Stephen Harper’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-him approach

Paul Wells on why Harper works harder than any prime minister in his lifetime to take himself out of the picture

The blink-and-you'll-miss-him approach

Adrian Wyld/CP

On the eve of his meeting with national Aboriginal chiefs, Stephen Harper sat down with a Radio-Canada reporter to talk about some other stuff. She asked him why he doesn’t get along with Quebec voters. The federal Conservatives’ boosting of the royals, their nomination of a unilingual auditor general, their tough-on-crime bills don’t go down well with Montreal commentators.

As any of his predecessors would, Harper disputed the question. Quebecers like our sensible policies just fine, he said in effect, and we like Quebecers too. Then he made a bold claim: “I think our approach to federalism truly weakened the Bloc Québécois,” he said, “and we saw the downfall of the Bloc.”

Really? When I posted that excerpt on my blog, a lot of readers made fun of it. If Harper did chop down the mighty oak that Lucien Bouchard and Gilles Duceppe built, it fell in an odd direction: toward Jack Layton’s NDP, which won 59 seats in Quebec. The Conservatives won five. Even the Liberals, with seven Quebec seats, did better there.

And yet it’s true that Harper led the government of Canada while a party built to complain about Canada popped like a balloon. If he contributed, it was not by handing separatists a juicy target. His government does less in traditional areas of provincial jurisdiction like health or education than any federal government has for decades. (His detractors west of Quebec call that a big problem.) He had the Commons recognize “the Québécois,” a term left artfully undefined, as a nation. He handed the provinces a whack of money, early on, to settle the “fiscal imbalance,” and while I was always pretty sure it was a made-up problem, damned if provincial governments didn’t stop complaining about it. So, you know, whatever works.

Canadians have grown used to a certain image of a federal leader who is “saving Canada.” It’s all big speeches and grand gestures: Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Charest in his 1995 role as passport-waving referendum orator. Just about all Harper did was take a giant step back, out of the way. His occasional faux pas since—the unilingual appointments, the cuts to some arts programs—do not compare to the messes his predecessors made, the failure of Meech Lake, the wall-to-wall TV coverage of testimony about sacks full of taxpayer cash.

I’m not going to muster a wholehearted defence of Harper’s claim, because I suspect his role in the fall of the Bloc was comparable to the first George Bush’s role in the fall of the Berlin Wall: he was simply the guy on duty when a decrepit institution ran out of gas. But you can see why Harper believes he brought the Bloc down. Which helps explain his curious behaviour in other circumstances.

Take this week’s meeting with First Nations leaders. I’ve never seen a prime minister work so hard to avoid the spotlight at a meeting he convened. For the longest time he was going to leave early. When that went over like a lead balloon, he invited selected chiefs to a closed-door meeting the night before the summit, and stayed for more sessions on the day itself, but again, behind closed doors.

At least the chiefs got a summit with the Prime Minister. The provincial premiers, as a group, haven’t since 2008. They do meet Harper, but one at a time, in one-on-one meetings that are not announced by either participant and therefore go unreported. As far as the public imagination is concerned, they never happened.

This spectacle of a prime minister leading from just outside the spotlight is novel mostly because politics has been so personalized in recent decades—basically since Pierre Trudeau. He chaired as many federal-provincial conferences, 23, as all of his predecessors from Confederation until 1963. Brian Mulroney chaired 14 more. Jean Chrétien, determined to take the heat off federal-provincial relations, chaired “only” seven, although his Team Canada trade missions were essentially informal flying first ministers’ conferences. Maybe they’re where Harper got the idea that he could get more done without cameras and a set agenda than with them.

Harper’s influence on federalism has been profound, but it hasn’t been collaborative. With Jim Flaherty, he set the terms of the “fiscal imbalance” settlement. He sent Flaherty to announce the terms of the next decade’s transfers to the provinces for health care. His office got spitting mad when we asked too many questions about his presence at this week’s First Nations gathering, pointing out that ministers and bureaucrats would be there by the bushel, so questions about Harper did “a disservice” to the rest.

Despite his reputation as a control freak, Harper works harder than any prime minister in his lifetime to take himself out of the picture. The contrast with the iconography of Conservative election campaigns is striking. The ads are full of Harper, chatting with ministers at sunlit breakfast tables, labouring late into the night. Between elections, his influence is felt everywhere—but the guy can be hard to find. Maybe that’s part of the key to his success. He is in no hurry to wear out his welcome. Ten or 15 years hence, when they unveil his official portrait, it should show him in shadow, with his back turned.

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