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Prime Minister Stephen Harper gestures while answering questions during the joint statement with Philippine President Benigno Aquino at the presidential palace in Manila November 10, 2012. Mr. Harper arrived in Manila on Friday for a three-day visit. (ROMEO RANOCO/Reuters)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper gestures while answering questions during the joint statement with Philippine President Benigno Aquino at the presidential palace in Manila November 10, 2012. Mr. Harper arrived in Manila on Friday for a three-day visit.

(ROMEO RANOCO/Reuters)

In Asia, Harper displays his better side Add to ...

For much of his career in politics, Stephen Harper has been accused of having a concealed plan to bend the country to his will. His worst critics cast him as Dr. Evil, complete with Mr. Bigglesworth, but without the laughs.

As over the top as some of the attacks are, he hasn’t always gone out of his way to blunt them. In the past, PMO strategy has been to treat the media with suspicion on a good day, hostility the rest of the time. Mr. Harper himself is not terribly loquacious, despite being in a business where talking is like breathing.

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But lately, including in the closing hours of the Prime Minister’s trip this week, there have been a few signs of a different approach emerging.

People who know Mr. Harper well (I’m not one) talk about how smart he is, how strong a grasp he has on complex policy files. But for one reason or another, he has infrequently allowed voters to see that part of him. In contrast, his partisanship is often on display, which has fed the argument that he cares more about beating his opponents than leading the country.

In a revealing interview with The Globe’s Steven Chase, Mr. Harper talked about some of the things his government is thinking about and trying to accomplish.

Regarding China, he observes that rapid economic gains without rising political freedoms will increase tensions in that country, with consequences that are both hard to predict and potentially important for the rest of the world. He leaves the impression of someone who is curious, attentive and strategic.

Mr. Harper’s more detailed comments were about immigration policy, the scope of the changes he has been making and the reasons why he thinks they are important for Canada. Naturally, voters will not all agree with what he has to say.

But, whether you like his thinking on this issue or not, there’s no mistaking where he’s coming from. He believes it’s critical that Canada compete for immigrants who can help our economy grow, especially given our own shifting demographics. He describes policy shifts that seem coherent, disciplined, and consistent with meeting this objective.

Mr. Harper at his best stands out from many politicians in that he’s not afraid you might disagree with him. At his worst, he seems like he doesn’t care what you think.

But, with interviews such as this one, as with one he gave to Peter Mansbridge this summer, the PM looks like he wants to present his case and win your confidence.

The reality is that many voters tune out Canadian politics because the bulk of what is said is either over the top bombast, faux rage, or softened up, watered down, polished, neutered, colourless and odourless.

If he continues in this direction, Mr. Harper will be challenging his opponents to a different kind of fight, one they may not have been expecting, and will find more demanding.

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