Stephen Harper: On a quest for a majority

Stephen Harper heads into the 2011 election as the record holder for longest-running minority government. After more than five years in office, will voters trust him enough to give him a majority?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds to a question in the House of Commons, March 9, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press )

Stephen Harper heads into the 2011 election as the record holder for leading Canada's longest-running minority government. But after more than five years in office, will voters trust him and his party enough to give them a majority?

His critics cast him as controlling and anti-democtratic. Others say he's concerned enough with staying in power that he’s abandoned some of his earlier, more conservative beliefs in favour of pragmatism and incremental change.

Under him, the Conservatives have mastered the art of retail politics, in the process overruling two foreign takeovers — after enormous public backlash — despite campaigning as free marketers. As well, his time in office has seen Canada return to deficit spending as it took steps to withstand a global recession.

His economic polices have even drawn the ire of the National Citizens’ Coalition that he used to head.

But whatever insiders and opponents say, it’s up to voters to decide whether he’ll return to the House of Commons with the majority he’s been fighting for since 2002.

Vital Signs

Born: April 30, 1959, in Toronto.

First elected to Parliament: 1993-97; 2002-

Profession: Economist, lobbyist (former head of the National Citizens Coalition); BA and MA in economics from the University of Calgary.

Personal stuff: Married Laureen Teskey in 1993; two teenage children, Benjamin and Rachel. An avid music and hockey fan who is writing a book about the history of the game.

He won his first minority government by defeating Paul Martin's minority government in 2006.

Then, two and two-and-a-half years later — and despite having legislated a fixed election date that was still off in the future — Harper went to Rideau Hall to ask for an election, saying the opposition had created a dysfunctional Parliament that was paralyzed into inaction.

However, just seven weeks after winning a second, stronger minority in October 2008, Harper stood again outside then-governor general Michaëlle Jean's official resident to announce she had given her blessing to his request to suspend Parliament for nearly two months. 

That move essentially saved his government from falling at the hands of a Liberal-NDP coalition backed by the Bloc Québécois.

Since then, Harper has battled tooth and nail against an opposition that outnumbers his own MPs and a civil service his government has taken pains to force into line.

A policy wonk

Harper himself would tell you he's a prime example of policy over pizzazz. "My strengths are not spin or passion, you know that," Harper said repeatedly in the closing weeks of the 2005-06 general election campaign. "I believe it's better to light one candle than to promise a million light bulbs."

He has also, however, shown a strong hand in managing his caucus and a keen partisanship, taking frequent opportunities as prime minister to marshal his message and slam the Liberals.

It's that frame of mind that almost led to his downfall after the 2008 election, his critics say.

Harper's Conservatives attempted to cut taxpayer-funded party financing, which his opponents were more reliant on, and appeared to be delaying any kind of economic stimulus package in the midst of the global financial crisis.

That was when the opposition parties banded together with the goal of taking Harper down. But getting the Governor General to agree to prorogue Parliament won him the time to fight back and portray his opponents as beholden to Quebec's "separatist" Bloc Québécois. 

Harper went back to the Governor General at the end of 2009, this time as debate heated up over documents regarding the transfer of Canadian-arrested detainees in Afghanistan to Afghan authorities amid the threat of torture. The House of Commons usually returned to sit in early February, but Harper prorogued it through the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and MPs returned March 3 instead.

In an interview with CBC's Chief Correspondent Peter Mansbridge in January 2011 —  five years after he came to power —  Harper painted himself as a consensus builder.

"I lead a team. Most of the things I do, the vast, vast majority of everything I do is a reflection of where the team wants to go. That's how we know our ideas are sound, that our cabinet will work on the details and that our caucus will liaise, a huge caucus that liaises with the public is confident that we're going in the right direction.

"The prime minister does not sit in his office and just do things off the top of his head. It's part of leading a team and figuring out what the consensus is, in almost every case."

The road to government

Today's Conservative party was formed in late 2003, rising from the ashes of the once-mighty Progressive Conservative Party of Canada — which was reduced to a rump in the Liberal sweep of 1993 — and the Canadian Alliance, the successor of the populist Reform Party of Canada.

Harper, once a key policy lieutenant to former Reform Party leader Preston Manning, was elected leader of the newly merged party in March 2004 and was almost immediately plunged into an election campaign called by Paul Martin.

Polls showed the Conservatives within striking distance of a majority government with two weeks left to go, but Harper's party ended up with only 99 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons.

Many believe that was due to the Martin team's late-campaign push to portray Harper as a scary social conservative and a clone of two unpopular former Tory leaders: former prime minister Brian Mulroney and former Ontario premier Mike Harris, who slashed taxes and social programs in the 1990s.

Bleeding from that defeat, and from media portrayals of him as an angry voice of Western Canadian extremism, Harper disappeared from public view in the summer of 2004 to consider his own future and that of his new party. He emerged from his bout of thinking convinced that there was a way for him to lead the Conservatives to government, even if he had to swallow his intellectual pride and be made over into a more palatable public figure.

Tom Flanagan, a University of Calgary academic who was once like a mentor to Harper, credited the Conservative leader with "a rare strategic gift combined with a lot of brain power. He can size up a situation of political conflict. He can figure out who your main enemies are, where your opportunities lie."

From Trudeau to Reform

Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau was one of the young Stephen Harper's earliest political inspirations, but in 1980 Harper was angered by Trudeau's National Energy Program. By then, Harper was living in Alberta and about to study economics at the University of Calgary.

He ended up working to elect Jim Hawkes, one of Mulroney's Progressive Conservative candidates, and followed the new MP from his riding of Calgary West to Ottawa to work for him after Mulroney swept to power in 1984.

Ottawa's power games and the Tory government's seeming inability to tackle real reform almost turned him away from politics for good. He left the capital after a year to return to Calgary and pursue a master's degree in economics, studying free-market thinkers like Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek and William Buckley.

The old parties didn't seem to have room for reform along those lines, so Harper was intrigued when he heard about a new political movement that was starting up in the West — a movement he would soon help to become the Reform Party of Canada.

He drafted much of the party's original policy and later accompanied its first MP, Deborah Grey, to Ottawa to help craft her speeches as he continued to be Reform's chief policy officer. He ran for Parliament in 1993, taking the riding of Calgary West from his old Tory boss, Hawkes. That same year, Harper married graphic designer Laureen Teskey.

Although he was seen as one of the new party's bright lights (the Ottawa Citizen called the bilingual young man "the Reform MP least likely to drag his knuckles"), Harper's path to the Prime Minister's Office was not smooth.

He left Parliament Hill once more, quitting his seat in early 1997 after disagreeing with Reform Leader Preston Manning's handling of Canada's ongoing national unity debate. Harper took the helm of the National Citizens Coalition, a right-wing group, where he spoke out in defence of taxpayer rights, penned articles that called official bilingualism "the god that failed" and criticized federal politicians for the "appeasement" of Quebec separatists.

Given that history, it is little wonder official Ottawa was shocked in 2006 when he introduced a motion to recognize the Québécois people as a nation.

When Reform became the Canadian Alliance and Stockwell Day failed to lead it to power during the 2000 election campaign, Harper started thinking about party politics again. He defeated Day in a hard-fought leadership campaign to take the Alliance's top job in 2002.

A year later, he succeeded in his quest to reunite the right, striking a deal with PC Leader Peter MacKay to merge Canada's two conservative parties in October 2003. He easily defeated former Magna CEO Belinda Stronach and former Ontario health minister Tony Clement to become the first leader of the new Conservative Party of Canada.