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Stephen Harper tries to break new ground again

Stephen Harper waves from his campaign bus upon his arrival in Val D'Or, Que., during the 2008 election campaign.

Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press

As a general proposition, after a burst of initial reformism governments try to be reasonable for the first two or three years of their mandate, and then go into "political mode" perhaps 12 months before an anticipated election.

Clashes with opposition parties sharpen. Ministers spend more time on the road. The announcement calendar blends into the pre-campaign tour and then into the campaign tour. And, often, the leader's office spins off some of its policy wonks and brings in some warriors whose focus will be the coming battle.

One of the oddities of the Harper government is that it is running through this cycle in reverse.

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After the 2008 election, Stephen Harper populated his office with a senior staff who appear to have pandered to his worst partisan instincts - focusing the government on red meat gestures to its base, stunts in Parliament, and existential attacks on opposition parties. Irresponsibly and to their lasting discredit, they did this at a time when Canada was threatened by a global economic meltdown that called for prudence, co-operation with other parties, and a focus on good public policy.

In making these fundamental mistakes - which have continued into this week, with the government foolishly focusing national politics on the gun registry - Mr. Harper may well have thrown away his chance to grow his party beyond its base.

So now, in what is increasingly clearly looking like a pre-election period, Mr. Harper is jettisoning a hyper-political, red-meat senior staff warrior in favour of a player who is talked about as more prudent, reasonable and focused on good public policy.

Nothing wrong with that. Except that it is two years late, and upside down.

If management is the art of getting things done through other people, then Mr. Harper seems to be lacking one of the key skills of any good Prime Minister/CEO/leader - the ability to pick the right people, in the right roles, to fit the right circumstances.

But perhaps there is method to this. Perhaps it is about optics - part of an overall image makeover, at one with the friendly-looking glasses and the dance moves.

When Mr. Harper starts wearing his blue sweater too, we'll know it's time to book the plane.

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