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‘Enemies’ list memo tells us fervour often trumps pragmatism in Harper’s government

Members of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet applause as he walk in to the room during a group photo July 15, 2013 at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

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The "enemies list" memo reminds us that the Harper government remains – in its own mind as well as in the minds of its critics – the most ideological federal government this country has ever had.

And it tells us something else: that in a Prime Minister's Office driven by both fervour and pragmatism, the former often trumps the latter in the most self-defeating ways.

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Some will take issue with the notion that previous Liberal and Conservative governments weren't ideological – after all, everything in politics is. But John Chretien and Brian Mulroney and Pierre Trudeau and even John Diefenbaker didn't self-identify as ideologues and were not viewed as ideologues by most dispassionate observers. The Harper government is different.

It is rooted in a part of the country – the West – that has been traditionally excluded from power. It sees itself in constant conflict with a liberal, Laurentian elite used to governing by consensus and determined to return to power – and to restore that consensus – at the earliest opportunity.

Destroying the power of that Laurentian elite and making Canada fundamentally, if incrementally, a more conservative country is the life mission of Stephen Harper and those who serve under him.

That is why the Conservatives see themselves in a constant state of siege: with the federal bureaucracy, with the press gallery and with assorted interests groups that batter constantly at the gates.

Hence the secret directive from the PMO to departmental staff to prepare a list for incoming ministers of "pet bureaucratic projects ... bureaucrats that can't take no (or yes) for an answer" and "friend and enemy stakeholders."

That someone in the bureaucracy (or so the covering letter indicates) leaked the directive to the press gallery demonstrates that, to paraphrase Henry Kissenger, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

But the Conservatives also have a government to run, which means working with the bureaucracy rather than simply cauterizing it, and communicating through the press gallery rather than simply going around it. And the Prime Minister's Office, just like the Prime Minister himself, is about administration as well as ideology.

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It's a mistake to divide the PMO staffers into administrative and ideological camps: in fact there is an ideological and administrative component to every position. But while Nigel Wright was chief of staff, the general perception – at least from the outside – was that the business of running the government took precedence over the war against political enemies.

If that's true, then his forced departure over the Senate expenses scandal may have sent the administrative tendency into retreat and brought the ideological tendency to the fore.

The problem with that is, of course, that ideology is self-defeating. People don't vote Liberal or Conservative. They vote Competent and Trustworthy.

The Harper government may, indeed, be under siege by the bureaucracy and the media, or at least elements of both. But if it succumbs to a siege mentality, then voters will surely look elsewhere in the next election.

Though this lesson appears lost on those who like to draw up enemies lists –including the Prime Minister's advisors, and perhaps the Prime Minister himself.

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