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As a populist, Harper is no Chrétien (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
As a populist, Harper is no Chrétien (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

LAWRENCE MARTIN

As a populist, Harper is no Chrétien Add to ...

We can hardly blame Stephen Harper for wanting to change the blame channel these days. From his speech at the Conservative convention, one of the passages that jumped out was his man-of-the-people talk.

His Conservative government isn’t to blame for its problems. It’s those entrenched elites in Ottawa. He and his band of brothers are the populists, the outsiders, standing up for you, dear citizen, railing against them. His party, he said, is “not the party of entitlement, not guided by power or privilege.” Conservatives didn’t go to Ottawa to become “part of some elite.”

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He hasn’t pushed this line too hard before and I suppose anyone reviewing the record might see why. The populist schtick isn’t an easy sell when your government has given far more tax cuts to the corporations than to the little guy; when it’s been manifestly on the side of big oil; when it takes on unions at every turn; when its penchant for muzzling and censorship is legend; when it favours judges ill-disposed to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; when the Prime Minister’s version of grassroots democracy has been to centralize and expand executive power at a rate heretofore unseen.

In Calgary, it was like Mr. Harper was trying to hark back back 20 years ago to his Reform Party roots. But even then, as Preston Manning has written, Mr. Harper wasn’t the type to listen to those below him.

Inky Mark, the Conservative who served many years as a Manitoba MP under Mr. Harper, just shakes his head in wonderment when he hears the populist talk. The PM has been quite the opposite, he said in an interview Monday. “Mr. Harper’s biggest weakness is that he doesn’t listen to anyone. He thought he knew more than all of us put together. He didn’t trust anyone. He operated through his bullies.”

Mr. Mark, who stepped down as an MP two years ago, said he was distressed at how the PM could intimidate. “They’d call you up and tell you what to do. One time, someone from his war room threatened me. I said, ‘Don’t tell me what to do just ‘cause you got a little office in Ottawa. And tell Stephen Harper the same thing.’ ”

The Senate expenses scandal is no surprise to Mr. Mark, he said, because for the Harper operation, the end justifies the means. In the 2006 campaign, Mr. Mark said, the bullies wanted him to take part in a scheme to allow his campaign to go beyond official campaign spending limits. He refused. The Harper “populists” demanded to vet every single one of Mr. Mark’s press releases, as they did everyone else’s. He said no.

But Mr. Mark, who is looking to run as an independent in the next election, was one of the few to stand up to that kind of thing.

Mr. Harper’s populist rhetoric may find some followers. Campaigning against elites has been a long time staple of the hard right, particularly in the United States. Here, however, the best practitioner of it, the most successful man of the people, has been Jean Chrétien.

This a special week for Mr. Chrétien. It was 20 years ago Monday that he was sworn in as prime minister. This year marked 50 years since he as first elected to Parliament. He never lost an election as MP or prime minister. He was arguably the most consistently successful ballot-box performer the country’s ever had.

Along with a lot of luck, most will tell you that his reason for success was that he was at one with that mythical creature, the average Canadian. No one was more down to earth. Although his actions were often contradictory, he symbolized working-class Canada. For all his warts, the people felt he was on their side, an anti-establishment man.

For Mr. Chrétien, populism was a formula that worked. For Mr. Harper, not a chance.

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