The new Stephen Harper, safer than the old Harper

Paul Wells on the more reserved prime minister

Mike Sturk/Reuters

So, Stephen Harper, what would you do if a brutal Middle Eastern dictator used chemical weapons against his own people?

“To be blunt about it, any military intervention in this part of the world, any talk of that, should be undertaken with great caution,” the Prime Minister told Global News anchor Dawna Friesen in a year-end interview. “There are enormous dangers here, enormous risks.”

The Prime Minister’s year-end interviews are always worth close reading. Partly because he gives few interviews. Partly because those interviews, widely spaced, show how his thinking changes as circumstances do. This year the changes are stark.

The part I’ve just quoted came when Friesen asked Harper about the possibility that Bashar al-Assad might use chemical weapons against Syrian opponents of his regime.

Would NATO intervene? “Well, I don’t want to speculate.”

Is the use of what we used to call weapons of mass destruction a “red line,” as the Obama administration has called it? That was the question that got Harper talking about risks and caution. “What we can continue to do, as I say, is try to work with elements of the opposition and others to try to push that country to a better solution and try to avoid further escalation of this conflict.”

This is what being Prime Minister does to you. A decade ago, when conversation turned to the use of chemical or biological weapons and the theatre was Iraq, it was Jean Chrétien talking about risks and caution and Harper urging red lines. I dare hope we’ll never get to test the hypothetical in Syria, but it was not only when it came to Assad that this year’s Harper was notably less cocky than previous years’. Chastened, one might say, by a year when the world turned out to be more complex than advertised.

A year ago, Harper gave his big year-end interview to Friesen’s competitor, CTV’s Lisa LaFlamme, and he was quick to explain how eventful the year ahead would be. “I want to make sure that we use it,” he said then about his first majority government. “I’ve seen too many majority governments, the bureaucracy talks them into going to sleep for three years, and then they all of a sudden realize they’re close to an election.”

Harper now counts himself lucky if he wins more days than he loses. “I try to be as well briefed on a range of subjects as I can,” he said, “because I don’t think we’re in an era—it’s not like the movie Lincoln, where we’re deciding the Civil War and we’re deciding slavery.  We’re in an era where there’s a whole lot of decisions that have to be made. And it really is the culmination of getting most of those things right. So I try to work hard, be well briefed on subject matter. I encourage my cabinet ministers and my caucus to do the same thing so that we make more decisions right than we do wrong. Because inevitably we’re not going to get everything right.  We’re not perfect. We can’t see the future.”

Quite a contrast between this Harper and the one who told Ken Whyte, in this magazine a month after the 2011 election, that “the real defining moments for the country and for the world are those big conflicts where everything’s at stake and where you take a side and show you can contribute to the right side.” He named the 20th-century fights against fascism and Communism.

“You suggest that we are in one great conflict, or we’re heading to one,” Whyte said.

“I think we always are,” Harper replied.

But that was then. These days he’s less interested in running off at the mouth. This year the what-will-you-do-with-your-majority question came from Shan Chandrasekar, the president of ATN, the Asian Television Network, with 33 channels in nine languages. “Our agenda does not change,” he said. “We told people in three elections now what it is we’re going to do, and that’s what we do.”

What happened since a year ago? In a word, China. Harper ended 2011 angry at Barack Obama for delaying the Keystone XL project and eager to move toward China as an energy market. He spent 2012 discovering that was more easily said than done; that China would want to play by its own rules, rules Canadians might not like; and that trumpeting his goals was the same as giving opponents a target.

“There is no better place than India,” he told Chandrasekar. “There is no developed country and developing country that are a better match” than Canada and India. On one level he was saying, your audience is Indo-Canadian, let me flatter them. On another it was, “China was no cakewalk.”

Are his plans themselves less ambitious? I think not. He introduced two omnibus budget-implementation bills in 2012, each hundreds of pages of pent-up deregulatory zeal. The opposition was powerless to block them, the press gallery distracted by the daily circus. He will be able to introduce as many as six more like them before a 2015 election. He was reminded in 2012 that he can’t control the world. But he still controls the House of Commons. For most of his plans he needs nothing more.

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