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Lawrence Martin
Lawrence Martin

Lawrence Martin

Wheel of fortune: Canadian politics is all about lady luck Add to ...

The reputation of Stephen Harper as a political wizard has weakened a bit. His cynical suspension of Parliament has led to criticism that he overstrategizes, and that could well be true. As recounted in William Johnson's biography, Mr. Harper once told a friend: "I think of strategy twenty-four hours day."

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The reality is that political outcomes aren't easily contoured. If you look at the careers of leaders with winning records, Jean Chrétien's three majorities or Pierre Trudeau's four election victories, you'll see that the key was something far more mundane than tactical sorcery.

In their cases and, in fact, in the case of Mr. Harper, it had more to do with providential circumstances - being in the right place at the right time. The winners profited from dramas beyond their control. They got the luck of the roll.

Not to underestimate the savvy of Mr. Chrétien, but recall what happened. He had resigned from politics in 1986. Then a splendid run of fortune began. John Turner fumbled away control of the Liberal Party and the leadership reopened, allowing Mr. Chrétien back in the door. The Conservatives then totally collapsed under Kim Campbell, and the political right split into two. Following Ms. Campbell, Mr. Chrétien's chief opponents, Preston Manning and Stockwell Day, headed up half-loaf parties. Through all this, Mr. Chrétien drew on the blessings of a decade-long run of global economic expansion.

Pierre Trudeau? At a time when image was everything, his adversaries were Robert Stanfield and Joe Clark. They had people fleeing from their television screens. Mr. Trudeau still managed to lose to Joe Who? in 1979, but a stunning turn of fortune saved him. The Tories couldn't count, lost a confidence vote, lost the government and Mr. Trudeau was back from his canoe trips within a year.

Stephen Harper? Not to underestimate his savvy, either, but recall what happened. In 2000, having left politics, he was running a little outfit called the National Citizens Coalition. But then a Chrétien-like run of horseshoes began. The Canadian Alliance had a new pilot in Stockwell Day, but his leadership collapsed practically overnight. The job was open, and no one seemed to want it. Mr. Harper's strongest opponent was the discredited Mr. Day. He won in a walk.

Things initially went badly for him in opposition. He put much on the line, spending a fortune in an Ontario by-election in Perth-Middlesex. But the party got clobbered, finishing third. Having promised no merger with the Tories, Mr. Harper had to recalibrate. At the time, the Tories were electing a new leader and hoping to make their own way. Peter MacKay won but, in what was a break for the Harper party, he did so via a side deal with David Orchard, undermining his and the party's credibility. Now the Tories had little choice but to seek amalgamation.

Mr. Harper was adroit at merger negotiations, a job made easier by his Alliance caucus's willingness to make virtually any concession to get a deal done. The newly unified party then needed a leader. As Mr. Harper's luck would have it, only Belinda Stronach, who was new to politics, and Tony Clement came forward. Mr. Harper was virtually handed the job.

When he took it, the Conservatives were in nowheresville, nearly 30 points behind the Liberals. But how was this for timing? Along came the auditor-general with the sponsorship scandal report. The lead shrunk to 10 points overnight. Mr. Harper was on his way. Then, during the 2006 election campaign, another miracle: The Mounties stunningly announced an investigation into the Liberals. The way was clear for the Harper victory.

His streak of fortune has not ended. The Grits gave him a weak and wobbly opponent in Stéphane Dion. The Governor-General then saved him on the first prorogation. The Liberals served up another leader in Michael Ignatieff, who stumbled out of the gate. The second prorogation bit Mr. Harper, but the bad news was quickly drowned out by the calamity in Haiti, to which he responded effectively.

Like others leaders, Mr. Harper has demonstrated some very crafty strategic capacities. But no one should get carried away. In the business of politics, the fates either smile on you or they don't. In his case, they have grinned from ear to ear.

 

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