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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, seen in this Reuters photo. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, seen in this Reuters photo. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Globe Focus

Harper unbound: An analysis of his first year as majority PM Add to ...

At the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, this month, Latin American leaders pushed hard for a resolution supporting Argentina's claim to the Falkland Islands. Stephen Harper pushed back.

In a private session with leaders, according to people who know, the Prime Minister fiercely supported the right of the islanders to determine their fate, and they had chosen to remain British. For Canada, this was a matter of deep principle, Mr. Harper insisted.

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The United States has always been neutral on the Falklands, but when Canada took the lead, President Barack Obama made it clear he backed Mr. Harper. The resolution failed.

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was furious. “This is pointless. Why did I even come here?” the Argentinean president was overheard saying as she stormed out of the conference.

Mr. Harper's willingness to confront an entire hemisphere's worth of Latin American leaders, was born of the same deep conviction that has driven the law-and-order omnibus bill, that has made cutting sales and corporate taxes a top priority, that has given Canada the reputation of having Israel's back like no other nation, that imposed spending cuts and job cuts on the public service in the last budget.

One year after winning his first majority government, a milestone he marks on Wednesday, and more than six years after becoming prime minister, Stephen Harper bestrides Canadian politics, a principled economic and social conservative who is reshaping the nation.

And yet, after all this time, his notorious personal reserve incites suspicion and the big questions remain. Is this Prime Minister determined to dismantle the progressive state, built up over decades by previous governments? Or is his truly a moderate, centrist regime that has abandoned its radical roots and betrayed its conservative base?

As a party, the Conservatives are now in a tie with the New Democrats among decided voters, according to a Nanos Research poll released Friday.

Even more worrisome for Mr. Harper are the clouds gathering over his government, clouds that have many Canadians who thought highly of him only two months ago, the poll suggests, questioning his competence, trustworthiness and vision for the country.

But has Canada changed much at all under Mr. Harper? Are shifts in foreign and domestic policy incremental and sensible, or the first steps toward a “night watchman” state that polices the border and the streets, and does little else?

Has the government reined in environmental extremists or put our land and water at risk? Has it given Quebec the political space to pursue a separate destiny within a united Canada, or left French Canada dangerously estranged?

When we look at our country today, what do we see?

As for the man himself, who is this enigma? What lies behind that impassive mask? Do we know him any better now, after a year with a free political hand, than when he appeared on the national scene almost 20 ago?

It may well be that his angriest critics and most passionate advocates are both right. This Prime Minister's steady shifts in policy are not overly radical on their own but taken together are reshaping the nation's sense of itself. He has established what could be called a new “Brand Canada” – a land of low taxes, law and order and a strong military, infused with a robust nationalism, rooted in the West and powered by Ontario's affluent, aspirational suburbs.

This new Canada has eclipsed some once-potent political forces – the Liberal Party, Quebec, even Ottawa itself. There are dangers in their decline, as regions drift apart and factions grow more strident.

And as the Conservatives accelerate their efforts, resistance accelerates, as shown by the polls. The dramatic decline in the PM's personal cachet occurred as his government was being accused of suppressing the opposition vote during the last election, hiding billions in the cost of new fighter jets and breaking parliamentary ethics rules.

But this will pass, claims John Reynolds, the former B.C. MP and Harper confidant. “He'll get rid of the tough things in the first year or so, and then he's going to be in power for a long time.”

How long? “I think one of the achievements he'd like to have is to be the longest-serving Conservative prime minister – if not the longest serving prime minister” of all.

To pass Tory record-holder Sir John A. Macdonald requires staying until 2025 – add another two years to top all-time leader William Lyon Mackenzie King of the Liberals. But however long he serves, by the time Mr. Harper leaves, the country will be a very different place.

It will be divided as never before between left and right, progressive and conservative, east and west, decline and growth. Politics will become – has already become – a clash of irreconcilable values, of stark choices, with the voters forced to choose.

The story so far

In the past 12 months, the Conservatives have:

  • enacted an omnibus crime bill that, among a host of other changes, increases sentences for many crimes, especially those involving drugs or sex.
  • formally withdrawn Canada from the Kyoto protocol on global warming, claiming the standards set by the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien could not be met.
  • launched investigations into what it calls “environmental and other radical groups,” some of them foreign-funded, claiming they are determined to sabotage the Conservative plan of exploiting natural resources to grow the economy. Many environmental assessments are being handed to the provinces.

As well, the March 29 budget cut program spending and reduced the size of the public service by almost 20,000 positions. The qualification age for the old age security retirement benefit will gradually rise from 65 to 67. Refugee claimants from developed countries will be given speedy assessments and in most cases sent back. Workers on unemployment insurance who don't apply for jobs currently being filled by foreign temporary workers could lose their benefits.

In December, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced a multi-year funding formula for health transfers to the provinces that largely removed Ottawa from its role in promoting a national public health-care system.

These and other changes delivered a one-two punch, greatly diminishing the federal footprint in programs Ottawa shares with the provinces, while cutting back spending in areas within its own jurisdiction.

All this has left some worried about what will be left when the Conservatives are through.

Alex Himelfarb was Clerk of the Privy Council – head of the federal bureaucracy – under Mr. Chrétien and his successor, Paul Martin. He caused a stir with a recent blog post lamenting what he calls “the dismantling of the progressive state.”

“The consequences of such a shift are never immediate or obvious; they are subtle and slow burning, inevitably hitting the most vulnerable first and hardest ... ” he wrote.

“If we want to imagine the consequences of crushing the progressive state ... we might want to have a look at the twenties and thirties, a time of massive inequality and personal vulnerability which presaged the Great Depression.”

In an interview, Mr. Himelfarb said that he believes the cuts are too deep: “We need to raise taxes to the extent necessary to protect and renew key services and meet our economic, social and environmental challenges.”

Canadians “were told that tax cuts are a free good,” he adds. “They are not.”

Mr. Himelfarb stresses that he does not believe the Conservatives are implementing some hidden agenda. “They said they were going to do this, and they did it. There is nothing hidden about it.”

He is right. It has been almost a decade since Mr. Harper laid out a strategy that has truly begun to take shape only in the past 12 months.

A plan long in the making

The Prime Minister chose this year's Davos economic conference to unveil the surprise plan to raise the retirement age.

Many observers consider that speech a virtual mandate for the conservative transformation, but it was in a much earlier address that he actually revealed his game plan.

In 2003, speaking in Toronto to Civitas, a private conservative club, the then-leader of the Canadian Alliance laid out his core beliefs and priorities as an economic and social conservative.

The victories of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had already realized much of the economic-conservative agenda, Mr. Harper said, although “we do need deeper and broader tax cuts, further reductions in debt, further deregulation and privatization.”

But the real challenge, he maintained, lay in confronting “the social agenda of the modern left.” Conservatives must fight for “issues involving the family ... such as banning child pornography, raising the age of sexual consent, providing choice in education and strengthening the institution of marriage.”

But he cautioned that “rebalancing the conservative agenda will require careful political judgment ... issues must be chosen carefully ... real gains are inevitably incremental ... any other approach will certainly fail.”

Just as he predicted, Mr. Harper was able to move more quickly on the economic than on the social front during the minority-government years.

But the government has raised the age of sexual consent, and this year introduced a bill that would expand police powers to monitor the web in search of child pornographers. As well, couples with children will be allowed to split their income for tax purposes, making it easier for one parent to stay home.

Yet part of the Prime Minister's learning curve was realizing that, on issues such as capital punishment, abortion and gay rights, the national debate was settled and Conservatives would reopen it at their political peril. If he has one key asset, it's his ability to learn from his mistakes.

Two-sided personality

Few are more ruthless in analyzing, even eviscerating, his performance than Stephen Harper himself. No one did a better job of explaining how the Tories lost the 2004 election – in part because he fed fears that the new Conservative Party was too radically right-wing – or realized how much trouble he was in when the opposition parties nearly combined to oust him from power in December, 2008.

No one recognized better that, if the Conservatives focused exclusively on the economy in the last election, he could win a majority government.

The flip side of his personality is Mr. Harper's apparent inability to empathize. Some who know him say he is unable, or unwilling, to understand the values and beliefs of those he disagrees with. And when he believes his opponents are weak, overconfidence can lead him to overreach.

A hint of this hubris surfaced last summer during a barbecue at the home of Toronto Mayor and staunch conservative Rob Ford. Mr. Harper was caught urging provincial Tory leader Tim Hudak, then heading into a fall election, to “complete the hat trick” that would see conservatives in power at Queen's Park as well as City Hall and Ottawa.

The remark drew some flak and, of course, Mr. Hudak came up short – a clear indication, along with this week's result in Alberta, that Mr. Harper's message isn't exactly driving progressive government from the landscape. And now, with the sweeping justice, immigration and fiscal changes made in the past year, the question is whether he is overreaching yet again.

Intimates such as John Weissenberger dispute the notion that Mr. Harper can't see the other side of an argument. The geologist and oil-company manager says detractors underestimate Mr. Harper's ability to appreciate an opponent, citing his respect for late NDP leader Jack Layton.

He also speaks of his old friend's “very strong strategic sense” – a talent that allowed Mr. Harper to see before almost anyone else that a new conservative community of interest could reshape the political map.

Hockey-loving new Canadians

In the depths of the 2009 recession, the hockey-obsessed Prime Minister was talking with the owner of a Canadian franchise in the National Hockey League and asked how ticket sales were holding up in the tough times.

The best news, the owner replied, was that immigrant fans were staying loyal. For them, he said, a ticket was for more than a hockey game – it was a ticket to becoming Canadian.

Immigrant Canadians with money enough and will enough to buy hockey seats in the middle of a recession have become an integral part of a new Conservative coalition.

Mr. Harper realized that in the Civitas speech, predicting that an economic and socially conservative party, with the right leadership and approach, “can draw in new people. Many traditional Liberal voters, especially those from key ethnic and immigrant communities, will be attracted to a party with strong traditional views of values and family.”

Patrick Muttart, the political and marketing consultant who was Mr. Harper's deputy chief of staff from 2006 to 2009, is credited with identifying and targeting key voter segments. He sees the 2011 result as not just an election, but a culmination.

“In charting out a new course, a new national narrative, [the Conservative Party]is starting to move the country along with it,” he says.

The Conservatives always commanded the loyalty of voters in the Prairies and rural Ontario attracted to their core message: low taxes, sound finances, an overriding emphasis on growth leavened with law-and-order values.

Mr. Harper's genius was his ability to sell the same values to what Mr. Muttart calls “the suburbanization of affluence and influence.”

In marketing terms, middle-class suburbanites are “strivers,” upwardly mobile people seeking to own a home in a safe community while they pursue their dreams. They contrast with “creatives,” who place a stronger emphasis on community supports, the environment and international engagement.

More likely to vote Liberal or New Democrat, creatives also tend to live downtown, which is where those parties remain strong, at least in English Canada. But in each election since 2004, suburban strivers have increasingly identified with the Conservatives – and immigrants are more likely to be strivers than creatives.

Mr. Muttart says that Mr. Harper's ability to appeal “to their aspirational sensibilities with the focus on jobs and growth and balanced budgets” produced the Conservative victory last May.

That victory marked a sea-change in Canadian politics. The political, cultural, business and media elites who live principally in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal have long dominated the national agenda.

But for the first time in this country's history, they are not part of the governing coalition, as suburban Ontario voters in the millions have joined Westerners in a new coalition, leaving the old guard hunkered down in their urban enclaves, enfeebled and impotent.

“It's been in the making for a long time, but Harper accelerated it,” says Rainer Knopff, a member of the Calgary School – academics whose conservative world view influenced Mr. Harper profoundly when he was a student at the University of Calgary.

With that new conservative coalition at his back, Mr. Harper is finally able to implement at least part of an agenda that he laid out nine years ago, an agenda that has also fundamentally altered Canada's place in the world.

A man of the world

Nowhere has Mr. Harper's conservative vision been more fully realized in the past year than in his foreign policy. In the Civitas speech, he proclaimed that “the emerging debates on foreign affairs should be fought on moral grounds.” In defending “democracy, free enterprise and individual freedom” Canada has “the duty ... and the responsibility to put ‘hard power' behind our international commitments.”

In the past year, the Conservatives have implemented that manifesto with a vengeance. In John Baird, the Prime Minister appears finally to have found a foreign minister who fully reflects his own priorities and passions. Mr. Baird has been even more vocal than Mr. Harper in his support for Israel and in Canada's criticism of its enemies, including Syria and Iran. And Canada played a leading role in NATO's overthrow of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. A Canadian general led the mission, and Mr. Baird was the first allied foreign minister to tour the former dictator's compound after Tripoli was liberated.

Mr. Harper's strongly pro-U.S. stance led his government to embrace a continental security perimeter with the United States, along with a pledge to harmonize standards and regulations in automobiles and other products between to two countries, along with an agreement to remove obstructions at the border.

In his early days, his agenda also meant embracing human rights over commerce, confering honourary citizenship on the Dalai Lama, even at the cost of angering China. But Mr. Harper eventually came to realize that his principled stand was freezing Canadian businesses out of the burgeoning Chinese market, and that the United States and European economies – Canada hopes to sign a free-trade agreement with the European Union this year – may never recover fully from the recession.

And so he pivoted, swallowing a public humiliation during his first Chinese trip – Premier Wen Jiabao chided him for taking so long to visit – to demonstrate to his hosts that he was serious about making a new start. Now, if Mr. Harper meets with the Dalai Lama at all, it is in private – as he did this week.

He also learned that the United States is a neighbour and ally and customer, but not always a friend. Relations with the Obama administration have been strained in the wake of the President's decision not to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline, at least for now, and by the Americans' apparent unwillingness to sponsor Canada's entry into the Trans Pacific Partnership trade negotiations unless this country agrees to scrap protections for the dairy and poultry industry.

And so the government has launched a flurry of two-way trade talks with Pacific nations, including Japan and Thailand as well as China. A free-trade agreement with India is expected next year.

These initiatives underscore Mr. Harper's appreciation that Canada is increasingly a Pacific nation, that the 250,000 immigrants arriving here each year – many of whom now vote Conservative once they become citizens – are affecting economic as well as cultural and political change, that with 46 per cent of Toronto's current population born overseas, mostly in Asian or Pacific nations, Ontario is becoming a Pacific province, too.

Derek Burney was Brian Mulroney's chief of staff during the Canada-U.S. free-trade negotiations in the 1980s, and later served as ambassador to the United States. He applauds the increased focus on trade, but there may be too many lines in the water.

“These are all encouraging moves,” he says. “But what the government needs now is a sense of priorities. Mr. Harper needs to take charge and give negotiators the authority to get results. They haven't put anything in the window yet.”

Rise of the West

However crucial Pacific Ontario may be to the Conservative coalition, this is the most West-centric government ever. Westerners are to Ottawa today what Quebeckers were in the Trudeau years. They chair half of the 26 parliamentary committees, and the governor of the Bank of Canada, the clerk of the Privy Council and the chief justice of the Supreme Court are all Westerners, as is almost half of the governing caucus.

Truly two solitudes

The Tories' great good fortune is that the West and suburban Ontario, where they are strongest, are also the dynamic growth centres of the country. But Conservative success there leaves Atlantic Canada declining politically as well as economically and in terms of population. And, more dangerously, it isolates Quebec.

In its minority years, the Harper government actively wooed Quebec voters: giving the province a seat at UNESCO; recognizing the Quebec nation within Canada; rebalancing the notorious “fiscal disequilibrium;” promising compensation for a harmonized sales tax and funding for a new Montreal bridge.

But last May, the Conservatives defied conventional wisdom by winning a majority without substantial support from Quebec. And since that victory, their policies and announcements, if not calculated to offend Quebeckers, appear indifferent to such offence. Stripping equalization components out of programs, as the Tories have begun to do, does not favour the province that is the largest recipient of equalization. Putting the “royal” back in navy and air force is like a red flag to a province with little affection for the monarchy. Cutting funding to the CBC is a hostile move in a province where Radio Canada is a valued cultural voice.

Scrapping the gun registry and refusing to let Quebec keep its own records, toughening sentencing even though Quebec emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment, abandoning the Kyoto Accord and pulling back on environmental assessments even though Quebec prides itself on its low-carbon footprint – none of this has gone down well.

Yet the most profound impact may be indifference – a willingness to let Quebec go its own way without asserting the role and importance of the federal government within the province. It is one thing to win without Quebec and another to govern without it.

“For the average Quebecker under 35, the federal government is totally irrelevant,” says André Turcotte, a pollster who teaches political communication at Carleton University. He describes Mr. Harper's unwillingness to engage the province as “separatism by default ... quiet detachment ... a marriage with separate bedrooms.”

And that's with a Liberal government in Quebec City. No one knows what would happen if the Parti Québécois ever came back to power.

“The situation is very volatile,” adds John Parisella, former chief of staff to premiers Robert Bourassa and Daniel Johnson and, until recently, Quebec's representative in New York.

“The Harper government has to be aware that Quebeckers are sensitive,” he warns. “There is an emerging discourse coming especially from the PQ that the Harper government is trying to create a Canada without Quebec.”

That said, he remains confident that Quebec and Canada have both evolved away from endless fits and fights. In fact, Mr. Harper's strongest suit in confronting a separatist Quebec premier may be his record, despite the affronts of the past year, of simply leaving Quebec alone.

Yet another transformation the Harper's Conservatives have effected is intangible, and yet perhaps more pivotal than any other.

Mr. Muttart argues that Mr. Harper has created nothing less than a new national narrative. “He has carved out a space that is unique, that is authentic.”

This narrative, which Mr. Muttart has long existed but been dormant, features a robust military, a strong defence of the Arctic, the ties to the British monarchy, the celebration of Canadian excellence in sports. It celebrates individual freedom ostensibly liberated by a government retreating from the excesses of the welfare state. It celebrates families with children as the bedrock of a well-ordered society.

This is, emphatically, Stephen Harper's Canada, instilled in him while growing up in Toronto's Leaside and Etobicoke, nurtured during his years at the University of Calgary. But though it is his narrative, it resonates with millions of others.

It competes with the long-entrenched Liberal narrative that celebrates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, peacekeeping, multiculturalism and variegated sexualities, a Canada the world should want more of.

Although the Liberal idea of Canada remains robust, in Canada today Mr. Harper's new Brand Canada seems to be on the rise: aggressively patriotic, conservative in fiscal policy and on the law-and-order front, relatively unconcerned about the environment, at least at the federal level, proud of its military and willing to spend money on it, led by a man who runs his government with a cool head and a committed conservative heart.

This brand is anathema to the downtowns of Ontario's big cities, as well as Montreal and Vancouver. But neither of their national representatives – the NDP and the Liberals – appears ready to mount a serious challenge.

Without a permanent leader until next spring, the Liberals now seem so enfeebled that some wonder whether the party can survive. The NDP under new leader Thomas Mulcair, a Quebecker, is making tentative gains in public support, but it is too soon to judge whether that support will hold.

That said, when majority governments dominate in Ottawa, the most powerful resistance has traditionally come from the provinces. There may soon be a fresh and powerful new centre of resistance in Mr. Harper's western back yard.

By next spring, the NDP's Adrian Dix could be premier of British Columbia – he is consistently ahead of Liberal Premier Christy Clark in the polls (although Monday's surprise result in Alberta serves as a reminder of how unreliable polls can be).

Mr. Dix stresses that, should he become premier, he hopes to work with the federal government on improving the quality of life for aboriginal Canadians in British Columbia and in promoting Canada overseas. But he quickly rhymes off four areas where he seriously disagrees with Conservative policy: the law-and-order agenda, which could crowd provincial courtrooms and prisons and drain provincial budgets; the proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline between Alberta and the Pacific Coast; the reduced increases in federal health transfers; the Canada-EU trade agreement, which could increase drug prices as a result of tougher patent protections.

“These are issues that are unavoidable,” he maintains, “because the consequences for provincial jurisdictions are so severe.”

Ultimately, opposition to a Harper dynasty will coalesce around someone with a set of opposing values voters come to prefer. Ironically, that may be this Prime Minister's greatest achievement.

Visible changes are few

While many Canadians, including many who watch him very closely, puzzle over the man behind the mask, there may be no mask. “He is exactly what he is,” John Reynolds contends. “What you see is what you get.”

He is greyer – Mr. Harper turns 53 on Monday – but also more relaxed, especially over the past year, with his political future more secure thanks to majority government. Friends describe a more confident leader, but one fundamentally unchanged from the Stephen Harper they first met, whenever it was they first met him.

He is passionate about hockey and loves to play the piano. He is also a man with few close friends. His political ruthlessness is legendary and he so distrusts the media that he tries to control their access to government.

He gives considerable latitude to the few who earn his trust – within the cabinet that includes Mr. Flaherty, Mr. Baird and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney – and very little to those who don't. His confidence in his own ability to solve problems and to lead is self-evident, as is his discomfort with large crowds and small talk.

And he is an evangelical conservative, so dedicated to converting others to his world view that he has transformed – polarized, really – the political life of the country.

For most of Canada's history the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives did not differ fundamentally in political philosophy. Each attempted to broker competing regional, linguistic and class interests. A third, values-based party, the NDP, camped out on the left.

But Stephen Harper's Conservative Party is infused with his own dedication to economic and social conservatism. Rather than being a brokerage party, it is values-based. Eventually, a progressive coalition will rise to challenge it, making national politics a two-party, values-based contest. That progressive coalition could form around the NDP or the Liberals – or it could emerge from a merger of the two.

If so, Canada will finally mirror other English-speaking countries: Republicans versus Democrats in the United States; Conservatives versus Labour in Britain; Liberal versus Labour in Australia. Other parties, either regionally based or values-based, may exist, but only on the fringe.

“Clear choices in elections are good for democracy,” Patrick Muttart argues. “It gets people involved. It gets people talking.”

It can also lead to polarization and gridlock. But nothing appears likely to stop the Canadian drift toward politics defined by ideological divides that Stephen Harper himself defined.

For better or worse, that could be his most lasting legacy.

John Ibbitson is The Globe and Mail's parliamentary bureau chief.

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