On a normal day, Stephen Harper would arrive at the office at around 8:30 a.m., after dropping the kids off at school. A bit later, the Prime Minister, a man, said David Emerson, "who could say No better than anyone I'd ever met," would step into a boardroom for the meeting that set the marching orders for the day.
At that instant, his staff got a clue of his mood. Was he weighed down by one of his deep and brooding resentments? Was he eager, his hard gaze focused on a challenge to surmount? Or was there something else that stirred him?
Seldom did Harper make introductory remarks. An adviser handed him the issues report, which also contained the daily press briefing. It reviewed major developments and sorted out which points to put to the boss. The key was to nail things down, said Bruce Carson, who was then a senior policy adviser. If you were all over the map, the PM could turn ugly.
'HE'D BLOW A GASKET'
At the main meeting, communications strategist Keith Beardsley gave the issues report, summarizing, among other things, recent media coverage. On bad-news days, some staffers argued in the pre-meeting to keep the worst of it hidden from Harper. Why put him in one of his funks? But most often the decision was made to give him the straight goods. "In some cases he'd blow a gasket," Beardsley recalled. "And others it would be like, 'Well, same old critics. They're never going to change.' "
Occasionally, Harper would sit down and say, "I'm thinking of doing this," and await reaction. If it was negative, he sometimes put his foot down and advisers would back off: Often, though, he'd come back later and say, "What about if we change it and do it this way?" The Prime Minister liked to be challenged, but only with specific counterpoints, not generalities. During a purge in his opposition days, he kept Beardsley because he was one of the few who would take him on.
At the morning meeting, the press briefing was a central focus. It started with the most-watched television programs, and proceeded in descending order of importance. The print journalists were typically last. Although Harper maintained that he didn't pay much attention to the media, his staff didn't believe it. They could often tell by his responses that he'd read the article or seen the report they were discussing.
Around the meeting table, few were eager to butt heads with Harper. Usually the task was left to senior advisers like Carson, who would start in softly by saying, "Geez, Prime Minister, I'm not sure … ." When it was most tense was when the advisers were all agreed on one strategy and the PM wanted to go another way. He could be loud and foul-mouthed, but to Carson, that was no different from other leaders he had worked with. "If he got pissed off, he got pissed off and he would certainly let you know he was pissed off. But this is not the guy in the Li'l Abner cartoon with the cloud hanging over his head."
Carson once made the mistake of trying to say something positive about the CBC. He suggested that the government intervene to prevent the network from losing its broadcast rights to the Hockey Night in Canada theme song. He argued that since the song was like a second national anthem, something should be done. "Well," Carson recalled, "to say I got my ass handed to me is a mild way of putting it."
Unlike leaders who prefer issues to be boiled down for them, Harper wanted details. He did his homework, reading studies and briefing papers thoroughly. Members of his staff were sometimes amazed at the amount of detail Harper absorbed. Senator Marjory LeBreton approached Carson after one of the meetings and exclaimed, "Jesus, Bruce. He even reads the annex items!"
On a daily basis, Harper received several reports from the Privy Council Office. Staffers there got them sent back with comments and instructions. Sometimes he was blunt. On one PCO report, he wrote, "This is bullshit!," underlined it, and provided marching orders.
After the senior staff meeting, the PM usually met with the Clerk of the Privy Council, the country's top civil servant. For the first few months, Alex Himelfarb remained in the post before being replaced by Kevin Lynch. These meetings were marathon affairs that regularly went on for three or four hours at a stretch when the House wasn't sitting.
Harper's specialty was economics, as was Lynch's. Harper wasn't an economist, but he often went deeply into the intricacies of finance. "He drove the witches and warlocks of Finance to distraction with his ever more technical questions about their craft," recalled an adviser.
Hugely intricate matters fascinated Harper. Said the adviser: "The PM probably spent hundreds of hours - I'm not exaggerating - working out the details of the fiscal-balance package."
Following the morning meetings, Harper didn't return home for lunch. He wanted to devote maximum time to getting ready for Question Period. The PM went to the extent of convening a full cabinet meeting every day beforehand, having already discussed possible questions at the morning staff meeting. As well, he'd already had a separate QP briefing with Beardsley, who gave him a book with suggested responses to a wide variety of questions.
But the big preparatory session was when the full cabinet met for a dress rehearsal. For other prime ministers, a prep session from the press secretary and a couple of aides had sufficed.
READY FOR PRIME TIME?
As opposition leader, Harper had gathered his shadow cabinet together before each Question Period and found that it helped. And so, Bruce Carson thought, why not do it while in government as well? "I was so terrified that we weren't ready for prime time," he recalled. The PM agreed. No one in the media found out about the daily cabinet meetings until well into his tenure.
Initially, it was Beardsley who quarterbacked these meetings. "I had free rein," he said. "I'd throw the question out and the PM would be sitting there watching. And if the minister wasn't prepared, Harper knew it." The ministers had their own briefing books with preset answers. "But the last thing they wanted to do was to be frantically looking through their books with the Prime Minister staring at them." When an iffy answer was given, Beardsley would look over at Harper with raised eyebrows, as if to say, "What do you think?" And Harper, he recalled, "would just shake his head like 'That's no damn good.' "
For Trade Minister David Emerson, the cabinet member who had crossed the floor, it was eye-opening stuff. "You'd go through a dry run as to what was going to be said," he explained, "and the Prime Minister himself would intervene regularly to shape someone's response to an issue. And the discipline was amazing." So were the results. The prep session was remarkably accurate in forecasting what would be asked during Question Period. "You'd probably capture 90 per cent of what was coming," Emerson said.
It was such a contrast to the environment he had encountered in the Martin government, where the discipline, he said, wasn't half what it was under Harper. Emerson was new to politics when he entered the Martin cabinet and could have used some tutelage. But "it was kind of chaotic. … There really wasn't much guidance and support in terms of Question Period." He liked the new way because it gave him access to Harper every day the House of Commons was in session.
On days when he was in a good mood, Harper delighted colleagues at these meetings. He had considerable talent as an impersonator and sometimes mimicked opposition members, doing impressions of them asking the questions. His show eased tensions, producing rounds of laughter. And this pre-Question Period session had other uses. Sometimes issues were hashed out as if it were a regular cabinet meeting. It gave ministers more chance to show their mettle and the Prime Minister more opportunity to assess the effectiveness of the players on his team.
It was clear from the start, however, that all the prepping was not intended to produce candid answers to opposition queries. The strategy was not to reveal information but to shield it and counterattack.
The Liberal record gave the Conservatives ample ammunition. Harper's cabinet had documented Liberal failures on every conceivable issue. On some days, the Tories turned almost every opposition question into a counterblast. All governments had used this tactic, but it soon became apparent that this government would exceed all others. The Conservatives didn't mind looking evasive. They didn't mind if it looked intellectually infantile to defend their own inadequacies by pointing to the inadequacies of others.
But Harper himself gave more straightforward responses than most of his ministers. Advisers found that he wasn't intimidated by Question Period because he was good at it.
Question Period ended at 3 p.m. Now came the post-game review. PMO staff always monitored the performance on television, and once the session was finished, Harper would huddle with the group, which usually consisted of Bruce Carson, Keith Beardsley, Sandra Buckler and one other, often Dimitri Soudas, a young aide who had a close relationship with the PM and was capable of being frank with him. The Prime Minister would ask how it went, how he came across, how the others did. Harper, they found, was one of his own worst critics.
Usually he worked until about 6:30 p.m., but he often liked to linger, reading reports, discussing the day with advisers, while downing Chinese food by the carton. His junk-food addiction had slowed somewhat. As Prime Minister, he couldn't be seen lining up at Harvey's as he sometimes had as opposition leader. These evening sessions were the ones Harper's team enjoyed the most. Often issues were debated at length, leaving staffers bleary-eyed the next morning.
But Harper would get more personal in the evenings. His dry sense of humour would surface, and aides saw a side of him they wished the public could see. And there was hockey talk, always hockey talk. No one, it was said, could challenge Lester Pearson on baseball stats, and no one could challenge Stephen Harper on hockey stats.
THE SHY HOCKEY DAD
Some nights, it was off to the arena to watch his son, Ben, a good player, in action on the left wing. At the rink, he often ran across Paul Dewar, the NDP's foreign affairs critic, whose boy, Nathaniel, played on the same team on the right side. Dewar was struck, especially at their initial meetings, by Harper's social shyness, his quiet, restrained way.
The Prime Minister followed his son intently but would seldom shout out encouragement, leaving that to the extrovert in the family, his wife, Laureen. And work was never far from his mind. During one game at Brewer Park, a small rink with hardly any viewing capacity, he sought out Dewar and presented him with an envelope. It contained the government's proposal for Senate reform. He wanted Dewar to have a look.
In the House of Commons one day before Question Period, Dewar went to his seat and was told by colleagues that the Prime Minister had just come by and left him something in an envelope. It was a picture of Dewar's son in a game with Ben. For the New Democrat, seeing Stephen Harper in the hockey environs was to see someone who looked reluctant, almost timid - a quiet hockey dad hoping his son would do well.
Dewar had a difficult time believing that this was the same man who, in a different arena, had a killer instinct few leaders could match.
Excerpted from Harperland, by Lawrence Martin, published by Viking Canada.
Lawrence Martin is a political columnist for The Globe and Mail.