It was clear from the start, however, that all the prepping was not intended to produce candid answers to opposition queries. The strategy was not to reveal information but to shield it and counterattack.
The Liberal record gave the Conservatives ample ammunition. Harper's cabinet had documented Liberal failures on every conceivable issue. On some days, the Tories turned almost every opposition question into a counterblast. All governments had used this tactic, but it soon became apparent that this government would exceed all others. The Conservatives didn't mind looking evasive. They didn't mind if it looked intellectually infantile to defend their own inadequacies by pointing to the inadequacies of others.
But Harper himself gave more straightforward responses than most of his ministers. Advisers found that he wasn't intimidated by Question Period because he was good at it.
Question Period ended at 3 p.m. Now came the post-game review. PMO staff always monitored the performance on television, and once the session was finished, Harper would huddle with the group, which usually consisted of Bruce Carson, Keith Beardsley, Sandra Buckler and one other, often Dimitri Soudas, a young aide who had a close relationship with the PM and was capable of being frank with him. The Prime Minister would ask how it went, how he came across, how the others did. Harper, they found, was one of his own worst critics.
Usually he worked until about 6:30 p.m., but he often liked to linger, reading reports, discussing the day with advisers, while downing Chinese food by the carton. His junk-food addiction had slowed somewhat. As Prime Minister, he couldn't be seen lining up at Harvey's as he sometimes had as opposition leader. These evening sessions were the ones Harper's team enjoyed the most. Often issues were debated at length, leaving staffers bleary-eyed the next morning.
But Harper would get more personal in the evenings. His dry sense of humour would surface, and aides saw a side of him they wished the public could see. And there was hockey talk, always hockey talk. No one, it was said, could challenge Lester Pearson on baseball stats, and no one could challenge Stephen Harper on hockey stats.
THE SHY HOCKEY DAD
Some nights, it was off to the arena to watch his son, Ben, a good player, in action on the left wing. At the rink, he often ran across Paul Dewar, the NDP's foreign affairs critic, whose boy, Nathaniel, played on the same team on the right side. Dewar was struck, especially at their initial meetings, by Harper's social shyness, his quiet, restrained way.
The Prime Minister followed his son intently but would seldom shout out encouragement, leaving that to the extrovert in the family, his wife, Laureen. And work was never far from his mind. During one game at Brewer Park, a small rink with hardly any viewing capacity, he sought out Dewar and presented him with an envelope. It contained the government's proposal for Senate reform. He wanted Dewar to have a look.
In the House of Commons one day before Question Period, Dewar went to his seat and was told by colleagues that the Prime Minister had just come by and left him something in an envelope. It was a picture of Dewar's son in a game with Ben. For the New Democrat, seeing Stephen Harper in the hockey environs was to see someone who looked reluctant, almost timid - a quiet hockey dad hoping his son would do well.
Dewar had a difficult time believing that this was the same man who, in a different arena, had a killer instinct few leaders could match.
Excerpted from Harperland, by Lawrence Martin, published by Viking Canada.
Lawrence Martin is a political columnist for The Globe and Mail.