For a while, it looked as if Stephen Harper might rival Pierre Trudeau as the longest-serving prime minister (15-plus years) not named Mackenzie King or Sir John A. Macdonald. That is becoming a much tougher bet, but why? And what, if anything, can he do about it?
Why requires a bit of analysis. After all, Mr. Harper is deservedly seen as a political chess grandmaster: shrewd, disciplined, on message and far-sighted. Moreover, he has provided reasonably good government. Canada’s prosperity is due more to resources than to governance, but at least the Conservatives have been prudent managers. Their major initiatives in foreign trade will bear important fruit. The provinces have rightly been asked to look after their responsibilities, and government is less in our faces.
But there is another side. Mr. Harper is also, in the words of former chief aide Tom Flanagan, perceived as “secretive, suspicious, vindictive and ruthless. OK. He is. Everybody knows that.” (It is not clear whether Mr. Flanagan was confirming the reality or the perception, but even the latter matters.) Others have used words like “petty,” “mean-spirited,” and the infamous “hidden agenda,” which is supposedly gradually moving Canada to the right. The recent leaked video that featured Mr. Harper hamming it up on election night, 2011, was funny but unlikely to change these views.
In places, Mr. Harper has provided bad government. The Neanderthal policies of his war on drugs, the escalating incarceration rates and grossly partisan appointments have not gone unnoticed.
But every prime minister has pluses and minuses. Two things are different here. The first is an absence of friends in any depth. Very few feel affection for Mr. Harper. By contrast, when Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien had their own terrible difficulties, they were supported by many who literally loved them. Affection gives resilience. Lack of it leads to the kind of brittleness that can break.
The second different thing is the nature of the current crisis, because it touches the essence of our parliamentary democracy.
In the Senate scandal, four appointees (three of them directly named by Mr. Harper), have called into question not just a historic chamber but the Prime Minister’s own judgment. Then, he reacted to the Nigel Wright payment in an ethically deaf way. Whether he knew about this in advance is immaterial. We know that for four days after he knew of it, he saw no problem.
In the House of Commons, he has repeatedly and mercilessly whipped his caucus to the point where they are routinely considered trained seals. An average voter gets to vote only for a local MP. If that MP is nothing, then so is our vote. The message, and the apparent reality, is dictatorial.
This kind of behaviour isn’t exactly new. Jeffrey Simpson used to call Mr. Chrétien “the friendly dictator.” But no one would call our current Prime Minister friendly, or cut him such slack.
Mr. Harper misses the essential fact that elected politicians, even among the opposition, can be his best friends. They can be an early warning line, a set of eyes and ears to assist in the hugely difficult task of riding herd on an enormous bureaucracy. They are all better seen as potential friends, rather than as lackeys or enemies.
For their part, MPs have largely swallowed this so far. The reasons range from fear to disorganization to laziness to retaining the best job many have ever had. Wanting to be on the winning team is a strong incentive to stay in line, but what shall it profit MPs if they sell their souls to do it? MPs have the theoretical ability to change the House rules and give themselves some true power. They are told they mustn’t, and comply. No sympathy need be wasted there.
But for Mr. Harper, things are more dangerous. There can be tipping points in politics. Remember the Progressive Conservatives reduced to two seats in 1992, and the mighty Liberals a small rump in the last election? It could happen in 2015.
What can Mr. Harper do about all this?
He might start by promising never henceforth to appoint a senator without the kind of peer panels that examine judges. He might start seeing MPs as friends.
Mostly, he must realize, to paraphrase an old saying, that the best chance of keeping things the same is to change himself a great deal. It’s very hard to do.