A review of Paul Wells' The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006- (Random House Canada, 2013).
Paul Wells has written a fascinating, must-read book that details how Stephen Harper has managed to hold power through minority governments and consolidate it with his current majority. With detailed accounts from his trove of sources, Wells describes a period of politics in a style that is at times hilarious, often biting and always informative. I was a political neophyte in the eye of the storm for part of this period, from 2004 when Harper was in opposition to becoming a member of his government through 2008. And yet Wells has given me a new and richer understanding of the political machinations of the past decade in Canada with this book.
The Longer I’m Prime Minister does a superb job of developing a portrait of Harper as a brilliant, often aloof, but highly disciplined political tactician. Through two minority Parliaments, the Prime Minister was a master at focused, incremental initiatives that avoided defeat in the House of Commons while slowly gaining the trust and support of a growing plurality of Canadians, particularly those whose values were innately conservative but who had not traditionally voted Conservative. This paved the way for the Conservatives’ eventual majority, on which the jury is still out.
Refreshingly, Wells avoids the knee-jerk criticism of Conservative information control so popular among Ottawa insiders. Instead, he helps us understand — as Harper does — the critical importance of message control in developing and solidifying a political brand. For the politically uninitiated, one of the great frustrations of public life is the necessity to park your brain while in public, and repeat a few simple messages over and over until you’re sick of hearing yourself. But Wells portrays Harper as a politician with the consistency and discipline to stay on message.
Some of this springs from Harper’s bedrock distrust of the media. But strict event message control over “freelancing” commentary by their own candidates and party luminaries helped the Conservatives avoid pitfalls as they built their brand into one Canadians could trust to be competent. This was a challenge in the early Harper years as it battled the constant fear, stoked by some of its own members as well as its enemies, of a “hidden agenda” of conservative extremism. Wells shows us how Harper’s refusal to be knocked off stride on his message and strategy reflects a powerful political logic, one that eluded those rival leaders from other parties who could never figure out why they couldn’t beat him.
The book continuously reinforces the dichotomy between the philosophical and intellectual incest of the “Ottawa bubble” and the issues, ideas, preoccupations and values that resonate with Canadians where they live. Harper paid attention. Refusing to “go along to get along” became a signature Harper approach to UN initiatives, such as the Kyoto Protocol, that lacked commonsense appeal for grassroots Canadians.
This blunt, straight-talking approach to international relations would be sneered at by the Ottawa cognoscenti but it resonated with many Canadians, especially the Conservative base. By comparison, the Ottawa bubble is portrayed as an elite network of politicians and their cadre of handlers and advisers, lawyers, public servants, academics, people in the media and others whose values and way of thinking permeate the Capital Region. It’s a smug embrace of government as the central nervous system of the country, and it’s one that Harper equated with the Liberal Party’s DNA.
Wells does an important service in teasing out of relative obscurity some of the writings and history behind the western Reform/Alliance movement. Having grown up in northern Alberta, I recall well the deep sense of western distrust and resentment toward eastern corporations, politicians and power elites in the media and professions. Wells captures this visceral dimension beautifully. He also cites the writings of Peter Brimelow (The Patriot Game), Russell Kirk (editor of the American magazine National Review) and Irving Kristol as providing a more analytical paradigm for understanding conservatism, particularly the traditional western conservatism and alienation that animate Harper.
This is not a flattering, sycophantic portrait of any of the party leaders of the Harper era. Wells draws out Harper’s strengths but also his weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. The Harper that emerges in the book is a loner, prone to explosions of temper but always inscrutable, even to those who work most closely with him. He does not come across as a man with a lot of friends.
In my experience, I never saw the temper, but I saw plenty of long-time acquaintances who thought friendship would benefit them with cabinet posts and preferred positions. As near as I could tell, it never did. Harper’s rewards were for loyalty, partisanship and competence, not friendship. He was what I would call an “executive party leader,” having more in common with a corporate CEO and certainly not a hail-fellow-well-met, backslapping politician. I do think he can be very personable in private, but it never coloured his judgment on decisions to be made — and it was best to remember that.
Harper clearly emerges as Canada’s political master of the past decade. But Wells is equivocal on the Conservatives’ performance to date and doesn’t pull punches in assessing the government’s policy program as getting a little tired (though the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement is a signal event since the book was written). While underscoring the Prime Minister’s personal role in Conservative successes, Wells also argues that the bad patches have frequently been, and continue to be, of his own making. While this may be true, I felt the depth and experience of the Prime Minister’s political staff was variable. There were times it felt like some decisions were the product of too much like-minded partisanship, with insufficient challenge from other, more balanced voices. Harper does stick to his positions through thick and thin, so getting the initial decision right is critical.
But the book is also an excellent play-by-play chronicle of the last seven years in Canadian politics, from the inside of election campaigns to the perpetual political warfare now waged in between. Wells takes us into town hall meetings and events where a few moments of passion by party leaders would have the crowds on their feet. Then he shows how fervour in a crowded, partisan room can look strange and disconnected from reality to large swaths of Canadians viewing it through clips on the evening news.
Wells also leaves us with some takeaways about the shifting landscape of Canadian politics.
For one thing, we are seeing the results of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s move to limit political contributions and Harper’s further restricting of taxpayer support, which has tilted the field strongly in the Conservatives’ favour. The traditional Liberal fundraising base was heavily corporate, while the NDP relied more heavily on union support. Both were weakened by these electoral funding reforms that sharply limited the eligible contributions of unions, companies and individuals. The removal of the direct taxpayer subsidy to political parties based on House of Commons representation was a final nail in the coffin of old-time, deep-pocket fundraising.
Meanwhile the Reform, Alliance and Conservative machines were built on a party bedrock of small contributions from individual supporters. Monitoring this support, virtually in real time, became a valuable way of gauging the political mood of the party base. The Conservative machine is adept at identifying, measuring and probing its potential support base. The work of people like Patrick Muttart, the PM’s go-to person on political pulse taking and positioning, was deep and granular.
The knowledge base helped the Conservatives identify their potential appeal to ethnic communities, seeing opportunities in shared family, social and economic values. It was then that Jason Kenney became the hyperactive politician, bonding with these communities on behalf of the Conservatives. Kenney was tireless and he was everywhere, making Canadians of Chinese, Indian, Filipino and Jewish origin a significant part of the Conservatives’ political base.
As Wells notes, this modernization of the Conservative organization has changed the way Canadian politics is done, making it faster, more micro in its outlook and too easily distracted by the need for constant political messaging. But the superiority and sophistication of the Conservative fundraising machine was a key enabler for party operatives busily crafting their devilishly effective media buys. The ads would effectively destroy the brands of both Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff as the Liberals watched, lacking the resources — or the on-the-ground intelligence — to effectively counterattack.
No good book on politics is complete without a little gossip about backstage nastiness on a personal level. Wells does not disappoint. From the fallout between Harper and Tom Flanagan after publication of Flanagan’s book Harper’s Team to a variety of quotes about Dion and Ignatieff from frustrated Liberal insiders, The Longer I’m Prime Minister delivers the inside stuff on politics that are, as I can attest, all too real and familiar.
But the book’s value is in its portrayal of Harper that gets beyond the caricatures. Wells sees the Prime Minister as a shrewd tactician with unusual skill, discipline and focus on winning, a survivor against long odds. He is credited with shifting the framework of political discussion from an elitist one in which the Liberals were seen as the natural governing party, almost synonymous with Canada and the flag, to one that focuses on middle-class Canadians and the issues that touch them where they live. Imitation is flattery. Today, all opposition leaders are positioning themselves as friends of the middle class, working Canadians, busily reshaping their party political machinery to win them over.
Wells does not project whether Harper can win again. Readers looking for a bead on likely outcomes in the next election will get only a good understanding of potential fault lines and not much more. But Wells has given us an early indication of how we may remember the Harper years. By refusing to bow to the conventional Ottawa consensus, this prime minister has brought a degree of harmony to the federation. Today, western Canadians are less angry and frustrated than has been the case through much of our history. They feel more a part of the governance of Canada in both the public and private sectors. While east and west will always display shades of difference, those are less stark today than at any time I can recall. Paul Wells has gone a way to helping us understand why.