Bio Politics

What election-season biographies reveal about two elusive candidates.            (Special preview of the October 2015 issue)

Louis St. Laurent served as Canada’s prime minister from November 1948 until June 1957, but not a single biography appeared until his former secretary published one in 1968. Robert Borden was prime minister even longer, but lacked a biography until his nephew collated some chapters Borden had written and published them a year after Borden’s death in 1937. Mackenzie King did better, but principally because he encouraged Globe journalist John Lewis to write Mackenzie King, the Man: His Achievements. Lewis became a senator almost simultaneously with its publication in 1925. Just before the 1935 campaign, King also persuaded Queen’s professor and Liberal candidate Norman Rogers to write Mackenzie King, a biography whose preface declared that King was “peculiarly fitted by inheritance, tradition and training to lead the Liberal Party of Canada in the period of momentous change upon which the world now seems to have entered.” Rogers quickly became King’s favourite minister.

Bruce Hutchison’s Governor General’s Award–winning 1952 biography, The Incredible Canadian: A Candid Portrait of Mackenzie King, did not disagree with Rogers, although Hutchison did admit to King’s nasty ways and peculiar character. Into this genteel world of Canadian political biography, Peter C. Newman’s 1963 hostile biography of John Diefenbaker, Renegade in Power: The Diefenbaker Years, struck like a thunderbolt. It appeared shortly after Lester Pearson defeated Diefenbaker in one of the nastiest elections in Canadian history and it forever changed the lens with which Canadians viewed their past. Gossipy, nasty, unrelentingly personal in its portrait of Diefenbaker as a maverick incompetent, Renegade sold an astonishing 30,000 copies in two months, helped to destroy Diefenbaker as the leader of the Opposition, and transformed Canadian political journalism in the way that Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians ended the golden haze that had surrounded the British 19th-century icons.

In the 21st-century, prime ministers are not ignored. John Ibbitson’s Stephen Harper follows fellow journalists Lawrence Martin’s Harperland: The Politics of Control, Paul Wells’s The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006– and Michael Harris’s Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada’s Radical Makeover. Nor do publishers and potential prime ministers treat each other with disregard. Campaign biographies or autobiographies have become commonplace since Jean Chrétien’s Straight from the Heart soared immediately to the top of the bestseller list in 1985 and kept his political hopes aloft until he captured the Liberal leadership in 1990. For the 2015 election, Canadians may choose among Elizabeth May’s Who We Are: Reflections on My Life and Canada, Justin Trudeau’s Common Ground and, now, Tom Mulcair’s Strength of Conviction. As I write this review in late August, Strength of Conviction sits atop the Canadian bestseller list and Mulcair’s New Democrats lead the polls.

Stephen Harper chose to write a book on hockey, not a memoir. Nevertheless, Ibbitson’s Harper serves the purpose that Rogers intended with his biography in 1935. Unlike Martin and Harris, who are the heirs of Newman in their visceral dislike of their subject and his deeds, Ibbitson openly declares that Harper “sought office hoping to leave things in better shape than he found them and that he has, in the main, succeeded.” Ibbitson is unambiguous: “I believe he has governed well.” Unlike Rogers in 1935, Ibbitson is not a potential Cabinet minister, and the chances of Harper appointing another journalist to the Senate are non-existent. Ibbitson is a true believer.

Because Ibbitson is a believer, those around Harper have talked. The book makes a valuable and lasting contribution because it reveals more of the man and the motivations of his supporters than any similar work. Although there is no evidence that Ibbitson has interviewed Harper, Harper’s brothers have spoken freely as have close Harper friends, notably John Weissenberger and former Harper girlfriend Cynthia Williams, who introduced Stephen to Laureen Teskey, his future wife. Although they remain anonymous sources, several ministers and associates of Harper have clearly passed on details. There is some evidence of who spoke in the treatment given to various individuals, notably John Baird, upon whom much praise is bestowed. Rona Ambrose, who, according to Ibbitson, was so incompetent in the environment ministry that Harper had to appoint Baird, probably kept silent.

With over half its pages devoted to the years before Harper became prime minister, the book’s strength is its biographical detail. It will be an essential source for future historians. The affection and support of his siblings testify to a richer and more attractive personality than the general public knows. While it is true that Harper has few friends, he is fiercely loyal to them—unless they talk too much, as former mentor Tom Flanagan did, or refuse to follow his lead, as many others did. As described by Ibbitson, Harper, the asthmatic sports nut who clung to the table debating politics or hockey while others chased the girls, is not an unattractive figure. And I had not realized how much Harper was an auto-didact, who paid little attention to his teachers but received his education in self-directed reading courses, often with Weissenberger, in which they stitched together their political beliefs as they consumed William Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and other standards of the conservative canon.

But Ibbitson is a prominent political journalist with The Globe and Mail and the heir of the Newman tradition that requires political portraits to reveal “warts and all.” One can airbrush only a few blemishes and even those should leave a trace. Thus Ibbitson exposes clearly the brutal treatment of subordinates, the obsessive secretiveness and the explosive anger that permeates the Prime Minister’s Office under Harper. He finds two particular episodes appalling: the end of the long form census and the head-on assault on the integrity of Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin. And he even takes on directly the rumours swirling around Harper’s marriage. In considerable detail, he explains that Laureen’s reported affairs with—the story changes—a male or female RCMP officer were the product of bitterness among older and incompetent Mounties who resented being replaced by younger and more attractive officers.

But in dealing with Harper as prime minister, Ibbitson sometimes chooses the thickest brushes and strongest colours in the palette when painting the most troubling parts of the Harper record, thereby obscuring important details. All too often he refuses to let the facts get in the way of a good story and seldom resists the temptation to score against those who irritate him, most notably Pierre Trudeau and his political and physical offspring. For example, Ibbitson rails against the architecture of the National Arts Centre—“a Brutalist chunk of concrete bequeathed to Ottawa for better or worse by Pierre Trudeau.” Right on the architecture but wrong on its patron. Lester Pearson’s government, egged on by Hamilton Southam, gave birth to the Arts Centre as a 1967 centennial project. Gérard Pelletier, Trudeau’s close friend and his culture minister who dealt with the final stages of construction, frankly said that he “wouldn’t have built it.”

And then there is the National Energy Program, where the myth becomes the story. Ibbitson is correct in his statement that “for almost every Albertan, the NEP was personal, and the person to blame was Pierre Trudeau.” But his brief account of the NEP omits and confuses. Sometimes it is wrong. The NEP did not “create” Petro-Canada as Ibbitson asserts. It was the product of the minority Trudeau government of 1973. Price control of Alberta oil long preceded the OPEC crisis of 1973 and the NEP of 1980. Initially, it assured Alberta producers, nearly all of them non-Canadian, a market in Ontario for their oil that was priced above the cheap crude flowing from the Middle East and elsewhere to the Eastern provinces. Trudeau’s battle with Alberta premier Peter Lougheed did not prevent them saving the oil sands (then the tar sands) in 1975 when, with the cooperation of Ontario premier Bill Davis, they poured money into the oil sands just as Atlantic Richfield walked away from them. Struggles between Alberta and Ottawa continued when Joe Clark replaced Trudeau in 1979 because, very simply, Canadian politics and demographics compelled Ottawa to pay attention to the fact that two thirds of Canadians lived in Ontario and Quebec.

The NEP was a political disaster for the Liberals, partly because it was ill timed and drenched in the blood of political wars and partly because it became a battle cry for their opponents in Western Canada and created the political mood that captured young Stephen Harper. From the perspective of 2015 with a New Democratic Party government in Alberta and a national NDP leader who once mused about Canada having contracted the “Dutch disease,” the important question surely is whether the “bet” on the oil sands made by industry, and provincial and federal governments, which was upped by granting higher prices, lower royalties and environmental easements was wise. But emotions trump economics in Stephen Harper, and politics swarms with emotions, especially anger, in the age of Stephen Harper.

It is anger toward what Ibbitson calls the “Laurentian elite” that has brought subject and author together in this biography. The back cover of the book is an excerpt from a section where Ibbitson describes Harper’s brief encounter with “elitist” Trinity College at the University of Toronto, where, Ibbitson writes in graphic detail, freshmen were pelted from above with a foul brew of old kitchen scraps, beer and urine that was left to ferment in the heat and undergraduates who offended were forcibly removed from the dining table and taken away and left naked on Centre Island. After his first encounter with what Ibbitson calls “the Upper Canadian elite” at Trinity, “Stephen Harper decided he wanted none of it or them.” Ibbitson graduated from Trinity in the late 1970s, but he shares Harper’s anger at “the young men and women who would go on to run the businesses, lead the political parties, manage the bureaucracies, and shape the arts and academies of English Central Canada.”

“Conservatives,” Ibbitson writes, “believe the entire Laurentian establishment detests them and wants to see them gone. They’re right.” Ibbitson often takes shots at his own employer and city, pointing out how Jeffrey Simpson warned Harper not to run for Conservative leader because he was too “ideological” for Canadian politics. Ibbitson slyly comments, “opprobrium from the dean of the press gallery pundits was the best endorsement Harper could hope for.” Ibbitson later claims that Harperites regard an opposing Globe editorial as ample justification for a decision.

In the mid 1990s, Preston Manning reportedly took his increasingly antagonistic colleague Stephen Harper aside and warned him: “You know, Stephen, if you’re going to stay in this political business, you don’t have to love people—but you can’t hate them.” But Harper has stayed and Manning, whose analytical and fact-saturated mind never understood the power of resentment and who, like his father, tended to tamp down the dark side of the populist uprising that elected Social Credit in 1935 and Reform in 1993, is long gone. Harper wrote an important memorandum for Manning in 1989 that attracted much attention because it forcefully argued that to gain power the Reform Party must go beyond its western base born of resentment and reach out to those with conservative instincts in vote-rich central Canada. Only then could the political vehicle of central Canadian dominance, the Liberal Party, be forced off the road and a new conservative party become the new natural governing party of Canada. Although Harper sought a broader coalition, far more than Manning he realized that the anger of Reformers was the essential fuel for the larger vehicle. One by one, he pushed the Progressive Conservatives off the Conservative bus.

W.H. Auden argued poetically at the end of the low and dishonest 1930s that when fear and anger envelop the land, “accurate scholarship” becomes irrelevant. And so it has with the Harper revolution. While Manning fussed about accurate statistics, Harper closed down the long-form census, dismissed sociologists and criminologists who said crime rates were dropping, ignored the police who claimed that the long gun registry would cause fewer deaths, denounced the United Nations report claiming extensive hunger among Arctic aboriginal people, and cut the goods and services tax even though the large majority of economists thought it bad economics. For Harper, anger is a wonderful political drug. But it can cause dreadfully bad trips.

Ibbitson wrote before the fascinating revelations of the Duffy trial in which a tormented Nigel Wright (a Trinity graduate) tried to adjust to the needs of the “base” that he barely knew but deeply feared. The conservative Wright went to Ottawa because he shared Harper’s passion for smaller government. According to Ibbitson, Wright was praising Harper in the early 1990s as someone who could “unite the right” and bring it to power. Like Ibbitson, Wright apparently believed in the 1990s and later that Harper’s “base” fretted about such issues as gay rights, abortion and crime, but for Harper these issues were purely instrumental, tools to attain the more important end of power. You soothe the base with rhetoric while a sly wink reassures those who did not share their passions. Ibbitson rightly argues that Harper has taken abortion off the agenda in Parliament and has accepted court decisions on same sex marriage. He even suggests that there was gossip about a “gay mafia” dominating the prime minister’s office although, justifiably, gives no details.

Nevertheless, the Duffy testimony makes it clear that Ibbitson was wrong to suggest that Wright “was never going to be the kind of aide who deferred to Harper’s wisdom, who cowered at his passions, who watched helplessly, too frightened to speak up, whenever the boss lurched toward a bad decision.” But he did. He did so because he knew his boss feared the impact of the exposure of Duffy’s “Laurentian” ways.

Who are the voters that so concerned Wright? An Ekos poll that appeared on August 28, 2015, indicates that 28.1 percent of Canadians support the Conservative Party, with support strongest in Alberta (51 percent) and lowest in Atlantic Canada (14 percent), while 32 percent of men but only 24 percent of women support the party. Only 24 percent of those between 18 and 34 years of age are Conservatives, compared with 37 percent of those over 65. The most interesting statistic, however, is support by education. Although 36 percent of those who have only a high school degree or less support the Conservatives, only 21 percent of those with a university education indicate they will vote for Harper, compared with 31 percent for the Liberals and 37 percent for the New Democrats.

When Stephen Harper walked away from Trinity College in 1978, most of the college’s graduates intended to vote Progressive Conservative in the next election, although blue collar workers and those without high school degrees shunned the party except in rural areas.1 The Harper “revolution,” like the “Reagan Revolution,” has channelled the populist anger of those left behind into a conservative mould thereby reshaping the Canadian party system and challenging the brokerage politics that had marked Canadian politics since the 1920s. As political convictions changed, parties responded. In the new millennium the Liberal Party has had the greatest difficulties.

The Liberal Party’s ascendancy in the 20th century was based upon its dominance in Quebec, which was established by Wilfrid Laurier and undermined in the 1980s by the Charter and Brian Mulroney, although in 2000 Jean Chrétien won 44 percent of the vote in the province. In 2011 the Liberals took only 14.2 percent as the New Democrats won an astonishing 59 seats in a province where they had perpetually failed.

Liberalism was bred in the Quebec bones of Tom Mulcair. His great-great grandfather was the Liberal nationalist premier Honoré Mercier, whose name adorns bridges, schools and even electoral constituencies throughout Quebec. He identifies the eminent journalist and former Quebec Liberal leader Claude Ryan as his most important mentor when he entered politics, which he did when he was elected as the Liberal member of the National Assembly for Chomedey in 1994. Mulcair has an irritating tendency in his book to refer to far too many people as “a dear friend,” but it is interesting that, by my count, the great majority of them are Liberals.

Strength of Conviction is, therefore, an odd title for the autobiography of a politician who has changed party, but Mulcair’s career illustrates how Quebec politics are like none other. He served in the National Assembly in the 1990s under Liberal leader Daniel Johnson Jr., who was the son of former Union Nationale premier Daniel Johnson Sr., who famously wrote Égalité ou Indépendance. Johnson’s other son, Pierre-Marc, chose independence and became a separatist premier. When Daniel Johnson stepped aside in 1998, federal Progressive Conservative leader Jean Charest replaced him as Liberal leader. In 2003 Charest decisively trounced the Parti Québécois, and Mulcair became the environment minister. Mulcair wanted the post and thanked Charest generously for the appointment.

But Charest never became a “dear friend.” Mulcair found that Charest’s conservative instincts made him side with business interests and against the environmental lobbyists. After jousting over several issues, they reached a deadlock in February 2006 on the sale of land for the building of a condominium development in Mont-Orford provincial park. Charest summoned Mulcair to his office, said he was moving him to another portfolio and, after brief conversations with his wife and two sons, Mulcair quit the Cabinet.

Although he had joined the NDP to support a classmate running for a nomination in the 1970s, his career after law school as a legal counsel to Alliance Québec and president of the Office des professions du Québec precluded direct political involvement. He had little contact with the “rest of Canada” except when he helped to direct the translation of Manitoba’s statutes into French. Although he was educated in English, Mulcair had become fully bilingual and bicultural by that point, partly by careful study but mainly because he married Catherine Pinhas, who was French and the daughter of Holocaust survivors.

Pinhas’s presence has graced Mulcair’s life and this book. Someone who appears to find smiling difficult conveys very well the deep affection he feels for Catherine and, for that matter, for his family. He also convincingly describes the ­turbulence of political and personal life in Quebec in the 1980s and ’90s as the province teetered on the edge of separation. Politics had an intensity that was unknown beyond Quebec’s borders, and the events left a deep mark on Mulcair, not least in the aggressive public persona he adopted when he became the Liberals’ “pit bull” in the National Assembly. Although the last chapters are anodyne and even misleading, the early ones reveal why Mulcair became a considerable figure in Quebec and Canadian politics. Strength of Conviction ranks among the best of its genre.

But what “conviction”? In the account of his NDP leadership victory, Mulcair omits Ed Broadbent’s strong personal attack on him that occurred just before the vote. Fearing a Canadian echo of Tony Blair’s “New Labour,” Broadbent told an interviewer that “I want the party to remain a left-of-centre party. That is how it finally built up. It got support in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and British Columbia and Nova Scotia and Ontario and now a breakthrough in Quebec by remaining true to its core principles, not by becoming a Liberal party.” In his book, Mulcair traces a direct path from Jack Layton’s attempt to open up to Quebec to his current leadership of the party. Moreover, he asked Broadbent to write the preface to Strength of Conviction.

Yet the NDP in the 2015 election campaign increasingly has the aroma of New Labour. Mulcair recruited a candidate who was a former Saskatchewan finance minister, who proudly cut taxes and argues that resource development and environmental responsibility are fully compatible; he slapped down candidate Linda McQuaig, who made the legitimate point that most of the oil sands will stay in the ground; he announced that the NDP would cling to a balanced budget in the face of a recession; and he persistently promised that he would not impose higher taxes on the rich. The party no longer calls itself social democratic and the word “socialist” does not appear in Strength of Conviction, not even in the proudly socialist Broadbent’s preface. A month into the 2015 campaign, veteran socialist Gerry Caplan complained with bewilderment that the NDP has leapt to the right of the Liberals. Ed Broadbent remained silent.

In 1989 Stephen Harper argued that the Reform Party’s populist anger could provide the base for Canadian conservatives to build a broader coalition, but it had to be contained, packaged in familiar wrappings and marketed along Bay Street where the rich grumbled about taxes as well as along the rural routes where guns were usually welcome but gays were often not. Harper’s tight control kept the package together, not least because the Liberals fumbled when they tried to unwrap it. Lately the string has come undone and much discord has followed. Ibbitson is correct to argue Harper has made Canadian Conservatives more open to immigrants than any other conservative party in the western world, but many are apparently deciding that they do not want to pass through the Conservatives’ open door. Canadian Conservatives are ever more a party of rural Canada, older white males, and Albertans nursing ancient wounds. Eventually anger loses its sting, and the “seismic change” toward a triumphant and clearly defined Conservative conservatism that Ibbitson proclaimed seems more likely to have been a whimper than a bang.2 Unlike Ed Broadbent, Brian Mulroney has broken his silence: Stephen Harper is not one of us.3

Now Stephen Harper tries to rekindle the anger against “elites” that drove him and his party forward, but, after nine years in power, abortions continue, same sex marriages are legal and ubiquitous, the Senate remains unelected and the Prairies face recession. A direct descendant of depression anger, which was embodied in the Regina Manifesto that called for the end of capitalism, the NDP under Tom Mulcair has few hopes on the Prairies but many among Quebec nationalists and upper middle class Torontonians. Convictions change, Canada remains, and elections matter.

 

Notes

1 According to Janine Brodie and Jane Jenson in Crisis, Challenge and Change: Party and Class in Canada (Methuen, 1980), in Eastern Canada “blue collar workers” in the 1974 election had a 0.09 positive correlation with the Liberals and 0.23 with the NDP, but −0.20 with the Conservatives.

2 Ibbitson made this argument more fully in the 2013 book he co-authored with pollster Darrell Bricker, The Big Shift: The Seismic Change in Canadian Politics, Business and Culture and What It Means for Our Future (HarperCollins, 2013).

3 In an interview with CTV’s Power Play, reported by Canadian Press and published in The Toronto Star on September 4, 2015: “Brian Mulroney Gives Stephen Harper Piece of His Mind,” http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2014/09/04/brian_mulroney_gives_stephen_harper_piece_of_his_mind.html.