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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during a post-election news conference in Calgary on May 3, 2011. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during a post-election news conference in Calgary on May 3, 2011. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Jeffrey Simpson

Stephen Harper could relax now, but will he? Add to ...

Having just won a solid majority government, will Prime Minister Stephen Harper change his style? Will he ease up on his desire to control so much, to be so stingy with information, to be so relentlessly partisan?

On the face of it, the answer is: Why should he? Critics be damned. Mr. Harper did it his way and won. Enough of the electorate either didn't care or admired his style (and policies) to give him four more years.

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One generous explanation for Mr. Harper's style was the government's minority status for five years. Minority government, it was argued, forced the Prime Minister to impose tight controls so that some minor events did not become major screw-ups.

To minority status, at least in the early years, was added inexperience. Mr. Harper didn't know whom he could trust. He therefore put all his ministers on tight leashes, easing off in only a few instances. Ministers who got into public-relations trouble - Rona Ambrose, Bev Oda, Lisa Raitt - were quickly silenced, their speaking roles handed to more experienced hands or better public blusterers.

Minority government, it was also argued, contributed to the relentless partisanship that defined Mr. Harper's approach. Every day in a minority government was a pitched battle for public opinion, so every tactic had to have a large dose of partisanship. Every government announcement had a public-relations angle, as did every government advertising program, every day in Question Period, every ministerial speech. In short, the government's daily preoccupation, and that of the party machine, was geared to partisan advantage.

Government critics often got rough treatment - job dismissal or an unrelenting campaign of denigration. Government employees were under the strictest instructions not to talk to the media, and to be very, very careful about talking to anyone else outside government. All messages had to be vetted by the Prime Minister's Office. Ministerial aides were largely responsible for saying as little as possible, preferably nothing.

If much of this attitude flowed from the government's minority status, then it might be assumed that things will be at least somewhat different now that Mr. Harper has won his majority. He can relax a bit, show a less partisan side, be a touch more statesmanlike, think longer term, be less restrictive with information. His principal political foes, the Liberals, are utterly vanquished; the Conservatives do not consider the new Official Opposition, the New Democrats, as a serious threat to take power.

What might be seen as indications of a different style? The Prime Minister, with his office's vast appointment powers, might choose a few people with other partisan affiliations for certain positions. Mr. Harper has already done that with former NDP premier Gary Doer's appointment as ambassador to Washington and former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley's role as head of a study group into Afghanistan policy. After all, no party has a monopoly on good people.

He could instruct the ministers being sworn in Wednesday to stop the incessant partisan jabs in their speeches and public answers. He could change the government's closed attitude towards access to information. He could try to engage the public in debate about issues, rather than having his government treat every matter as a green light for going into spin-doctoring overdrive.

Mr. Harper has already indicated that that the electorate does not appreciate surprise, so no one should look for any major changes in policy direction, starting with a June budget that will reprise most of what was contained in the pre-election budget. That same steady-as-she-goes logic would suggest not much of a change in style either, especially since the style emanated from the very top.

Majority governments do, however, allow prime ministers to look way beyond daily travails, if they so desire. They can try to build wider support than that which brought them to power, or use the support they have for courageous things. The less polarized the debate, the less confrontational the style, the greater the chance of wider public acceptance of long-term changes, especially the controversial ones.

Only one person knows how the Prime Minister has internalized his triumph, and what changes, if any, his new political status will mean for him and his government.

 

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