CBC In Depth
Stephen Harper, a cerebral partisan
CBC News Online | Updated March 16, 2006

Stephen Harper gives a thumbs-up to supporters at a campaign rally in Victoria, B.C., on Jan. 22, 2006. (CP file photo)

Stephen Harper himself would tell you he's a prime example of policy over pizzazz. And after Canadians handed his Conservatives a minority government on Jan. 23, 2006, he set out to prove that equation.

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

He has also, however, proved to be something of a control freak and a keen partisan, taking every opportunity as prime minister to both marshal his message and slam the Liberals.

And though he has chosen to move methodically through his agenda — one policy, one candle, at a time — when it comes to Canada's future, Harper has often spoken of the need to redesign the political equivalent of the entire electrical grid.

From his days as a graduate student of economics at the University of Calgary, the Toronto-born Harper has been a staunch believer in smaller government, traditional values and letting citizens have greater control over their lives. To him, that once meant whittling down or eliminating some social programs, business development agencies and the costly gun registry in order to reduce taxes and put money and power back into the hands of Canadians. It also meant moving strongly on an agenda of parliamentary and electoral reform to, among other things, give MPs the right to vote freely in the House of Commons on matters of social conscience.

But his first year in power has seen Harper move ahead cautiously on a limited agenda, in particular his five priorities — a new political accountability act, tax cuts, a tough-on-crime package, a new way of financing child care and wait-time guarantees for certain hospital care.

But only some of these have been achieved. The provinces have not moved on wait-time guarantees, the crime package has been hung up in committee study and none of the opposition parties have shown any willingness to kill the long-gun registry, particularly in the wake of the shootings at Dawson College in Montreal.

What's more, Harper's careful agenda has been hijacked in large part by other issues, such as the so-called fiscal imbalance demands of certain provinces, and global warming, which he initially tried to play down.

Still, Harper seems content with the broad progress he has made, even the tenor of the debate that has been taking place.

Just before he was sworn in, back in January 2006, he told an interviewer, "I don't think my fundamental beliefs have changed in a decade. But certainly my views on individual issues have evolved, and I deal with the situation as I find it."

Just over a year later, on the anniversary of his government taking office, he spoke to the Canadian Club in Ottawa, where he said "Well, here we are 12 months later, and I have to say — I'm sleeping better these days!"

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 — reduced to a rump in the Liberal sweep of 1993 — and the Canadian Alliance, the successor of the populist Reform Party of Canada. Harper was elected leader of the newly merged party in March 2004, and was almost immediately plunged into an election campaign called by Paul Martin, the new Liberal prime minister.

Polls showed the Conservatives within striking distance of a majority government with two weeks left to go until election day in June 2004, but Harper's party won only 99 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons. That was thanks to the Martin team's late-campaign push to portray him as a scary social conservative and a clone of two former PC leaders: former prime minister Brian Mulroney, under whose watch the Canadian deficit skyrocketed, and former Ontario premier Mike Harris, who slashed both taxes and social programs at the same time in the 1990s.

Bleeding from that defeat, and from media portrayals of him as an angry voice of Western Canada 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.

His friend Tom Flanagan, a University of Calgary academic who has been the closest thing to a mentor Harper has ever had, once 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."

"Surely what people have discovered about me by now is that I think a few steps ahead," Harper told a Maclean's interviewer in March 2006.

Some observers have pointed out that the prime minister's particular brand of intelligence also carries some unattractive baggage.

"He exhibits a cold brilliance and a cold arrogance that are unattractive in a public figure," said William Johnson, author of an otherwise glowing 2005 biography of Harper. "We like our leaders to come begging for our favour. Harper does not beg; he rarely even goes through the motions … Harper and charisma fit together like porridge and champagne." Characteristically, Harper declined to be interviewed for the Johnson book, which ended up praising him for his integrity, good judgment on key issues of the day, willingness to make tough decisions and commitment to make Canada a better place. Johnson concludes that because of these merits, Harper rates better than any Canadian leader since Pierre Trudeau.

From Trudeau to Reform

Harper waits for a television interview to begin in June 2004. (Canadian Press)

Trudeau was one of the young Stephen Harper's earliest political inspirations.

That admiration ended when Trudeau enraged the West by bringing in the National Energy Program in 1980. 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 Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative candidates, and followed the new MP from 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.

Harper is a voracious reader, and the books he tackled in the next year would change the course of his life. Thinkers such as Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek and William Buckley left him with a profound respect for the workings of a free-market economy and a set of neo-conservative beliefs that were being put into political practice by Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States.

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 rain for Parliament in 1993, taking the riding of Calgary West from his old boss, Tory Jim Hawkes. That same year, Harper married graphic designer Laureen Teskey (they now have two young children, Benjamin and Rachel).

A sabbatical from the Hill

Although he was seen as one of the new party's bright lights (the Ottawa Citizen called the fluently bilingual young man "the Reform MP least likely to drag his knuckles"), Harper's path to the prime ministership was not smooth. He would leave Parliament Hill once more, quitting his seat in early 1997 after disagreeing with Reform leader Preston Manning's handling of Canada's seemingly endless national unity debate. Harper took the helm of the National Citizens Coalition, where he spoke out in defence of taxpayers' rights; penned articles that called official bilingualism "the god that failed" and criticized federal politicians for the "appeasement" of Quebec separatists; and fought limits on third-party election campaign spending.

Given that history, it is little wonder official Ottawa was shocked earlier this year when he introduced a motion to recognize the Québécois people as constituting a nation. When Reform became the Canadian Alliance and Stockwell Day imploded as its leader during the 2000 election campaign, Harper started thinking about party politics again. He defeated Day in a hard-fought leadership campaign to take 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 as well as former Ontario health minister Tony Clement to become the first leader of the new Conservative Party of Canada.

Harper refuses to answer most requests for interviews about his private life, and even passes on the light-hearted questionnaires news agencies send out during election campaigns. He distrusts the media and detests photo ops. "The guy is not a barbecue-going politician and he's not a baby kisser," Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson once noted. He is, however, a devoted family man who gains strength from his extrovert wife, Laureen. As well, he's a proud hockey dad who likes to walk or drive his two children to school every day he can.

As a boy, he earned marks close to 100 in most of his high school courses and won his school's gold medal. The asthma he had as a child left him with a propensity to catch bad colds and experience bouts of low physical energy. He went out for track and field, and is such a big hockey fan that he's writing a book about its history, taking time to work on it even in the middle of election campaigns.

It is said that he has few close friends but is fiercely loyal to them, and that he has a temper that shows itself when he believes he is being betrayed.

His role in creating the Reform Party of Canada is mentioned nowhere in the biography of him that appears on the Conservative Party of Canada website. Nor is his stint as president of the National Citizens Coalition.

He is the fifth-youngest person to become Canada's prime minister, after Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney, Arthur Meighen and Kim Campbell. (He is also the first prime minister since Lester Pearson not to have attended law school.) With the exception of Mulroney, the young prime ministers had unusually short terms in office before voters turfed them out.

Harper has proven to be unsentimental and pragmatically unpartisan when it comes to the art of cabinet-making. Pundits were startled on Feb. 6 when Harper's inner circle turned out not to include Reform stalwarts such as Alberta's Diane Ablonczy and B.C.'s James Moore. They were downright stunned that the cabinet did include former Liberal cabinet minister David Emerson, who crossed the floor to the Conservatives within days of being elected in the B.C. riding of Vancouver-Kingsway as part of Martin's team. Another cabinet choice also came out of clear blue sky: Quebecer Michael Fortier, a high-ranking campaign organizer whom Harper quickly appointed to the Senate in order to boost the Conservative profile in Montreal.


Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada, by William Johnson, published in 2005 by McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
The Pilgrimage of Stephen Harper, by Lloyd Mackey, published in 2005 by ECW Press.
Rescuing Canada's Right: Blueprint for a Conservative Revolution, by Tasha Kheiriddin and Adam Daifallah, published in 2005 by John Wiley & Sons Canada.
Rebuilding Canadian Party Politics, by R. Kenneth Carty, William Cross and Lisa Young, published in 2000 by the University of British Columbia.
The Day B.C. Quit Canada, by John Haskett and Michael Haskett, published in 2003 by Durango.
Democracy Challenged: How to End One-Party Rule in Canada, by Howard Grafftey, published in 2002 by Vehicule Press.


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