Harper is in deep, deep trouble

PM oblivious to the extent of his troubles because there is no one in his office to tell him what he needs to hear as opposed to what he wants to hear

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The Gazette, Thursday, April 30, 2009

A good leader knows when he's in trouble. And Stephen Harper, as he turns 50 this week, is in deep trouble. He's in trouble in the country, especially in Quebec; in trouble with the public service, which is putting down tools with his government; and increasingly in trouble with the Conservative Party, whose fault lines are cracking under the divisive and mean-spirited management style of the Prime Minister's Office.

But Harper is apparently oblivious to how much trouble he's in, because there's no one, other than Laureen Harper, who can tell him. He is a leader without confidants and without mentors. There is no one to tell him what he needs to hear, as opposed to what he wants to hear, not in the cabinet, not in the caucus, and certainly not in his own office.

There is no one to bell the cat.

In 1987, the Conservative Party sent two emissaries to see Brian Mulroney privately at Harrington Lake. Peter Lougheed and Bill Davis, who had retired undefeated as four-term premiers of Alberta and Ontario, had unique standing to carry a message to the prime minister. They told Mulroney, then polling in the low 20s, that unless he made major changes to his office, he was headed for certain defeat at the next election.

And that is precisely where Harper stands now.

Mulroney listened to the party elders, and made the changes that eventually reversed his slide in public opinion. His closest advisers were all shunted aside and eventually left. This was an extremely painful decision for Mulroney, because as he often said, "you dance with the one you came with." Loyalty was big part of Mulroney's makeup, and it cut him to the quick to let his friends leave. But at a higher level, he also understood that a prime minster has no friends, only interests to defend, beginning with a party in government.

Harper doesn't put a lot of store in loyalty. He is motivated, his close friends say, by a sense of duty, and expects the same in those who work for him. At the end of the day, he doesn't reward service, especially by his friends, and his loyalty deficit has not gone unnoticed in the party, from the rank and file to cabinet rank.

Here's the thing: Michael Ignatieff is capable of inspiring Harper to take his game to a higher level, but the prime minister can't get there with the people he's got around him now. If he doesn't shake up his office, and soon, Harper is going to lose to Ignatieff. He may lose anyway, especially in this economy, but unless he makes changes to his close entourage, he will lose for sure.

It begins with his chief of staff, Guy Giorno, who in less than a year has alienated the key central agencies of Privy Council, Foreign Affairs and Finance; annoyed the entire public service; offended the Ottawa political class of lawyers, consultants and lobbyists; re-opened old cleavages between the Reform-Alliance and Progressive Conservative wings of the party; and to all appearances, written off Quebec.

Well, you can win elections without Quebec, especially in a four-party House, but you can't really govern the country without Quebec. And you can't run the country if the second floor of the Langevin Block, PMO, isn't talking to the third floor, PCO, the prime minister's own department. The other key central agencies, Finance and Foreign Affairs, are often on different pages than PMO, as Finance was last November when PMO ordered the disastrous items into the economic update that nearly blew up Parliament.

Giorno arrived in Ottawa last June, known only as the last chief of staff to Mike Harris at Queen's Park. By then the Common Sense Revolution had run out of steam, Harris having left at mid-mandate in 2001. Harris was known as a big picture leader, but the people around him were known as "the little shits." Many of those same people are now running Ottawa, and they are proving that they can't play the game at this level. One notable exception, communications director Kory Teneycke, is regarded by the town as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

"They haven't been tested yet," Harper said of his new staff during a private chat in mid-August last year. Well, they have been since then. In the campaign, the Conservatives lost their majority by being totally tone deaf on Quebec. Then, in the parliamentary crisis last December, Harper's staff approved his polarizing address to the nation, attacking "the separatist coalition" in English. The PMO recouped with a successful budget in January and a well managed visit by Barack Obama in February, but dug another hole in March by suggesting Mulroney was no longer a member of the party. It was cheesy, cheap and utterly lacking in class, not to mention incredibly stupid.

In a larger sense, there is no larger sense of public policy or public purpose coming from this government. It's all tactics and wedge politics. There are no big ideas, and no compelling agenda. That's a leadership issue, and it goes to the prime minister and his office.

Harper tends to take criticism of his staff personally, yet paradoxically he is known for learning from his mistakes. On this milestone of a birthday, he needs to give himself a shake.

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