It was April, 2011 and Michael Ignatieff, then leader of Canada's opposition Liberal Party, was addressing an election rally in Sudbury, Ontario. “Why do we have to put up with this? Rise up! Rise up! … This goes beyond partisan politics! This goes beyond the Liberal Party! This is about our country! This is about our democracy! Rise up! Rise up!”
The scene, as penned by Paul Wells in his new book, “The Longer I'm Prime Minister,” captures all the futility of battling the quiet juggernaut of Stephen Harper, possibly one of the most confounding prime ministers ever to inhabit the dull, grey landscape of Ottawa. Ignatieff led the Liberals to the party's biggest ever defeat that year while the Conservatives under Harper secured its first majority government.
It's easy to underestimate Harper, or resort to caricature as Wells notes in his book. It is obvious Harper is deeply conservative, loves the oil industry and all things oilsands. He doesn't seem to give a fig about the environment. Harper is all that, but in his book Wells, a veteran journalist, brings clarity to the 'why' of it all.
At first glance Harper looks very much the accountant he was trained to be: dull and lacking in passion. But don't be fooled, he has a determined, even subversive, vision for the country. Harper is bound to American-style conservatism, yet his battles are not fought in the open. He is no Ronald Reagan making the charming speech, cajoling Canadians along a brave new path. He instead moves with “arch-incrementalism,” as a Harper aid tells us in the book.
The very title of the book, “The Longer I'm Prime Minister,” refers to his plan to shift Canada to the right through small steps achieved over time and under the radar. In one of the most telling parts, Wells writes how Harper edits his own speeches to dull them down. “He works at removing memorable turns of phrase and identifiable ideas from his speeches,” Wells writes. “He puts great effort into flattening the prose.”
Have you ever known a politician who didn't love to draw attention and even exaggerate his policies? It's all part of the penetrating picture the author draws of Harper who first took power in 2006. “His goal was to ensure that Conservatives governed as frequently and as durably in the twenty-first century as Liberals had in the twentieth.” He wants to “re-legitimize” the right and obliterate all traces of so-called leftish thinking. The plan includes tax cuts to de-fund the government and an all out effort to gut environmental protections to ensure rapid expansion of Canada's oilsands reserves.
So how did Harper, the man who helped unite Canada's two conservative parties — the Reform Party and the Progressive Conservatives — get to this point? While the book is a little skimpy on early biographical details, Wells pens an important chapter on Harper's major influences. Early on, Harper embraced a 1986 book called “The Patriot Game,” which argued that Canada's successive Liberal governments were not only far to the left politically, but they also worked to serve central Canada, at the expense of the resource rich west. That, in part, goes a long way to explain Harper's drive to right the wrongs of the past and to free up the west's resource riches.
While Harper is often cast as the brilliant tactician, Wells illustrates how the prime minister could be his own worst enemy. After the Conservatives won in 2011 there was a period in which both opposition parties were in transition to new leaders, theoretically giving Harper even more room to manoeuvre. Alas, no. “The strange interlude during which Harper faced no real opposition had come to an end. And not a moment too soon. He had spent months slapping himself silly.”
Many of the mistakes Harper makes in his current term revolve around the lack of concern for the environment. Since 2011, Harper has been aggressively promoting the Keystone XL pipeline, which aims to sharply increase the flow of oilsands oil to the big U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. Yet in his aggression, he has made mistakes, including not knowing how to deal with the more green-minded Obama administration.
“But his instincts, including a deep suspicion of anyone who challenged the resource-producing base of Alberta power, would often get in the way.” Wells wrote. “Affecting a blasé attitude toward greenhouse gas emissions seemed a cost-free position to Harper. And then the bill came due.”
Harper was furious with Obama's decision to delay the approval of Keystone. But after seeing the writing on the wall, Harper realized he must take decisive action. Energy exports were the government’s new top strategic priority and Asia, specifically China, was now the most important region to target. Harper moved to open up markets at all costs, deciding that environmental reviews must be streamlined and roadblocks by aboriginal groups obliterated. Henceforth, environmentalists were now seen as opponents, even redrawn as traitors under the influence of American money.
“In a lot of ways, the angry orders Harper barked to his ministers after the Keystone delay weren't out of character. But they kicked off a long arc of activity, lasting until the spring of 2012, that he would come to regret.” Whether Harper is still in regret mode is hard to say — the polls do show his hold on the electorate is slipping and he took a beating in the recent by-elections.
Wells, a veteran of Maclean's magazine, is a political journalist and not an environmentalist. His book is an engaging and sometimes hilarious take on what Harper is all about, digging into areas where other Canadian political writers fear to tread.
That is why the book is so useful: it's a lifting of the curtain on a government seeking to do things in secret rather than in the open. So, the Liberal leader's words at the beginning of this review are prescient: “Why do we have to put up with this?” Rise up, Canada — at least to read this book so you can decide for yourself whether one man's rigid adherence to his own philosophy, nursed by a regional grievance, will lay waste to our environmental heritage and to some of its least protected citizens.