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The Globe and Mail

The secret(s) of Stephen Harper's success

In December 2000, I wrote an open letter to Stephen Harper in the National Post, urging him to get over his funk and get on with the job of uniting the centre-right. In particular, I challenged his assessment, delivered a week previously in the same paper, that Stockwell Day's recent election defeat had been a rejection of Alberta. The letter concluded with an exhortation that he had it in him to become the third Western Canadian to occupy the office of prime minister - under the PC brand, to be sure.

The rest, as they say, is history.

In today's Globe and Mail, Mr Harper is recognized as the top dog of the decade in Canadian politics for having stuck with federal politics, not retreated to Alberta and ending up as prime minister. But, as we all know, Mr. Harper is still struggling to secure a majority government.

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What I saw in Stephen Harper at the beginning of this decade is what I still see in him - a chap who, though unlikely to resonate with the majority of Quebeckers, is an exemplar of middle class English-speaking Canada. And, who - besides all his other qualities - could withstand Liberal assaults to brand him as some kind of fanatic, as they had done to Stockwell Day.

Educated in Canada - in public schools and in public universities - and whip smart, you'll never catch him exhibiting the kind of intellectual arrogance that is part of Michael Ignatieff's problem connecting with voters.

Not to speak of the snobbery of another son of a diplomat, Yann Martel, who - educated in private schools at your expense and mine - thinks it's a hoot to be advising the Prime Minister of Canada what he should be reading. So do some in the media, which explains in part why Mr. Harper's supporters are contemptuous of many journalists and don't believe what they see and read in reports from Ottawa.

Mr. Harper has been particularly careful not to alienate his political base. In the U.S., President Barack Obama is at odds with his most motivated supporters on such major issues as health care and the Afghanistan war. Mr. Harper is refusing to call a public inquiry into the detainees issue because, though it is the right thing to do, it carries a high risk of alienating his political base - which strongly supports the Canadian military.

From that issue we see some of the other secrets of Mr. Harper's success. While a plurality of Canadians believe the military's version of events, a majority of Canadians have not even heard of the issue, notwithstanding the heavy media coverage. And, while the government is not believed in this matter, the Liberals and the New Democrats are scarcely more credible on this issue than they were on the swine flu "crisis".

That said, notwithstanding the productive record of past minority governments, the majority of Canadians do not believe that Parliament is working well today. And, one major reason is that Mr. Harper's positioning on the right of the Canadian political spectrum means that he is unable to form a working arrangement with any of the other parties, other than when one of them fears going to the polls.

Though the gains in his standing this year have been impressive - much as are economic growth numbers when a country emerges from a deep recession - Mr. Harper is basically back where he was in public opinion before the coalition crisis of last year.

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To be fair, it's doubtful that any party can secure a majority government with the Bloc still strong in Québec and now that the political centre-right is reunited. However, as we enter a new decade, Mr. Harper, who has prevented Canada from becoming a one-party state, is still trying. And the opposition parties are now in the same position as the right was at the beginning of the decade struggling to find a way to forge some kind of unity to overcome the inherent constraints of our first-past-the-post electoral system.

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