Harper a natural

Stephen Harper has flawlessly made the transition to prime minister from leader of the opposition

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The Gazette, Monday, April 10, 2006

The prime minister has a secret weapon, and her name is Laureen Teskey Harper. She is as vivacious as he is reserved, and she works a room like no chateleine of Sussex since Mila Mulroney.

On her way out from a reception in the Hall of Honour following the Throne Speech last week, she stopped for a brief chat.

"What does the L. stand for?" she asked, a question I've been asked a thousand times, though never by the wife of a prime minister.

"Lawrence. How do you like the new life so far?"

"My husband loves his job," she said. "He comes home a happy man every night. He didn't like the other job very much."

But then, there isn't much to like about being leader of the opposition - it's all about holding a party together while trying to get it elected. It means one life in Ottawa and another one on the road where, as she pointed out, her husband has spent the better part of the last four years, fighting two leadership and two election campaigns.

Being prime minister, that's different. He names a cabinet and presides over it, and gets to define the public policy agenda for the entire country. He appoints judges to the Supreme Court and the clerk of the Privy Council, among thousands of appointments at her majesty's pleasure. He's now on a first-name basis with the presidents of the United States and Mexico.

And when he comes home at night, to what he has called "the best public house I'll ever live in," there's a nice indoor swimming pool that his wife has said is pretty cool for a farm girl from Alberta.

In question period, the opposition leader gets the lead question and a couple of supplementaries. The prime minister can be on his feet the whole time if he wants, and last week Harper was on his feet a lot.

To a degree that many longtime observers found surprising, Harper appeared to be in his element, as if he had graduated to a role which he had thought about, as opposed to aspiring to, for a long time.

He has the usual briefing book, but doesn't really refer to it, taking questions as they come. Predictably, the opposition spent a good part of last week trying to embarrass the government over Trade Minister David Emerson being "seduced," as the NDP's Pat Martin put it, to cross the floor.

"I do not think I have ever been accused of seducing anyone," Harper replied, "even my wife." In the visitors' gallery, Laureen Harper joined in the general laughter.

When Vancouver Liberal Hedy Fry recited an Emerson campaign quote warning of the Tory hordes at the gates, Harper eagerly jumped to his defence: "As the minister of international trade just noted, the government decided to look beyond the partisanship of the election campaign, and form a government that reaches out to all Canadians. I am very proud of that fact, and I think the minister of international trade should be very proud of the fact that he put his country ahead of his party."

The media have lost interest in this story - the dogs bark, the caravan moves on. In persisting with it, the opposition parties are only binding the Conservative caucus closer together. Every time Emerson takes a question on floor-crossing, the Tory benches erupt in a standing ovation.

And then Harper, as the leader of a new government, gets to blame everything on the former one. All three opposition parties spent a good part of last Thursday asking if the government was abandoning Canada's commitment to the emission reduction targets of Kyoto. Harper was able to point out Canada hadn't kept it under the Liberals, and was now 30 per cent above the Kyoto target of reducing greenhouse emissions.

"We are working on a plan to really reduce greenhouse-gas emissions," Harper said. This is a new conversation, not about Kyoto, but about climate change.

Question period is the public face of a government, but it is essentially a theatrical setting. The real business is transacted in cabinet and communicated to the public in this PM's post-cabinet press conferences.

Harper's cabinet meetings are not seminars on public policy, nor do they feature jostling among regional kingpins. They are already becoming known among top public servants as a place where decisions are made, to the relief of bureaucrats who have endured three years of paralysis under the lame duck Chretien and dithering Martin governments.

As for the media, while they have issues with Harper's control-freak tendencies, no one is complaining about a lack of substance in his answers.

Two months in, no one is writing about 60 days of indecision.

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