Understanding Stephen Harper

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 The Harper Record
The smartest guy in the room, or the most strategic?

After Tuesday's election, Canadians woke up Wednesday morning to another minority Conservative government. One of the biggest stories to emerge from this election has been the record-low voter turnout. Would more voters have turned out had they known more about the Harper government's record? The following excerpt is taken from The Harper Record, the latest in a series of books published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives that have examined the records of Canadian federal governments during their tenure.

The 47 writers, researchers and analysts who have co-written this book probe into every aspect of the Harper minority government's administration. The following is from the chapter 'Understanding Stephen Harper' by Steve Patten.

10 copies of the book will be given away as door prizes at rabble.ca's relaunch party!


Canadians need to understand the political and ideological temperament of politicians like Stephen Harper — men and women who aspire to political leadership.

While we can gain important insights by reviewing the Harper government's policies and record since the 2006 election, it is also essential that we step back and take a longer view, considering Stephen Harper's two decades of political involvement prior to winning the country's highest political office.

What does Harper's long record of engagement in conservative politics tell us about his political character? This chapter is organized around a series of questions about Stephen Harper's political and ideological character. Is he really, as his supporters claim, "the smartest guy in the room"? To what extent is he a conservative ideologue versus being a political pragmatist? What type of conservatism does he embrace? What does the company he keeps tell us about his political character?

I will argue that Stephen Harper is an economic conservative whose early political motivations were deeply ideological. While his keen sense of strategic pragmatism has allowed him to make peace with both conservative populism and the traditionalism of social conservatism, he continues to marginalize red toryism within the Canadian conservative family. He surrounds himself with like-minded conservatives and retains a long-held desire to transform Canada in his conservative image.

When Stephen Harper first came to the attention of political observers, it was as one of the leading "thinkers" behind the fledgling Reform Party of Canada. His speech on regionalism and fairness in the Canadian federation was hailed as a highlight of the Reform party's founding convention.

As delegates to the convention treated Harper to a standing ovation, Preston Manning claims he "knew the party had found a potential policy chief." Over the next four years, Harper and Manning worked closely as co-architects of the Reform party's policy agenda. Following the party's breakthrough 1993 federal election, Harper assumed a prominent role in the Reform caucus, and the parliamentary press gallery quickly learned that the young MP was one of the most likely Reform party sources of intelligent and perceptive comment.

Reflecting on those early days, Manning has described Stephen Harper as the party's "best mind" in terms of policy analysis and strategy development. It is certainly true that Harper is a smart man. He is well read and holds an MA in economics from the University of Calgary. All the same, his partisan supporters and the conservative journalists who have penned the most widely read Harper biographies tend to exaggerate the uniqueness of his intellect. When it comes to public policy, Harper is not a particularly insightful or original thinker, and he is certainly not the first Canadian political leader to demonstrate a capacity to remain well-informed, focused, and to think quickly on his feet.

Few political associates or friends understand Stephen Harper better than Tom Flanagan, the well-known University of Calgary political scientist. When the two met back in the early days of the Reform party, Flanagan was impressed by the extent to which Harper "combined a remarkably wide knowledge of politics with a keen strategic mind." This observation goes to the heart of Stephen Harper's smarts.

While merely one among many well-informed policy wonks to engage in active politics, he displays a unique astuteness when it comes to the strategic dimensions of partisan politics. He is able to look beyond the moment and engage in long-term strategic thinking about his political goals and the tactics and immediate actions required to attain his desired outcomes.

Interestingly, Harper's strategic mind and attention to tactics may underpin what some political journalists have identified as his "autocratic tendencies" — his desire to keep cabinet ministers on a short leash and maintain an "exhaustive system of information control." It seems that his personal sense of ideological and strategic certainty makes it difficult for him to devolve control or trust others who might not share his political agenda or insights.

Of course, the centralization of control is not unusual in the context of Canada's notoriously undemocratic political parties, but Stephen Harper's strategic character does explain his somewhat autocratic nature and desire for hands-on control of the policy-making and political messages that define the public face of his party.

Harper has a sharp mind, but it is a bit of myth-making that has created the impression he is the smartest guy in the room. All the same, those who wish to understand Harper should remember that his every political move is, almost without fail, guided by astute strategic calculations. Stephen Harper understands Canadian politics and the challenges associated with building a coalition in support of his conservative agenda. He should not, in other words, ever be underestimated.

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