The Power Issue: Laureen Harper

The Conservative’s secret weapon is strategic about politics and knows her strengths

Julie Smyth

17: Laureen Harper
She lives at 24 Sussex too

Stephen Harper’s parents put him in the Royal Conservatory of Music program and, growing up, he regularly played classical pieces. After he married and moved in with Laureen Harper, the piano followed them from house to house. Laureen knew he was a big Beatles fan, so she started to leave the band’s sheet music on the piano. It was her subtle way of nudging him to bring out another side of his personality.

So it’s not surprising she was behind Harper’s performance at the Conservative convention in Calgary last month when he took the stage at Cowboys Dance Hall to play with the Ottawa band Herringbone, belting out Stompin’ Tom Connors’s The Hockey Song, followed by some Johnny Cash and BTO. “She would have orchestrated something like that,” says Laura Peck, vice-president of McLoughlin Media and a friend to Laureen. The performance, coming amid a convention dominated by the Senate scandal, made all of the major news networks and national and local papers, despite being a delegates-only event. For good measure she tweeted the video link to her 6,000 followers.

It was signature Laureen Harper, employing a tried-and-true tactic to soften her husband’s image. In 2009 she was the architect behind the Prime Minister’s surprise appearance at the National Arts Centre where he got on stage with Yo-Yo Ma and sang the Beatles’ With a Little Help from My Friends. Harper got a standing ovation, and the event drew national coverage for the NAC event, of which Laureen was the honorary gala chair. Even the Toronto Star ran the headline, “Stephen Harper rocks out.”

She does these things because they are fun but, at the same time, she is not oblivious to the benefits. Laureen Harper’s brand of power, while highly effective, is not always obvious. It comes in part from who she is—personable and passionate, skilled in subtle, quiet persuasion. She is able to draw people to step out of their comfort zone, and not just her husband.

These abilities dovetail with her charity work. She fosters cats for the Humane Society and has placed many felines in the homes of senior politicians, lobbyists, journalists and friends. She attracts large donations to her favourite charities and is sought after by organizations to help raise their fundraising profiles. Over time Laureen has expanded beyond her earliest cause, animals, to helping a long list of other groups, including the anti-bullying movement and several arts organizations. “She takes on things she can be most effective at and runs the distance,” says Peck.

When the Harpers first arrived in the nation’s capital from Calgary, they did not fit into the Ottawa crowd. “They didn’t care because they just wanted to be themselves,” says someone who has spent time around the couple. Laureen helped them integrate.

Those who know her well say she should not be underestimated. She is strategic about politics too—she speaks off the record to certain Ottawa journalists, reads the media coverage closely and is social-media savvy. She does not speak publicly about policy but has very strong views. And while she looks after the philanthropic and entertainment side of life at 24 Sussex, hosting musicians like Jann Arden and Nickelback, she is also skilled at forming alliances, something her husband shies away from.

She has “great influence with and over different cabinet ministers,” says one source who is politically connected. Laureen is close to two cabinet ministers in particular—John Baird and Rona Ambrose—and they are genuine friends. But she also knows her strengths and her husband’s weaknesses, says the source. “She is more social than the Prime Minister and this helps strengthen the bonds and fidelity these ministers have with the PM. She is able to do some of the relationship nurturing that he is not known for. That is very valuable.”

It is why Conservatives call her Harper’s secret weapon.