“No matter how corrupt, greedy, and repressive China becomes, the only way forward appears to be engagement rather than isolation.” - Patrick Brown
This is not an endorsement of oppression or corruption, but rather an acknowledgment of the facts. Survival of the fittest is a zero-sum game and sooner or later, the odds will always slip out of your favour. Lasting success doesn’t come from destroying your opposition or suppressing your populace or trying to distract them with bread and circuses. Political and social success work the same way as evolution does – to stay competitive, to stay relevant, you need to adapt.
The only way to create opportunity for adaptation is through embracing diversity. When you close yourself off, no matter how powerful you are, the path you walk is stagnation. It’s a path with a built-in dead-end. When you open yourself to difference (of opinion, of language, of culture, etc – the genetics of culture) you create access to the tools of your own success. The inbreeding of ideas has the same impact as does genetic inbreeding.
How does this relate to Stephen Harper?
As Prime Minister of a majority government, Harper is in charge of planning Canada’s policy future, of coordinating our internal machinations and of representing our nation abroad. What informs Harper’s choices, then, is what motivates our nation. It’s worth our while to ask, then – why does Stephen Harper want to be Prime Minister?
I think it’s a safe bet to suggest Stephen Harper is a neat freak. His musical performance is as controlled as are his speeches; while he doesn’t dress to dazzle, his appearance is always a well-groomed one. A focus on external cleanliness is symptomatic of broader control issues; not ironically, Harper has a reputation for these, as well, something even his conservative predecessors have commented on. I’ve heard more than a few stories about him losing his temper (though it’s funny how hard it is to find any of them online). The PM’s iron-fisted control of his caucus is legendary, as is his need to force his will upon everyone else he interacts with, the press being an obvious example. In dealing with his political opponents, be they opposition parties or stakeholders, Harper holds true to form – his inclination is never to work with, but to control.
Harper’s brand stands on three legs. First is the notion that he’s a master strategist. He himself has admitted he thinks “about strategy twenty-four hours a day.” He carefully manipulates his opponents into corners, laying traps at each and every opportunity. His public comments are frequently derisive, often inflammatory. Harper seems to almost enjoy this – there is a relish in the way he attacks those who threaten him.
Coupled with these public assaults and strategic manipulations is a barely-hidden contempt/fear of his opponents. Unlike a Brian Mulroney, say, or even a John Baird, Harper does not relish the repartee with political foes. Harper doesn’t appear to enjoy working with other politicians; he doesn’t enjoy bantering with reporters; he doesn’t even enjoy engaging with average Canadians. These things are basic facets of political life, as crucial to the role of political leader as the policy pieces. If Harper dislikes politics so much, then why is he in it? We’re back to his obsession with control.
The second key piece of Harper’s brand is his self-portrayal as an economist. It’s not atypical for conservatives to portray themselves as the best fiscal managers; small government, free enterprise, so on and so forth. Much of what he stood for in his slow rise to power was the reduction in public spending, public oversight and direct interference. His whole notion of abolishing the Senate was very much tied to this theme. What has happened since he’s been in power? Not a leaning towards “free” market, “free” votes or “free anything,” nor a lessening of government control mechanisms or an increase in transparency. Instead, a shrinking, increasingly insular group of people directly responsible to him are consolidating more and more control, with less and less accountability.
What’s the last peg on which Harper hangs his brand? It’s actually not about Harper at all. A big part of what Harper has always stood for is standing against. From the infamous firewall letter to the whole “trouble lapping at our shores” meme, Harper has always been about closing others out and maintaining increasingly tight controls of whoever is left in his bubble. His office, his caucus, the dramatic (if precedented) decline in Parliament itself are reflective of this. Again – it is always about control.
There’s a trend here. Whatever Harper’s public persona – whatever he even tells himself – the true nature of his brand is not about strengthening Canada’s economy, or about his cleverness in doing so, or in the dangers that face Canada from beyond our borders or from within our ranks. Stephen Harper is motivated by a pathological need to control.
For many of his supporters, this isn’t a problem. They like the idea of an alpha male calling the shots. In this view, leaders are supposed to be tough, aggressive, ruthless, devout in their ideology; leadership isn’t about motivation, it’s about bending others to your will. Coercion and fear are legitimate tools of (wait for it) control.
There are two problems with this; one, in modern politics, you can’t kill your opponents. You can certainly try to eliminate them (and if your strategy is sound and your enemy weak enough, you can even come close) but what you can’t do is stop more from taking their place. Dominance is survival of the fittest; as I’ve already said, survival of the fittest is a zero-sum game that nobody can win in perpetuity. Harper’s approach has battered our political system and embittered and factionalized the Canadian populace. It’s also left him looking a bit like a petulant child on the global stage.
This leads into the second problem – how in conscious control is Harper, really? So far, his attempts to engage in a more muscular foreign policy have been met with indifference on the global stage, if that. His “I’ll take my toys out of the sandbox if you don’t play my way” approach hasn’t helped him build a reputation as a strong leader among nations, nor has his obstinacy done Canada’s global reputation any favours. Despite its own, massive internal challenges, the Liberal Party of Canada has not disappeared; Harper’s role in the fortunes of the NDP has been minimal at best. Despite the massive, manipulative effort he has made to re-engineer Canada in his image, much of the goings on in Canada (ranging from the economy to relations with China to the fortunes of political parties the federal and provincial levels) have largely been out of his control.
On a personal level, Harper’s health has visibly and negatively been impacted as his political “successes” accumulate. Harper himself has talked about being thin in his younger years, but has since been in a constant battle with his weight. I don’t mention this to be mean or vindictive, but to raise a point – whatever you think about his career trajectory, Harper’s political success doesn’t seem to agree with him. That’s more a comment about the state of politics than it is about any particular politician.
I don’t think his expanding responsibilities weigh lightly on his mind. I don’t believe he feels confident in his capacity to meet the broadening responsibilities of his position, as much as he tries to convince himself otherwise. In fact, I don’t think he’s changed much at all from where he began. As leader of Canada, Harper can expose himself to any and every opportunity that could even potentially exist in the whole country. What’s innovative in Québec? How are Ontario manufacturers adapting to the shift towards a knowledge economy? Who’s ahead of the curve in the Maritimes? What can be done to show leadership on health care? Of all the opportunities for growth, innovation or national leadership Harper could pursue from everything Canada has to offer, what has become his focus? The Alberta tar sands. Where did Harper grow up? Alberta. What was one of Harper’s first jobs? Working in a mail room for Imperial Oil.
The same holds true for the big picture; instead of finding a couple of areas of foreign policy that have been neglected or are in sore need of leadership, Harper has played follow-the-leader on files like Israel and Iran and has simply expanded his propensity for firewalls from the provincial to the national stage. Even when it comes to China, Harper has only really begun exploring a relationship with them because Obama wouldn’t play by his rules on the pipeline. What about the environment? If Harper doesn’t like Kyoto, fine, but what’s his bold alternative? He doesn’t have one.
This, then, is where Harper’s control peters out. I don’t say leadership, intentionally, because I don’t think Harper really has any leadership intentions about him; he’s not in it to be the boss; he doesn’t embrace any of the spoils that are available to the victor. He’s not in it to bring forth a vision; if anything, his governance has suffered from a dearth of fresh ideas. He’s not in it to establish a stronger Canadian unity; divide-and-conquor politics has been his bread and butter. His default position is attack – which he’s done with “socialists and separatists”, his opponents, the media, the provinces, even art. The only reason I can fathom Harper wanting to be in control from the sum of his life story is that same, pathological need to be in control.
This is Harper the micromanager; as the burdens of unwanted office weigh upon him, so they weigh upon those under him. Micromanagement is disruptive of staff and stunting of productivity in business – it’s equally harmful in politics. Our reputation overseas is suffering. Our internal and external opportunities are being neglected. Canada’s social cohesion is strained – in fact, the last time we felt anywhere close to united through the inspiration of a leader was thanks to Jack Layton. How do you think this impacted Harper’s confidence in himself?
Here’s a biological fact for you – low self-esteem is tied to the neurotransmitter serotonin; serotonin is equally connected to depression, obsessive and negative thoughts and obesity. Caffeine, poor diet and anger are factors that contribute to low serotonin. I have read (but again, can’t find online) that Harper likes his pop and, as mentioned before, has been known to fly off the handle.
If it isn’t clear by now, I’ll make it blatantly so – I think Harper has been a disappointment as PM. I don’t, though, demonize him for his actions. Like so many in politics, I see him as a victim of factors he doesn’t even realize are controlling him. As such, I see Stephen Harper as a tragic character; I feel a bit sorry for him. I believe that he would be much happier out of politics than he is in it; I’ve always seen him as the kind of guy who would probably have found his niche somewhere in the bureaucracy, rather than leading it.
Problem is, he does lead; he is our Prime Minister. Harper’s control issues are acting themselves out on a broader scale, to our detriment. Focused so intently on his starting-gate positions and his fear of the unknown, Harper is making one short-sighted decision after the other. His need to be in control is tying the hands of Parliament and the bureaucracy; much of the nuts-and-bolts, autonomic functions of government are grinding to a halt because of the climate of fear and uncertainty Harper has fostered.
Which brings us back to China. It’s here that the things which have propelled Harper to the top of the Canadian political pile – his urge to control, his obstinacy, his manipulative condescension and his fear of the unknown – leave him teetering on the brink of a significant failure for himself and Canada.
To some extent, China is Harper writ large – they don’t have the four-year cycle to impede on their planning; their message control is legendary; the media come with strings firmly attached. The Chinese government doesn’t have to settle for meek legislation to keep subversive groups in line; they simply send in the army. Whatever messages they feed the global public about the concerns raised by their detractors, they don’t much change their tune. They play with others only to the extent that doing so serves their interests and have no qualms with using both carrots (or pandas) and sticks to achieve their goals. This has relevancy for oil, yes, but through that, for Iran. With China, Harper has met his Machiavellian match; the player is being played and, most disconcerting, despite the evidence supporting this, Harper seems to be missing it.
I’m sure there is CSIS intel on his desk relating to Chinese agents and interests in Canada; there’s a ton of literature on the subject available to the general public. Who knows, Harper might have some carefully hatched plan to ensure Canada’s interests are preserved as he breaks down his firewalls and lets China in. From the evidence laid out above, I highly doubt it.
Harper has said that Canadians don’t care about procedure – hopefully, this was mere wishful thinking on his part. Now, more than ever, Canadians need to pay attention. There is opportunity with China, just as there is always opportunity through collaboration; in fact, innovation can’t happen without it. This holds true equally for collaborative opportunities between nations, provinces, political parties and even within Harper’s own team. As another Canadian leader has said, we move forward together.
There are always risks attached with new ventures, though; you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t understand yourself. Knowing yourself and the content and context of a situation, you have a much better chance of determining the consequence. Or, in the words of a famous Chinese strategist:
“If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”
The lesson that we as Canadians must take to heart is the same one Stephen Harper needs to consider; while victory is always supported, you fail alone.