Poisoned by his own lack of passion; Harper has sounded more like a man seeking office than holding it
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 15 October 2008)

Despite his victory, it was not at all the campaign Stephen Harper expected. Rather than running smoothly, like a corporate manager's dream, it turned out to be a messy national squabble, an ordeal of unwelcome shocks from stock markets and unsettling bulletins from pollsters. The terrifying cracks in the structure of the global financial system couldn't have been anticipated by the Conservatives but they shouldn't have become a Conservative problem. After all, the Conservatives are supposed to know about money and should therefore attract more votes in difficult financial times than otherwise. But Mr. Harper was caught with his rhetoric down, unable to explain quickly and clearly why his prudent methods, and not the extravagant fantasies of the Liberals, were what Canada needed.

The market crisis was only one of the problems besetting the Conservatives, and not necessarily the worst. Two other obstacles stood in their way. One was the traditional Canadian attitude toward Conservatives. The other was Stephen Harper.

Liberals have governed Canada for so many years that much of the electorate, maybe two-thirds, accepts the left-liberal approach to national affairs and embraces big government as the norm. These voters consider right-wing politicians automatically suspect, perhaps slightly illegitimate. Sometimes Canadians defeat the Liberals but even then we embrace Conservatives only if they look and act as little like conservatives as possible.

In 1958, John Diefenbaker led the Progressive Conservatives to what was then a record majority, 208 seats. He was a Conservative in name only, a populist who campaigned for higher old-age pensions and considered the Liberals parsimonious. Bay Street gave him almost automatic support at first but soon lost its enthusiasm. His government collapsed after he did his best to separate Canada from the Cold War against the Soviets.

Mr. Diefenbaker's successor as leader, Robert Stanfield, came close to forming a government in 1972. He believed, like any good Nova Scotia premier, in an economy propped up by Ottawa. Joe Clark, who followed him and briefly served as prime minister, brought similar Red Tory attitudes with him to Ottawa.

Brian Mulroney was the favourite of right-wing delegates when the 1983 convention chose him. But in office he was close to a standard Liberal. A modest attempt to pull back on welfare payments fell apart at the first sign of resistance. Liberals and others called him a traitor for negotiating a free trade treaty with the U. S. in 1988, even though free trade was a fundamental part of traditional Liberalism.

The Harper-led Conservatives of the 21st century bring with them a suspicion of Ottawa power --a suspicion that relatively few voters elsewhere share. Mr. Harper has done his best, particularly through his courtship of Quebec, to present his kind of Conservatism as moderate and unthreatening -- rather like the Liberals, in fact, though of course more sensible.

But so far as we can gather, nothing he did during 33 months in office altered his reputation as a potential danger to what many Canadians like to call, in their most euphoric moments, "Canadian values." In trying to convert voters to his view of government, he seems to be dreaming an impossible dream, as the song goes, while struggling "to fight for the right." Not enough of us are singing along.

If Mr. Harper's great strengths lie in political organization and managerial government, his greatest weakness is in the art of persuasion. He not only has trouble persuading us that his ideology deserves support; he even has difficulty explaining why we have an army in Afghanistan. A democratic country that sends soldiers into the jaws of death must, metaphorically, accompany them on their journey. Mr. Harper has tried his best to awaken the country to Afghanistan, but his best has been nowhere near good enough. As Prime Minister, he has never articulated and stimulated a national sense of shared commitment.

From the beginning, he has acted as if his kind of government is not only right but self-evidently right. He assumes (his manner demonstrates it) he's taken the wisest course in every field from foreign policy to taxation, and that everyone should agree. His followers find that reassuring, but his stance does nothing to make converts.

It is in the delicate matter of stance, the quality produced by the mingling of political goals and personal feelings under the pressure of circumstances, that the Conservatives have appeared least attractive. In the everyday business of government, their style looks austere and rigid. Tonally, they are inhibited and joyless. Mr. Harper himself projects a strangely mundane quality. Even in his own words, the Conservative program rarely sounds better than competent. No one would argue that competence is unimportant, but when it goes slightly wrong it emerges as mediocrity.

Mr. Harper's presentation of himself registers as remarkably unambitious. If Mr. Mulroney was far too ambitious (setting out, ruinously, to solve the problem of Quebec sovereignty forever), Mr. Harper has been too timid in the goals he's set for himself and the country. It's hard to consider anything he accomplishes as particularly challenging to the voters. He's been more effective denouncing his opponents than explaining his own program's virtues. Too often, while holding the office of prime minister, he's sounded more like someone seeking it.

He leaves the impression that he thinks the really crucial job of the Conservatives is to keep the Liberals out of power. That may please those who find the Liberals painfully smug, but it is not prime ministerial. It's not enough to sneer at the empty rhetoric of the Liberals; Conservatives wanting to defeat them in the long term must also offer a spirited explanation of their own goals.

On Saturday, Mr. Harper told a TV interviewer that "I have the best job in the best country in the world" and that the Tories are "delighted to be in government." He didn't say exactly what produced all that euphoria or why his job was so satisfying. As so often happens, he left his strongest feelings undisclosed.

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