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Book excerpt: Harperland

A day in the life of Stephen Harper Add to ...

After the senior staff meeting, the PM usually met with the Clerk of the Privy Council, the country's top civil servant. For the first few months, Alex Himelfarb remained in the post before being replaced by Kevin Lynch. These meetings were marathon affairs that regularly went on for three or four hours at a stretch when the House wasn't sitting.

Harper's specialty was economics, as was Lynch's. Harper wasn't an economist, but he often went deeply into the intricacies of finance. "He drove the witches and warlocks of Finance to distraction with his ever more technical questions about their craft," recalled an adviser.

Hugely intricate matters fascinated Harper. Said the adviser: "The PM probably spent hundreds of hours - I'm not exaggerating - working out the details of the fiscal-balance package."

Following the morning meetings, Harper didn't return home for lunch. He wanted to devote maximum time to getting ready for Question Period. The PM went to the extent of convening a full cabinet meeting every day beforehand, having already discussed possible questions at the morning staff meeting. As well, he'd already had a separate QP briefing with Beardsley, who gave him a book with suggested responses to a wide variety of questions.

But the big preparatory session was when the full cabinet met for a dress rehearsal. For other prime ministers, a prep session from the press secretary and a couple of aides had sufficed.

READY FOR PRIME TIME?

As opposition leader, Harper had gathered his shadow cabinet together before each Question Period and found that it helped. And so, Bruce Carson thought, why not do it while in government as well? "I was so terrified that we weren't ready for prime time," he recalled. The PM agreed. No one in the media found out about the daily cabinet meetings until well into his tenure.

Initially, it was Beardsley who quarterbacked these meetings. "I had free rein," he said. "I'd throw the question out and the PM would be sitting there watching. And if the minister wasn't prepared, Harper knew it." The ministers had their own briefing books with preset answers. "But the last thing they wanted to do was to be frantically looking through their books with the Prime Minister staring at them." When an iffy answer was given, Beardsley would look over at Harper with raised eyebrows, as if to say, "What do you think?" And Harper, he recalled, "would just shake his head like 'That's no damn good.' "

For Trade Minister David Emerson, the cabinet member who had crossed the floor, it was eye-opening stuff. "You'd go through a dry run as to what was going to be said," he explained, "and the Prime Minister himself would intervene regularly to shape someone's response to an issue. And the discipline was amazing." So were the results. The prep session was remarkably accurate in forecasting what would be asked during Question Period. "You'd probably capture 90 per cent of what was coming," Emerson said.

It was such a contrast to the environment he had encountered in the Martin government, where the discipline, he said, wasn't half what it was under Harper. Emerson was new to politics when he entered the Martin cabinet and could have used some tutelage. But "it was kind of chaotic. … There really wasn't much guidance and support in terms of Question Period." He liked the new way because it gave him access to Harper every day the House of Commons was in session.

On days when he was in a good mood, Harper delighted colleagues at these meetings. He had considerable talent as an impersonator and sometimes mimicked opposition members, doing impressions of them asking the questions. His show eased tensions, producing rounds of laughter. And this pre-Question Period session had other uses. Sometimes issues were hashed out as if it were a regular cabinet meeting. It gave ministers more chance to show their mettle and the Prime Minister more opportunity to assess the effectiveness of the players on his team.

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