When I read the opening words of this new biography of Stephen Harper, "He is a lion in autumn, weaker than in his prime, but still a force of nature" – I figured this might be a difficult slog through a fawning exercise in neo-conservative iconography. John Ibbitson's book is fulsome enough, and as always with Ibbitson, supremely self-confident in its sweeping opinions and dismissals of other points of view, but it does contain some important insights into the life and times of Canada's current Prime Minister.
Ibbitson is best known for his supportive apologia for Mike Harris's government in Ontario and his co-authorship with Darrell Bricker of an account of how a conservative majority is now built into our changing demography and political opinions. Since I have taken issue with both books elsewhere, it would be easy for me to dismiss this later effort as simply another well-written but scarcely concealed exercise in iconography.
Yes, the book repeats the themes of those earlier efforts. The "Laurentian elites" are dragged out for yet another ritual flogging. The "Harper revolution" is permanent and can never be undone. For all his flaws, we are told, his successes and achievements justify the ruthless means. Ibbitson is a fan of the core of the Harper agenda and so attempts to put the most positive gloss on its shortcomings. He is a sophisticated and intelligent cheerleader.
But for those tired of the ritual denunciations of Harper and his bullying, his deep authoritarian streak, the way he throws even long-standing friends and supporters under the bus, Ibbitson has given us some insight into the character of Stephen Harper and the party and government he has built over 30 years in politics.
With the increased coverage of each of the leaders during an election, these insights are valuable. Ibbitson is wrong when he suggests Harper's "revolution" is permanent and unchangeable. Governments come and go, and new people have new ideas and programs. Nor is he right when he suggests that demography points inevitably to a more conservative Canada. Rachel Notley's election in Alberta should surely give some pause to that theory. Most Canadians value a stronger federal role in health care and social policy, and as western cities become more diverse ethnically and culturally, they will become more competitive battle grounds between all three parties. A majority of the Canadian population still lives in Quebec and Ontario. That fact, more than the "Laurentian elites," explains why voters in those provinces have so much to say about the outcome of federal elections.
Harper emerges from Ibbitson's pages as a shrewd disciplined politician who values his privacy and is prepared to go to great lengths to hang on to power. He dislikes the Charter of Rights, the Supreme Court of Canada, the media, opposition leaders and their parties, and people who don't share his approach and philosophy. He needs to be in control and in charge, and has difficulty accepting authority. He shares jokes with his friends, enjoys Seinfeld and old episodes of The Twilight Zone, has a happy private life and plays the piano.
The book also provides valuable details on Harper's difficult relationships with both Preston Manning and Tom Flanagan, and how both temperament and philosophy set him apart. The right has had difficult internal battles, which may well re-emerge if the election does not go the way Harper wants.
Ibbitson is not afraid to point out where Harper has gone astray, particularly in his browbeating of Parliament and his fight with the Chief Justice of Canada. These are not expressions of a coherent conservative philosophy, but rather reflect a pique at not being able to have his own way. His authoritarianism and need to control are the least appealing sides of his personality, Ibbitson argues, and at times lead him to make blunders that are unpopular with the Canadian public.
Harper and his government have had a good deal of analysis and criticism, from Paul Wells to Michael Harris, and Ibbitson's account adds good value to the mix. One can disagree with his perspective and savour the nuggets of insight. I had not known about Harper's love of the original Twilight Zone, which I share. One episode comes to mind. A spaceship lands and appears to be led by friendly people who have a book they are sharing called To Serve Man. They encourage the people they are meeting to come on board the spaceship to visit their planet. As the doors of the spaceship close for the voyage, the code to the book is finally broken. It's a cookbook. I suppose the same might be said about the Conservative election platform. Only time will tell whether Canadians decide to go along for the ride one more time.
Bob Rae is a partner with Olthuis Kleer Townshend and teaches at the University of Toronto. He served as 21st premier of Ontario and interim leader of the federal Liberal Party.