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Jeffrey Simpson
Jeffrey Simpson

Jeffrey Simpson

The loneliest of all prime ministers Add to ...

Prime ministers are always alone. Although surrounded by ministers and aides and civil servants, and cheered on by partisan crowds, they are ultimately alone at the top.

On their shoulders does the political fate of the government repose. On their decisions is the shape of the government determined. On their personalities and preferences are priorities established.

Prime ministers are not first among equals. They are first, period. It has always been this way.

Being first and being alone should not mean being unchallenged. Inside the cabinet and the prime minister’s staff there should be strong people in their own right who can tell a prime minister he or she might be wrong, or should think about something he or she had forgotten, someone who can push back, sometimes hard, and not be afraid.

What distinguishes the current federal government is the weakening of the push back around the Prime Minister. It was never very strong; now it has all but vanished.

John Baird, the former foreign minister, had a certain push back capacity. So did the late Jim Flaherty at Finance. Certainly Jim Prentice, the minister of a lot of things, did in earlier times as the de facto deputy prime minister. Of course like all ministers, they respected prime ministerial power and authority. They could push only to a point, especially with someone as domineering as Stephen Harper.

They are all gone. It would be hard to identify anyone in cabinet or on staff with the possible exception of the new Defence Minister Jason Kenney who might have the gumption and standing to push back.

It was not always this way in recent decades, even with strong prime ministers.

Prime minister Pierre Trudeau, formidable to say the least, had around him people such as Gérard Pelletier, Jean Marchand, Marc Lalonde, Allan J. MacEachen, Donald S. Macdonald, John Turner (for a time), staffers such as Jim Coutts and Ivan Head and advisers such as Keith Davey and Martin Goldfarb. Each was formidable. Of course they were all pro-Trudeau and did his bidding when decisions were made, but they could and did push back from time to time.

Prime minister Brian Mulroney had a no-nonsense chief-of staff in Derek Burney, and talented ministers such as Don Mazankowski, Michael Wilson, John Crosbie, Lucien Bouchard (for a little while) and Lowell Murray, among others, and Paul Tellier, as cabinet secretary for seven years.

Prime minister Jean Chrétien had ministers such as Paul Martin (with whom he had a sometimes conflictual relationship) and Lloyd Axworthy, and a very powerful chief-of-staff in Jean Pelletier.

It’s hard to think about any cadre of similar people in the Harper government, so completely dominant is the Prime Minister over this government. The new Foreign Minister Rob Nicholson is known as someone with steady hands, but no independent standing. Peter MacKay, the Justice Minister, is not regarded as Mr. Harper’s intellectual or political equal. Nigel Wright, the former chief-of-staff who didn’t grow up politically as a Harper aide, seemed to be able to push back occasionally. But he is gone, too.

The Conservatives have even developed a strategy, on display this week, whereby the Prime Minister replaces what used to be responsibilities of the Governor-General, the representative of Canada’s head of state. Early on, Mr. Harper asked Mr. Baird to think of ways of associating the Prime Minister with national awards. Since then, new awards with the Prime Minister’s title attached to them were created.

Last week, 50 flags were given to distinguished Canadians to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Canadian flag. Since the flag is a national, not political, symbol it might have been thought that the awards would be in the name of the Governor-General. Instead, the Prime Minister announced them.

Almost all (there have been exceptions) the important announcements in this government are made by the Prime Minister. Ministers tend to be in the wings, not in a portion of the limelight.

Inside the government, Mr. Harper is such a formidable and private person that not many people summon the courage to challenge him. Outside the government, he doesn’t have the network of friends that previous prime ministers did to tell him casually how things look.

He is the loneliest of all prime ministers.

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