enterprise that would see governments actively intervene in the economy. In fact, it seems to me that this refusal to use government as a proactive tool of nation building is the central core of his vision. What makes Harper truly different, therefore, is not just his temperament or personality or even what he has done, but what he has not done—and will not do—majority or no.