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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at a Toronto news conference on Dec. 16, 2011. (MIKE CASSESE/Mike Cassese/Reuters)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at a Toronto news conference on Dec. 16, 2011. (MIKE CASSESE/Mike Cassese/Reuters)

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Hints from 24 Sussex: Harper on health talks, Quebec and his hockey book Add to ...

Stephen Harper invited the national media to 24 Sussex Drive for a Christmas drink Monday night. Although he doesn’t give many interviews and does not always have a lot of time for the press, he was gracious, engaging, funny, relaxed and reflective of the year that was.

Here’s what he had to say.

The most fun he had in 2011: “Winning the majority government,” the Prime Minister said without even missing a beat. Later, he added that jamming in the living room of 24 Sussex Drive with Randy Bachman and Fred Turner, formerly of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, was the other highlight. The duo came over to the official residence just after the election when they were in town for a concert.

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What he and Obama were laughing about: A video of the Prime Minister laughing up a storm with U.S. President Barack Obama during a recent bilateral meeting in Hawaii got a lot of air time. Asked Monday night what the joke was, the Prime Minister said he couldn’t recall exactly but he said it had to do with the media misunderstanding something the two had said or were believed to have discussed.

Mr. Harper said that he gets along with Mr. Obama, reminding reporters that as opposition leader he had pledged when he became Prime Minister that he would always maintain a good relationship with the President since the United States is our neighbour, ally and most important trading partner. However, he said he is still tough on the President in ensuring Canada gets its points across.

He is very pleased with the perimeter security deal, which was unveiled earlier this month. At the time the Prime Minister said it will create a “new modern border for a new century.” Mr. Harper added, too, that the Americans were not all about security; the President also spoke about the border in terms of trade and jobs.

On Layton’s passing: It’s clear Mr. Harper has much respect for Jack Layton, the late NDP leader. He said Monday he realized that he was much sicker than he was letting on, especially after the election campaign, when he sat with him in the Commons.

There has been commentary recently about whether Mr. Layton should have put himself through the paces of an election campaign if he was sick. Mr. Harper wouldn’t comment on that, but he does believe that during the election – and on voting day – Canadian voters were sympathetic to Mr. Layton’s health.

On health care: The Prime Minister suggested he is not a fan of first minister’s meetings, preferring to deal individually with the premiers. He noted that he has spoken to a number of premiers about issues, including health care.And so the 10-year funding deal that was plunked down on the table Monday by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty basically puts an end to negotiations over health-care funding.

Mr. Harper was also critical of former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin’s approach with the 2004 health care deal, in which the premiers were basically locked-up at 24 Sussex Drive in a marathon session that went into the early hours of the morning, ordering in pizza and arguing about money. It was described by one participant at the time as a “frat-house party.” Mr. Harper suggested that episode was not effective because Mr. Martin went into the negotiations without a plan or agenda for the provinces.

On his coalition: The Prime Minister sees opportunities for his Conservatives in Quebec, noting that polling done after the election showed Quebeckers voted for the NDP because they came across as a fresh, new option. But there was no one NDP policy that captivated them. Mr. Harper said he is building his party slowly and patiently, wanting to attract conservatives from Quebec who are with the party for the long term. He contrasted this with the short-term coalitions that former Conservative prime ministers Brian Mulroney and John Diefenbaker built, which only lasted a couple of elections.

His hockey book: Finally, there is a publishing date for the long-talked about and much-anticipated prime ministerial tome one hockey history. Mr. Harper said that after writing for 15 minutes every day for eight years, the book will hit the shelves next year. He did not say who the publisher is, adding that he has been in touch with the Ethics Commissioner to ensure there are no potential conflicts around its publication. He said all of this was being handled very much at arms-length. The book, he added, is very narrow in focus – so, not your typical hockey tale. He will not make a cent on it, he said.

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