Political commentator Paul Wells on Stephen Harper

Stephen Harper was first elected as prime minister in 2006. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

First aired on The Current (22/10/13)

Updated (03/04/14):

Veteran political journalist Paul Wells has won the $25,000 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for his book The Longer I'm Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada. The jury called the book a "viscerally funny and often biting" portrait of the prime minister without being "partisan or unfair." Below is a write-up of an interview Wells did on The Current back when it was released last October.

"He's the most right-wing prime minister in my lifetime."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper isn't just out to keep his Progressive Conservatives in power on Parliament Hill, according to Paul Wells. In The Longer I'm Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, the veteran political commentator and author argues that Harper wants to ensure that conservative political values are firmly entrenched in Canada in the long term. In a recent interview, Wells spoke to The Current about his book and his impressions of the PM.

Harper "didn't want to be another flash-in-the-pan Conservative" who sees his initiatives undone by Liberal successors after he leaves office, Wells said. "He wanted to get the Canadians used to the notion of a Conservative prime minister by being one for a long time."

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Wells started covering federal politics in 1994, when Harper was the Reform Party's national unity critic. His impression of Harper at the time was that he was low key but insightful. What stands out most about him is that he's "a real conservative." In contrast, Brian Mulroney's background and concerns resembled those of Pierre Trudeau. "Stephen Harper comes from a rejection of Mulroneyism and a sense that the resource-developing West is the heart of the country and has to be allowed the room to do what it needs to do, which is to provide richness and prosperity for the rest of the country."

He's also conservative on social issues. "He's the most right-wing prime minister in my lifetime," Wells said. "And yet he's awesomely disciplined." Though he makes clear to right-wing supporters that he can be counted on, he's also "careful not to do anything to upset his broader appeal."

Critics have accused Harper of being an ideologue, but Wells points out that he has been willing to bend on issues if it serves his political purpose. As an example, Wells cited the pro-life/abortion debate. After seeing the Reform Party soundly defeated in 2008 because of pro-life MPs who had questioned a woman's right to choose, Harper won't allow the debate to be re-opened, and he has become "the most ardent and passionate advocate of abortion rights in the Conservative Party behind closed doors" simply because he doesn't want that one issue to ruin everything else.

Similarly, he's changed tack in his relations with Quebec over time. "He will bend himself into a pretzel if it will advance a broader Conservative agenda," Wells said. He's also adopted a "go slow" approach to disarm critics.

Wells noted that Harper's championing of the free trade deal with the European Union has been to his advantage. Negotiations were led by former Quebec premier Jean Charest, and Harper himself didn't get involved until recently. "There was very little political downside to failure, and yet he gets to reap all of the upside of success, " Wells said.

He went on to characterize the PM as "a pragmatist in his means" with "strong convictions" that are far to the right of predecessors like Mulroney or Diefenbaker. At the same time, Harper "doesn't believe that his personal convictions are the pulse of the nation," Wells said. "He understands that it's a conversation, and he is willing to concede what he needs to concede to keep the ball rolling."

Harper is known to be very controlling in how he handles the Conservative caucus. When he was a member of the Reform Party, he leaked his criticisms of leader Preston Manning to friendly reporters. Now that he's in power, he's made sure that no one can play that role in his government. "My hunch is that when it finally does end for Harper, in five years, in 50 years, whenever, he'll be alone," Wells said, adding that "the legacy of that time he spent building walls to protect himself" will be "walls that he can't reach past."

Wells pointed out that Harper does have a constituency that shares his conservative values. "Where he comes from, people have been voting for Conservatives for the last 15 federal elections in a row," he said. But is the PM "better at winning elections" than his opponents because of his own qualities or because of the opposition's failings? Wells acknowledged that it can't be predicted what will happen in the 2015 election, but believes "he's in a tougher fight than he was until now."

Moreover, Harper's government has been confronted with a series of political scandals, including the ongoing Senate scandal. According to Wells, the PM has been hurt more by things within his party than by any opposition figure.

In Wells' view, Harper's long term goal "is to hold transfers to individuals, pensions and the like, and to provinces, for health care, steady and in fact to grow those transfers over time, while the direct spending of the federal government as a portion of GDP declines over time." So in recent budgets, and at least the next couple to come, "you have announcements of billions of dollars to the day-to-day operations of the federal government."

Wells suggests that when there is a balanced budget, Harper's approach to dealing with any surplus will be to announce massive tax cuts, in keeping with his belief that "Canadians actually would prefer less government to more." As for how lasting his legacy will be in the political landscape of Canada, Wells noted that "the test of Harperism begins after he's done being prime minister."

Listen to the whole interview in the audio player above.

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