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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday 21 March 2013

Inside Stephen Harper and His Legacy

I really enjoyed this Paul Wells column for two reasons:

1) It takes a scratch at Stephen Harper's veneer and provides a rather astute look at what lies beneath.

Political people like to spend a lot of time exploring tactics and strategy and trying to guess what moves their opponents will make next so that they can counter them in advance.  It's a bit of playing general, hashing out battle plans and moving troops and ordnance around the field.  The best players at this game, including Harper, get compared to Niccolò Machiavelli. 

Of course, Machiavelli didn't live in a democratic state - nor was he all that successful in his career, either.

What too many of these War Roomers fail to do is get into the headspace of their opponents; because lives aren't literally on the line and campaign periods tend to be short, punchy and frequent, the assumption is that level of depth isn't necessary.  If you get in fast, hit 'em hard and never leave a punch unreturned, you're golden.  It's not as effective an approach as they think.

Stephen Harper is clever, yes, but he's hardly evil.  When you label him as inscrutable, you are willfully ignoring the ample evidence mapping out the clockwork that makes him tick.

Harper is a bit like Theon Greyjoy - trying to be something he's not and suffering from the resulting cognitive dissonance.  He's an emotional guy who isn't gifted with natural outlets to express his insecurities.  Harper self-identifies as a threatened outsider - this stems from his family history, his relationship with his immediate relatives and of course his being an Easterner trying to fit in out West.  It's not at all hard to believe he hid in a washroom in Brazil - that would fit in lock-step with other displays of petulance ranging from embracing the same China he criticized when Obama rejected him over Keystone or a negative obsession with the Liberal Party of Canada and in particular, the Trudeau legacy.

There's a big gap between how Harper wants to be perceived, how his Party wants to portray him and how the PM really feels about himself.

Publicly, he's a proud Westerner (who needs guidance on how to wear cowboy clothes) and contemptuous of the latte-sipping elites considered stereotypical of his hometown, Toronto.  In the House, he wears the emperor's cloak of a tough scrapper, like a Jean Chretien or a Brian Mulroney.  Yet where both of those leaders loved engaging with the public and weren't afraid to give and take hits, Harper has an obsession with fire walls, trouble lapping at shores - all defensive postures that he has probably developed and relied on since at least his university days.  In fact, he responds a bit like a jilted lover when partners don't do things his way.  He's scripted, brief in his appearances and does his best not to engage directly (and certainly not publicly) with equals who may challenge him - like Premiers and press galleries, for instance.

The Opposition is supposed to fear Harper's bold political strokes of genius - but where are they?  Harper has chipped away at some Liberal programming he doesn't like and muzzled people who threaten him (because public debate with people who know more about subject matter than he does is way too intimidating).  He's even managed to raise the ire (or at least amusement) of international players.  For the most part, though, Canada hasn't changed much at all - Harper is, at best, an incrementalist who plays it safe.  He may tell himself he's slowly building a legacy that will last, but the truth is he's not comfortable with being bold.  In fact, that little smile of his betrays a level of nervousness that he tries to mask with overt derision and condescension.  

Stephen Harper is not comfortable with variety.  He wants to be the smartest man in the room, but is worried he isn't; that's why he sticks to his personal safety zone in terms of subject matter and looks to shoot down, rather than engage, those verbal opponents he can't avoid.

Liberal Leadership hopefuls should carefully study the diplomatic approach of Kathleen Wynne.  Could you imagine the PM trying to square off against her in a public forum?  She would judo-flip every statement he'd make and throw him off with her supportive, almost parental approach.  He'd work himself into a tizzy every day, just thinking about it.  He's comfortable with attacks, because he can deflect them - offer him the political equivalent of a hug and see what happens.

Of course, the goal of Opposition shouldn't be to destroy Harper, but that's something to address in

2) Harper is no further ahead at realizing his dream of stamping out Canadian progressiveness than he was when he started.

Politics isn't war - the goal isn't to end opponents' careers or take away their castles.  It's a far less romantic and far more diplomatic exercise of winning over the hearts and minds of voters.  Politics in a democratic state is more like religion than combat - conversion, not slaughter, is the desired pathway to the ideological state equivalent of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Harper doesn't get this - for all his structural tweaks and opposition attacks, he's had zero luck in making Canada "more conservative."  In fact, there's a broad shift towards more liberal approaches to problems - collaboration, dialogue, shared service, playing nice.  Even Conservatives are starting to embrace this wynning approach.  Perhaps worse - Harper's pokes and prods have wakened a frequently somnambulant populace; the harder he pushes, the less idle they become, helping to maintain a positive balance between staying rooted and moving forward.

If you take a look at the broad trends in Canadian history, the periodic pendulum swings between the political left and political right aren't as significant as they seem in the heat of the moment, or even the decade.  Social progress, after all, is the equivalent of natural evolution - you need to adapt to survive.

Over time, our society is becoming more inclusive, more diverse, better coordinated and continuously progressing.  Canada has never been at the top of the power or popularity scale, but then we have never slid, either.  Twenty years from now, we'll have a Conservative PM fighting to remake the country in a Conservative vision that will be weak tea compared to that Harper presents now.  The Progressives of that day will reel in horror and express their fears for the future of their country, much as they're doing today.  The progressive trend will continue regardless. 

Stephen Harper has worked hard, against the odds, to get to where he is - that's a level of dedication that deserves to be respected.  He's inevitably going to fall short of the legacy he wants, which is really kind of sad.  The best thing the Opposition can do is help him to progress past his internal conflict and maybe empower the Prime Minister to relieve some of that cognitive dissonance.

After all, there's nice symmetry to a life that goes full-circle.

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