Maclean’s political editor Paul Wells traces Stephen Harper’s time at the helm in The Longer I’m Prime Minister, a finalist for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. He talks with The Globe about the book, the Prime Minister, the reaction and what’s changed.
After reading the book, a Conservative friend of mine said you “get” Harper. Do you think you do?
In a strange way, I don’t get him at all. I didn’t meet with him for the book. He’s an enigmatic figure, I think even to people who are close to him. In the end, I decided what we haven’t seen yet is a work of empathy. Not a blind defence, but he keeps winning elections and, to me, the most interesting question is: why does he keep winning elections?
You write there are many things he’s done that a young Stephen Harper wouldn’t recognize. What’s the top of that list?
Nationalizing General Motors. Getting up one morning with Barack Obama and buying a car company, I think, must have been the most astonishing to him. Even more than calling the Quebecois a nation, because he found silly language tricks that allowed him to sleep at night after doing that. But, you know, you do one of those big compromises, and that buys you another nine months or a year as Prime Minister. And during that time you get to do all kinds of interesting things that are super-conservative and that columnists don’t criticize or applaud because they don’t even know that it’s happening. I think that’s the bargain that he makes.
“The point of everything he does is to last,” you write. That’s more or less the thesis.
Whenever I say something like that, someone jumps in and says, well, therefore he has no principles, therefore he is a perfect opportunist. No, if he was a perfect opportunist, he would have implemented the Kelowna Accord, he would have dropped the long-form census changes like a hot-potato. But he wants to win to do things. And the things he wants to do, he can’t do them if he doesn’t win.
You spend quite a bit of time on the census.
That’s the only thing my editor complained about. She thought I was devoting too much space to the census issue. And in the end I just said it’s my book.
Why was it so important?
It’s the empathy thing again. I was actually preparing to deliver a sustained critique of the census changes. But there were a lot of people telling you why it was a bad idea, and not an awful lot of people telling you why he would have thought it was a good idea. And the answer is because there’s this rich intellectual heritage in Western conservative circles of mistrusting the census man. When Jed Clampett, at the beginning of the Beverly Hillbillies, takes a shot and hits oil, he thinks he’s shooting at a revenuer. That persists in our culture, and I wanted to trace that at some length so that people would see that where Harper comes from has been there along – and has been ignored by a lot of people who now suddenly can’t ignore it because he’s running the joint.
In a book about his longevity, you touch on independent qualities needed for a leadership challenge.
I decided a couple years ago that Harper must surely have made a formal study of what undid Mulroney and Chretien. Nobody has confirmed that to me, but it just feels like Harper. What destroyed Chretien was not the Canadian Alliance, it was the guy sitting beside him on budget day [Paul Martin]. And what destroyed Mulroney was the beloved Quebec lieutenant that he had bent himself into a pretzel to lure into federal politics, Lucien Bouchard. So what did Bouchard and Martin both have? They both had a power base within the party. They had a stronger command over a chunk of the party than the leader did. And they had their own ambitions. So Harper boxes in ambitious people with independent power bases.
There are some exceptions to that.
There are. Jason Kenney’s a spectacular exception to that. Jason Kenney says what he wants. His staff say what they want. The autonomy of being a junior staffer in Jason Kenney’s office is greater than the autonomy that most cabinet ministers enjoy. And the answer is because Harper knows, or believes, that Kenney would never turn that fire-hose on him. James Moore is another good example. We draw these facile distinctions between loyalists and a strong personality with something to say. But of course there are all kinds of examples of loyalists who have a strong personality. And as long as you’re a loyalist first, Harper’s happy to let you stay around.
You spend a lot of time on the coalition crisis, recounting how then-House leader Jay Hill told Mr. Harper that, if he caved to the coalition, he wouldn’t likely survive as leader. Was that the turning point?
I don’t think it was that statement. The statement from Jay was very dramatic. It’s that thought, but it’s also the other side shows weakness when they show Gilles Duceppe [as a part of the coalition], and he realizes he’s got a handle on this. So it’s not a lost cause. And then I think, over a couple days, the constituent reaction, people calling into MPs’ offices saying, ‘you’ve got to stop these guys,’ is when he starts to feel like he’s not alone.
What has the reaction to the book been?
I was trying to write a book that people could enjoy, and it would feel truthful to them, whatever they think about Stephen Harper. So people who have been waiting for somebody like him to be Prime Minister, so they could feel represented, would read the book and say ’that’s my guy.’ And people who have been working day and night to stop him would read it and say, ’that’s the guy we’re trying to stop.’ And that’s actually been the response.
If you were finishing writing now, what are you adding?
I finished writing the book in June of 2013 and he’s essentially only had more trouble since then. But his response hasn’t been to apologize and try to change, it’s been to dig in. His response to trouble has been to give Canadians more Stephen Harper, more unapologetic, more belligerent. More insistent on talking about the economy when everyone else wants to talk about the scandal. More brazen in his parliamentary trickery. It may not save him, but it’s a better way to go down. If he loses, he’ll at least be able to say he lost it his way, rather than trying to pass himself off as some cuddly guy that he’s just not.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.