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Profile of Canada’s New PM

25 January 2006 at 03:21 | 561 views

Stephen Harper himself would tell you he’s a prime example of policy over pizzazz. And after Canadians gave his Conservatives a minority government on Jan. 23, he’s about to become a prime ministerial example of policy over pizzazz.

"My strengths are not spin or passion, you know that," the 46-year-old politician repeatedly said in the closing weeks of the general election campaign. "I believe it’s better to light one candle than to promise a million light bulbs."

But when it comes to Canada’s future, Harper has often spoken of the need to redesign the political equivalent of the entire electrical grid.

From his days as a graduate student of economics in Calgary, the Toronto-born Harper has been a staunch believer in smaller government, traditional values and letting citizens have greater control over their lives. To him, that once meant whittling down or eliminating some social programs, business development agencies and the costly gun registry in order to reduce taxes and put money and power back into the hands of Canadians. It also meant giving MPs the right to vote freely in the House of Commons on matters of social conscience in order to represent the views of their constituents.

Will he put all of these ideas into action as Canada’s 22nd prime minister, or only the more moderate ones he has been discussing recently? It depends on how you interpret what Harper said recently.

"I don’t think my fundamental beliefs have changed in a decade," he said on Jan. 11. "But certainly my views on individual issues have evolved, and I deal with the situation as I find it."

The road to government

Today’s Conservatives were formed in late 2003 from the ashes of the once-mighty Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, reduced to a rump in the Liberal sweep of 1993, and the Canadian Alliance, the successor of the populist Reform Party of Canada. Harper was elected leader of the newly merged party in March 2004, and was almost immediately plunged into an election campaign called by new Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin.

Despite polls showing him within striking distance of a majority government with two weeks left to go until election day, Harper’s party won only 99 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons. That was thanks to the Martin team’s late-campaign push to portray him as a scary social conservative and a clone of two former Progressive Conservative leaders: former PM Brian Mulroney, under whose watch the Canadian deficit skyrocketed, and former Ontario premier Mike Harris, who slashed both taxes and social programs at the same time in the 1990s.

Bleeding from that defeat, and from media portrayals of him as an angry voice of Western Canada extremism left over from the defunct Reform Party, Harper disappeared from public view in the summer of 2004 to consider his own future and that of his new party. He emerged from his bout of thinking convinced that there was a way for him to lead the Conservatives to government, even if he had to swallow his intellectual pride and be made over into a more palatable public figure.

His friend Tom Flanagan, a University of Calgary academic who has been the closest thing to a mentor Harper has ever had, once credited the Conservative leader with "a rare strategic gift combined with a lot of brain power...He can size up a situation of political conflict; he can figure out who your main enemies are, where your opportunities lie."

Others could see weaknesses, though.

"He exhibits a cold brilliance and a cold arrogance that are unattractive in a public figure," said William Johnson, author of a 2005 biography of Harper. "We like our leaders to come begging for our favour. Harper does not beg; he rarely even goes through the motions...Harper and charisma fit together like porridge and champagne." Characteristically, Harper declined to be interviewed for the Johnson book, which ended up praising him for his integrity, good judgment on key issues of the day, willingness to make tough decisions and commitment to make Canada a better place. Johnson concludes that because of these merits, Harper rates better than any Canadian leader since Pierre Trudeau.

From Trudeau to Reform

Trudeau was one of the young Stephen Harper’s earliest political inspirations, in fact. Admiration for the then-prime minister led him to join the Liberal student club a friend founded in the mid-1970s at Richview Collegiate in Etobicoke, Ont.

That admiration ended when Trudeau enraged the West by bringing in the National Energy Program in 1980. By then, Harper was living in Alberta and about to study economics at the University of Calgary. He ended up working to elect Jim Hawkes, one of Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative candidates, and followed the new MP from Calgary West to Ottawa to work for him after Mulroney swept to power in 1984.

Ottawa’s power games and the Tory government’s seeming inability to tackle real reform almost turned him away from politics for good. He left the capital after a year to return to Calgary and pursue a master’s degree in economics.

Harper was a voracious reader, and the books he tackled in the next year would change the course of his life. Thinkers such as Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek and William Buckley left him with a profound respect for the workings of a free-market economy and a set of neo-conservative beliefs that were being put into political practice by Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and America’s Ronald Reagan.

The old parties didn’t seem to have room for reform along those lines, so Harper was intrigued when he heard about a new political movement that was starting up in the West, a movement he would soon help to become the Reform Party of Canada.

He drafted much of the party’s original policy and later accompanied its first MP, Deborah Grey, to Ottawa to help craft her speeches as he continued to be Reform’s chief policy officer. Then he succeeded in being elected himself in 1993, taking the riding of Calgary West from his old boss, Tory Jim Hawkes. That same year, Harper married graphic designer Laureen Teskey (they now have two young children, Benjamin and Rachel).

A sabbatical from the Hill

Though he was seen as one of the new party’s bright lights (the Ottawa Citizen called the fluently bilingual young man "the Reform MP least likely to drag his knuckles"), Harper’s path to the prime ministership was not smooth. He would leave Parliament Hill once more, quitting his MP’s post in early 1997 after disagreeing with leader Preston Manning’s handling of Canada’s seemingly endless national unity debate. Harper took the helm of the National Citizens Coalition. There he spoke out in defence of taxpayers’ rights, penned articles that called official bilingualism "the god that failed" and criticized federal politicians over the "appeasement" of Quebec separatists, and fought limits on third-party election campaign spending.

By 2001, Harper was off the sidelines and back in the game. When Reform became the Canadian Alliance and Stockwell Day imploded as leader during the 2000 election campaign, Harper started thinking about party politics again.

What followed was a hard-fought campaign during which his volunteers managed to stave off an influx of new party members the Day team recruited from conservative church congregations, a development that Harper deplored in one interview. "My view is that the purpose of a Christian church is to promote the message and the life of Christ. It is not to promote a particular political party or candidacy. I don’t think this is good religion, besides being bad politics at the same time." In the end, he defeated Day to take the Alliance’s top job in 2002.

A year later he succeeded in his quest to reunite the right, striking a deal with PC Leader Peter MacKay to merge Canada’s two conservative parties in October 2003. He easily defeated car parts CEO Belinda Stronach and former Ontario health minister Tony Clement to become the first leader of the new Conservative Party of Canada.

A perfect anti-Liberal storm

At the time the merger took place, whoever won the fight to lead the new party wasn’t looking at settling into 24 Sussex Drive any time soon. Martin was the greying boy wonder of the Liberal party, the deficit-slaying former finance minister who was going to fix the democratic deficit too, as soon as he could hustle Jean Chrétien out of the office the former prime minister had held for 10 years.

But Chrétien left behind a booby-trapped legacy that would deny Martin a comfortable slide into another majority government and give Harper an unusually potent weapon in the coming campaigns.

The sponsorship scandal was born in the months after the 1995 Quebec referendum, when Chrétien decided to show the federalist flag in Quebec to stave off any renewed sovereigntist threat. He created a little-known sponsorship program, which would give money to community events and initiatives in return for an acknowledgement of federal government support. Ten years later, Auditor General Sheila Fraser found that the bureaucrats administering the program had "broken almost every rule in the book." As a result, a number of Quebec advertising agencies did little work in return for lucrative fees. Some of that money found its way back into the pockets of Liberal Party organizers in Quebec.

The scandal left Martin with a huge monkey on his back in the province of Quebec, as well as in the rest of Canada. The once-dominant Liberals could eke out only a minority government in 2004, and continuing news stories from the commission of inquiry looking into the scandal cleared the way for an almost-unimaginable resurgence of the Conservatives in Quebec leading up to the vote on Jan. 23, 2006. Harper’s party took 10 seats, though few pundits had given them a shot at any as the campaign began.

But Harper himself carried some regional baggage that raised questions about his priorities once in power. In 2001, he co-signed a letter proposing that Alberta build a "firewall" around itself by getting out of the Canada Health Act and creating its own pension plan, freeing the province from interference by a "hostile" federal government. He once described Atlantic Canada, where his Harper ancestors had settled after arriving from England in the 1770s, as suffering from a "culture of defeat."

He has often explained those stances but never apologized for them. Still, his party earned 34.5 per cent of the popular vote in the Atlantic region in 2006, compared to just over 30 in the previous election, and grew far beyond its Alberta roots throughout the country in the 2006 election.

Leading up to the vote, Harper pledged to give provinces more power to manage their own affairs, as well as hand over taxing authority so that they can pay for the programs they decide to run as a result. He also said he would not kill the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, less than two years after he said, "those kinds of programs have to go."

A very private man

On a personal level, what kind of a man is about to become our 22nd prime minister? It’s a bit hard to tell. Harper refuses to answer most requests for interviews about his private life, and won’t fill out the light-hearted questionnaires that news agencies like to send out during election campaigns.

That’s part of a pattern. He distrusts the media and detests photo ops. "It has been said that one of the great transformations of this election campaign is that Mr. Harper no longer displays open contempt for the press gallery. Now he hides his contempt," Globe and Mail writer John Ibbitson noted in a Jan. 14 article. "The guy is not a barbecue-going politician and he’s not a baby kisser," Preston Manning once said. "If people want those, they can find them at the local bar."

This we do know: He’s a devoted family man who gains strength from his extrovert wife Laureen, and mourned for the family cat when a car ran over it outside Stornoway, the home of the leader of the Official Opposition. He’s a proud hockey dad who walks or drives his two children to school almost every day when he’s in Ottawa.

He called his chartered accountant father, Joseph Harper, who died in 2003, "the most important man in [my] life," and is close to his mother Margaret and younger brothers Robert and Grant.

He aced his studies as a boy, earning marks close to 100 in most of his high school courses and winning his school’s gold medal. He has never gotten over the asthma he endured as a child, so his energy tends to flag at times. He went out for track and field, but is so into hockey that he’s writing a book about its history, taking time to work on it even in the middle of the latest election campaign. Movies are another hobby, and he made it to the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Grade 9 level for playing piano.

He has few close friends but is fiercely loyal to them. He has a temper that shows itself when he believes he is being betrayed.

He has said he is proud of his role creating the Reform Party of Canada, but it is mentioned nowhere in the biography of him that appears on the Conservative Party of Canada. Nor is his stint as president of the National Citizens’ Coalition.

He will be the fifth-youngest person to become Canada’s prime minister, after Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney, Arthur Meighen and Kim Campbell. With the exception of Mulroney, the three others had unusually short terms of office before voters turfed them out.

Throughout the recent election campaign, Harper roused partisan crowds by a vow to paint the country blue. Now comes the hard part: picking a shade of blue most of the country will accept, and finding the time to get the whole job done.

Photo: Stephen Harper