Eight years in office have honed Stephen Harper's survival skills

It will be eight years tomorrow since Stephen Harper's Conservatives won office. And while his chokehold on power may be slipping, Chris Hall writes, he hasn't lost his grip.

Don't write the PM off, he has learned how to tilt to the unexpected

National Affairs Editor Chris Hall looks back on the Harper years and forward to what might be ahead for him. 10:31

It will be eight years tomorrow since Stephen Harper's Conservatives won office. And while his chokehold on power may be slipping, he hasn't lost his grip.

Polls suggest Conservative support is down as much as 10 percentage points since the 2011 election, meaning it is well out of majority range.

The Senate scandal isn't over. Critics are getting more air time to push their view that Harper is too doctrinaire, too bloody-minded, hell, just too plain mean to last much longer.

Moving more comfortably on the world stage, a confident Prime Minister Stephen Harper joins Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint news conference in Jerusalem earlier this week during a full-scale state visit. (Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
And yet those who have worked closely with Harper, who have followed his time in office, insist he isn't going anywhere because being prime minister of Canada is the only job to which he has ever aspired.

"This is somebody who takes governing very, very seriously,'' says Michele Austin, a former Harper adviser and chief of staff to two Conservative cabinet ministers, who now works at the government relations firm Summa Strategies.

"I mean being prime minister is what Stephen was meant for.''

Columnist Paul Wells concurs. He is the author of the recently released history The Longer I'm Prime Minister, which chronicles Harper's years in government.

In Wells' view, everything Harper's done since 2006 is intended to consolidate his hold on power.

"The main point is to endure. Not to last for the sake of lasting… [but] to implement a Conservative change in the political culture of the country," Wells says.

"And if that means doing something Liberal today so that he can do more Conservative things tomorrow, it is fine with him.''

He does make mistakes

It's not that Harper is an especially canny politician. Or that he possesses uncanny political instincts. He makes mistakes. But he seems to learn from them.

Look at his time in government. It's been a slow dance of so many small steps that only Canadians with two left feet can't follow his lead.

"Some governments spend the whole time on the show business side of politics, telling people how well they are doing and making people love them,'' says political strategist Rick Anderson, who played a key role in the nascent days of the Reform Party.

"And I think those kinds of governments get to the end of the road faster than the kind of government Prime Minister Harper is leading, which really does hunker down and do the hard work of governing between elections.''

That hard work, mind you, probably has less to do with governing than it does with positioning, including the constant refining of what it means to be a Conservative, the relentless raising of funds and the constant reshaping of Harper's own image to keep his hold on power.

Canadians, many of them Conservative supporters, take part in an Anti-Coalition rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in December 2008, in the biggest parliamentary crisis in the early Harper years. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

Consider that he's ruled out any re-opening of the abortion debate so long as he is prime minister, over the repeated objections of social conservatives inside his party and his own caucus.

Remember December 2008 when, in the midst of a global economic meltdown, Harper chose the blatantly partisan route of stripping political parties of public subsidies rather than increasing government spending to create jobs.

The next day the Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition was born. Harper faced certain defeat, forcing him to go cap in hand to the governor general to prorogue Parliament to allow him the time to attack the coalition.

When the sitting resumed, he'd not only jettisoned the financing change, but brought in billions of dollars in stimulus spending to buy the support of the Liberals.

Closed chapters

Throughout these eight years, Harper has repeatedly tilted to the unexpected.

He invested billions of taxpayers' money to keep General Motors alive, all the while insisting it's not the job of government to pick winners and losers.

He recognized the Quebecois as a nation "within a united Canada," burying a motion by then Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe that had neglected those last four words.

He stood in the Commons to deliver an historic apology to those sent to Indian residential schools. And he reversed his pledge not to tax income trusts.

Anderson says those measures were not part of Harper's DNA, and not part of the Reform-based Conservative platform.

"These are not necessarily the things that you would have predicted 10 years earlier that Prime Minister Harper would be doing, but he adapted," Anderson argues.

"He understood that people wanted them done, he wanted those chapters closed and to move forward."

So what now?

Now, Wells predicts, Harper is entering "a period of considerable turbulence" leading up to the next election campaign in 2015.

"Few prime ministers have lasted longer than nine years. And there's reason for that, people just get tired, they decide it is time for a change, internal dissent."

Is this prime minister, eight years in office and halfway through his first majority government, capable of reinventing the Conservative brand?

The answer is a resounding "maybe," if you consider returning to the themes that Harper first laid out in 2006 as change.

"There's no doubt the last year was challenging with the Senate scandal,'' says Conservative MP Michael Chong. The point now has to be "renewed focus on the economy. Everything else is secondary.''

"I think the goal over the next two years is to win in 2015, to allow him to continue with the original plan of economic growth and reducing spending,'' says Michele Austin. ''I think that this pragmatic approach to government, these small steps are allowing him to hold on to power.''

And then there's the question of Harper's own future.

Stephen Harper then and now, in late 2006, just before the election that leapt his party past the Liberals, and (right) in December 2013, fending off opposition questions about the Senate scandal. (Reuters)

The Conservative brand is inextricably tied to Harper's. Insiders say he's the reason the Conservatives racked up three straight election wins, increasing their support each time.

"I think every successful leader adapts to obstacles thrown in their way,'' says Conservative MP John Williamson, who also spent time as Harper's director of communications.

"There have been some distractions when you look back at 2013, but when you look at our economic record and how things are falling into place for 2015 in terms of the budget, tax relief and the economy, we are on track to be very competitive.''

Paul Wells isn't ruling anything out either. He compares Harper to other long-serving prime ministers such as Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien, neither of whom left office in defeat. He predicts Harper won't either.

"Every six months since he became the Canadian Alliance leader someone has written him off," Wells says.

"And there's all these premature autopsies and he keeps on forgetting to show up to the funeral.''

In other words, he will stay as long as he can win. He will leave if, and only if, it's clear he can't.

Harper's grip might be slipping. But he'll never make the mistake of letting go.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.


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