The longer Stephen Harper is prime minister, the better for his image

As PM, he's no longer that scary guy with the hidden right-wing agenda

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The Gazette, Monday, April 9, 2007

Being prime minister is the best part of Stephen Harper's job. Actually, it's the role of prime minister, as opposed to the job, that's the best part. And every day he's in that role, being prime ministerial, is one more day he's not some scary guy with a hidden right-wing agenda.

Today, he's at Vimy Ridge, observing the 90th anniversary of the First World War engagement in which Canadian political sovereignty was born in blood. His wife and two children are along because a part of the observance is about schoolkids learning what happened in that place, nearly a century ago.

Last week, as part of the setup to the Vimy ceremony, Harper announced a long-awaited Veterans' Bill of Rights. Sitting behind him as he made this announcement were several rows of proud veterans, wearing their medals.

This was not an accidental photo-op. It was clearly a page borrowed from the Republican playbook of visuals when Ronald Reagan made his famous speech celebrating "the boys of Pointe-du-Hoc" on the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984.

Or consider that the previous week Harper came to Montreal to join in a black-tie tribute to Jean Beliveau, the greatest Canadien of them all. And while the boy from Leaside acknowledged his fealty to the Leafs, the man from Calgary quickly added that he always switched allegiance to Big Jean and the Canadiens whenever Toronto was eliminated from the playoffs, usually in January.

And what did this tell Quebecers? That he was pretty close to being a normal guy, a hockey fan. In his spare time, he was researching a writing a book on the history of our game.

In his job as prime minister last week, Harper turned up with an announcement on health-care waiting times. He had money for the provinces and told them to choose whether the cash should go to elective surgeries or acceptable waiting times. That's only a partial fulfillment of the "health-care guarantee" Harper promised in the 2006 election, allowing patients to go outside the system at public expense when acceptable waiting times are exceeded. But it's also in line with his view of federal funding for services delivered and prioritized by the provinces.

Interestingly, this could lead Harper to check off the final point of his five priorities from the campaign - the others being the Accountability Act, childcare cheques, the GST cut and the crime package.

This leads to a campaign mantra: "promises made, promises kept." There's also a sixth priority that resonates in Quebec - addressing the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces. Voters here might not understand the nuances of fiscal federalism, but they do know that a lot of money is coming Quebec's way as a result of negotiations between Harper and Premier Jean Charest.

The completion of the five priorities checklist, more than anything else, should be a signal to the opposition parties that Harper is prepared to go to an election, anytime soon.

When the Conservatives gave reporters a guided tour of their campaign headquarters and war room in Ottawa recently, they were providing access to empty desks and videos of empty rooms.

No big deal. Except that the media became the message, reminding the opposition parties that the Tories are ready for an election, and they aren't.

In effect, Harper was saying "I can do this because I can."

Harper is clearly covering his position. He'd like to stay in Ottawa and govern, but if the opposition parties combine to defeat the government over an issue such as the Clean Air Act, he retains the option of treating it as a question of confidence.

Outside of the budget, and treasury matters, the government gets to define matters of confidence.

And lacking the confidence of the House, the prime minister can visit the governor-general any time he thinks it's a nice day for an election, and ask for a writ.

It would be good for the prime minister to know her answer in advance - in a minority Parliament, the only issue is the confidence of the House, and theoretically she would retain her constitutional prerogative of inviting Stephane Dion to form a government and test the confidence of the House. But Dion would need the support of the Bloc Quebecois to survive, not something either he or it would be prepared to contemplate.

So when the House returns from its break next week, Harper can either move to an election with polls indicating another Conservative government, though with no guarantee of a majority, or stay in this minority Parliament into 2008.

Every day he's in the role, as well as the job, of prime minister, it works for him.

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