Despite being prime minister for nearly a decade, Stephen Harper remains a mystery to many Canadians. Proroguing Parliament affords us a tremendous opportunity to similarly pause and refresh our thoughts about him. A good way to seek a better understanding is to recall three leaders with whom he has shared policies, principles and personalities.
Mr. Harper’s control of his cabinet, caucus and senior bureaucrats knows few bounds. All appearances, speeches and press releases are vetted to ensure that the government speaks with one voice. His remarks are seldom extemporaneous; reporters’ questions are limited or ignored.
Like Mr. Harper, R.B. Bennett was an easterner who represented a Calgary riding. He held a similar lock on colleagues and press. A popular joke had a Parliament Hill tourist asking a guide about the well-dressed man walking alone and talking to himself. He was told that it was the prime minister conducting a cabinet meeting.
Like Mr. Harper, Bennett was a skilled strategist, and nearly every member of his caucus rode to Ottawa on his coat tails. Bennett spoke of “his” government like the Prime Minister’s Office now refers to the “Harper” government. This iron control rendered all errors his and all opposition personal.
Like Mr. Harper, John Diefenbaker was born in Ontario but became a westerner who gave voice to the yearning and alienation of a region believing itself under-appreciated and ill-treated. Dief believed himself an outsider even when inside, and he saw politics as a contest waged with enemies listed only in his head. Robert Kennedy once said that of all the leaders with whom his brother interacted, Diefenbaker was the only one he hated. That sour relationship negatively affected relations. U.S. President Barack Obama surely harbours no such feelings for Mr. Harper, but nor do they agree on much – including, notably, the Keystone XL pipeline.
One of Diefenbaker’s goals was to open the North. Similarly, Mr. Harper has sought to protect Canada’s Arctic sovereignty while spurring economic development. Diefenbaker also fought for imperial ties long after the Empire was gone, including keeping the Red Ensign as our flag. He would salute Mr. Harper’s hanging pictures of the Queen and putting the “royal” back in the military.
Like Mr. Harper, Joe Clark was a career politician and policy wonk who called Alberta home. While they exude obvious intelligence and political acumen, both men too often appear uncomfortable in their own skin, walk to podiums as if to gallows and read speeches like they can’t wait for them to end. Many Canadians grew uncomfortable with both, perhaps because they seemed so uncomfortable with themselves.
This unease could explain why so many people were surprised when Mr. Clark made self-referential jokes about his own lack of charisma or when Mr. Harper performed a Beatles tune at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre or appeared in a leaked YouTube clip doing clever imitations of past leaders. The ice in Mr. Clark’s manner seemed even colder when contrasted with the fire of Pierre Trudeau, for whom magnetism came as naturally as breathing. Alas, another Trudeau is now radiating heat around Mr. Harper.
Considering the leaders and ideas of yesterday allows a deeper context within which to comprehend today, and perhaps tomorrow. Prime ministers Bennett, Diefenbaker and Clark continue to serve Canada by inviting us to glimpse the road ahead.
John Boyko is a historian whose five books include Bennett: The Rebel Who Challenged and Changed a Nation and the critically acclaimed Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation.