Harper's talent for turning

Five years on, the prime minister has perfected his 'spinnerama'

There’s only one big thing about Stephen Harper that we know after his five years in power that we didn’t know before. We know how brazen he can be. It’s been a cardinal quality of past prime ministers, too.

Before his Jan. 23, 2006 election victory, we already knew about Harper’s ideological roots from his days in the Reform and Canadian Alliance parties, and even more clearly from his verbally freewheeling hiatus as head of the National Citizens Coalition. We also knew that his convictions were subsumed in the political drive he displayed by first wrenching the Alliance from Stockwell Day, then merging it with the Progressive Conservatives to unite the right.

But if we knew a lot about what fuels him and how he rolls, we didn’t know if he had that particular knack that we seem to secretly admire in our elected leaders. We didn’t know how his face would look, how his voice would sound, how he would adjust his posture, when he had to turn on a dime. Swallow himself whole. Brazen it out.

I’m thinking here about the quality that allowed Pierre Trudeau to mock Robert Stanfield’s proposal for wage and price controls—“Zap! You’re frozen!”—and then, safely reelected, serve up his own recipe for the same dish with a shrug. About the quality that Jean Chrétien exemplified when he declined to apologize for reneging on his campaign pledge to abolish the GST, even after his finance minister had offered a hangdog admission that making that unkeepable promise had been “an honest mistake.”

Harper has repeatedly shown himself in their league when it comes to the political version of the move once called, in the arena of Canada’s other national spectacle, the spinnerama. What’s remarkable about Harper’s twirl is how he’s managed, in five short years, to find occasion to perform it on such a fascinating range of core policies.

Start with the single issue that best defined the Reform attitude toward Ottawa. To Preston Manning’s populists, the Senate came to represent everything unaccountable about federal power. So overhauling the patronage chamber was a central tenet for them. Still respectful of that base, Harper vowed in 2006 to create a process for choosing elected Senators, and swore off naming any until he’d succeeded.

Then, in late 2008, he appointed 18 senators all at once. It was just after the coalition crisis. He’d confronted the real possibility that the opposition might take over and fill the vacancies with their partisans. Since then, he’s packed the Senate with Tory faithful at will. The top Conservative strategist, Doug Finley, sits there collecting $132,300 a year courtesy of the taxpayer.

CBC’s Peter Mansbridge asked Harper about appointing senators in their recent sit-down. “Look, Peter, I went three years without—I think I appointed one or two senators,” Harper replied. “But ultimately that didn’t get us anywhere.” In other words, Be reasonable—how long was I supposed to honour that pledge, anyway?

If naming Senators by the dozen exposed Harper’s willingness to jettison positions rooted in Reform, his flexibility on fiscal matters demonstrates how little his old University of Calgary conservative economic orthodoxy restrains him.

During the fall 2008 campaign, he said there would be no return to deficit spending even as global credit markets collapsed. A month later, though, with the economic crisis deepening, he gave speech in Peru for the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum. “These are, of course, the classic circumstances under which budgetary deficits are essential,” Harper stated flatly, adding: “I say this with some reluctance.”

Yes, of course, reluctance. How distasteful. Not unpredictable, though. Here at Maclean’s, for instance, we flagged the likelihood of a federal deficit nearly seven months earlier (“Surplus anxiety,” May 7, 2008). By the time Harper was dismissing the possibility on the campaign trail, the distinct possibility of deficits was even more obvious. Yet when he changed his tune, he did so with not a hint shamefacedness, not a trace of contrition.

So he gyrated on democratic reform—the Senate. He reversed on a key economic policy—the deficit. That left foreign and defence policy—Afghanistan.

From the time the House passed a motion in 2008 to end Canada’s military mission in Kandahar in 2011, Harper was adamant about what that meant: Canada would shift to an entirely “civilian, development, humanitarian mission.” Oh, a few soldiers might left to guard to embassy in Kabul. He emphatically dismissed talk of switching Canadians troops over to training Afghan soldiers. Until he changed his mind late last fall.

“Look, I’m not going to kid you,” he said then. “Down deep, my preference would be, would have been, to see a complete end to the military mission. But as we approach that date, the facts on the ground convince me that the Afghan military needs further training.”

His tone was by then familiar. As with the Senate and the deficit, Harper was uneager, but also matter-of-fact. On each jarring about-face, he conveys a sense of inevitability. Naturally, reasonable folks will see that this was his only choice.

It’s an invaluable political skill to be able to shift course so frequently without ever conveying caprice. Here’s the strangest thing: like Trudeau and Chrétien before him, Harper never seems to me more in control, more himself, more above the fray, than when he’s changing his mind.

If he said he was sorry, we’d find him weak. Even worse would be any glimmer of admission that he’d deceived us by ever sounding so sure of himself on the position he’s abandoning.

It’s not that we want to be lied to. It’s that when a prime minister decides to change direction, we apparently want him to get on with it and not fret. And Harper, as we’ve learned, shifts course more and frets less than anyone, five years back, could reasonably have predicted.

Anyone can look good when they’re right. More formidable is the ability to look strong when events have proven you wrong.

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