Ontario assumptions, Alberta PM

Whenever I write a long piece about politics, I’m always left with stuff I couldn’t fit in. Not just the odd quote, but whole concepts that didn’t quite fit the narrative and the allotted space. Here’s one I meant to include in the latest rumination about Harper.

I keep being struck by how frequently calculations about the prime minister are based on the assumption that he needs to succeed at some sort of short, sharp action if he is to be counted any kind of success at all. Merely sticking around is seen as half a victory, if it is any victory at all, and until recently the possibility that that’s Harper’s goal — longevity and incremental change — has usually simply been dismissed. This is true among Harper’s opponents, and less frequently among his supporters. Andrew Coyne’s lament, that Harper is no conservative because he has not moved quickly to roll back the federal state, is echoed privately by lots of Conservative staffers. They’re looking for a Common Sense Revolution, Mike Harris-style, and chafing at Harper’s refusal to produce one.

On the other side you have the persistent Liberal assumption that Harper “needs his majority” so he can implement the “hidden agenda.” This was behind the utter certainty in Ottawa circles in the spring of 2007 that Harper was going to call an election or engineer his own defeat at the polls. Harper’s senior staff were telling reporters that wasn’t the game plan and they were being ignored because the idea of a quick sprint to the polls to secure a majority was hardwired into official Ottawa’s assumptions. Senior former staffers to Paul Martin and Anne McLellan made money bets with me that Harper would force an election. Why? Because Paul Martin would have.

So I’ve written, a bit repetitively, that Harper sees longevity as a goal and will not at any point — now or after the next election — bring in the kind of big, game-shifting “reform” package that would delight movement conservatives or galvanize a liberal opposition. Brian Mulroney reached the end of his career believing, strongly, that abysmal poll numbers were the best proof of his virtue. Harper saw the fallout from that kind of thinking for 13 years after Mulroney retired. He doesn’t want to make the same mistake.

The more I think about it, the more I realize there is a name for a place where conservatism is synonymous with short, sharp change implemented by an ephemeral majority over the dead (but soon to rise again!) bodies of the opposition. That place is called Ontario, or more precisely, Mike Harris’s Ontario. And similarly, there is a name for a place where long-term survival and incremental change — at least compared to what Harris and, on some files, Mulroney implemented — is the name of the game. That place is called Alberta.

Guess which province Stephen Harper is from.

You’re right, it’s a trick question. He was raised in Ontario but he moved to Alberta as a young adult, and he converted to Alberta-ism with the zeal of the late arriver. And his instincts are Alberta instincts.

Compare Harris’s economic management with Klein’s: Harris front-loaded his tax cuts, bought years of extra-deep deficits because of it, and wasn’t entirely sure what to do once he’d implemented his revolution. There is a lot of romanticism in conservative circles about what Harris accomplished, and very little willingness to acknowledge that it was unpopular and therefore ephemeral. Why, if Harris’s own senior minister Jim Flaherty is to be believed, Ontario is already the worst place in Canada to do business. It’s not a particularly clement place to be a Conservative, for that matter.

In Alberta, meanwhile, Ralph Klein constrained spending sharply (blowing up the hospital where he was born, for instance) but refused to cut taxes until after the budget was balanced, and even then emphasized debt reimbursement more than tax cuts. His agenda took years to implement. He made a lot of enemies, of course, but never so many that he or his successor had to suffer unduly at the polls. There’ve been plenty of times when Klein didn’t even look much like a conservative, but because he’s Alberta’s 142nd Conservative premier in a row (I quote from memory), and an essentially conservative mindset is sunk deep into the Alberta culture. The point is not to win every fight; it’s to be around for every fight.

This is a subtle point, and there’s plenty of ways to rebut it (Preston Manning is an Albertan and he wanted to do the short, sharp shock if he ever got elected prime minister). But I’m finding that when Harper is misconstrued, it’s usually by somebody operating on assumptions that were common among Mulroney Conservatives when they became unmoored from the Alberta element of their base; among Mike Harris Common Sense Conservatives; and among Martin Liberals, who in terms of their assumptions about how politics works, are still the dominant strain in today’s Liberal Party.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.