A magisterial Stephen Harper will be hard to beat

The prime minister has assumed the mantle as well as the office

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The Gazette, Sunday, December 6, 2009

There is a time when every successful prime minister becomes PM in fact as well as name, when he grows into the role as well as the job. In Brian Mulroney's case, for instance, he crossed that leadership threshold in 1987.

Stephen Harper, in government since 2006, has now assumed the mantle as well as the office. And this is going to make him difficult to beat. Canadians may not like him, but they are starting to see him as a real prime minister, and that is the biggest advantage of incumbency.

Mulroney won the biggest landslide in Canadian history in 1984, but it wasn't until 1987, the year of the Meech Lake Accord and the free-trade agreement, that he really grew into the role of prime minister. He also hosted the summits of la Francophonie and the Commonwealth, ahead of the G7 in Toronto in 1988, and for the first time he looked at home on the world stage.

The morning after the surprise constitutional deal at Meech, some of us were called into his office to work on remarks to the House. There was something different about his demeanour, as if he knew he had done something big. Five months later, as the hands of the clock ticked toward a midnight expiration of free trade negotiations, he was absolutely serene during a conference call with his team in Washington. "Is this better than what we've got?" he asked. "Yes, prime minister," came the momentous answer from his chief of staff, Derek Burney. At that moment, he knew he was making history.

Harper's journey has been different. He has been a prime minister in a minority House, where survival is a constant preoccupation, and tactics can be more important than strategy.

If anything, Harper's tactical propensities nearly brought him to a ruinous end in the parliamentary crisis of last December. The idea of ending public financing of political parties, which sparked the opposition coalition, was entirely his own, and would have cost him the government had he not asked the governor-general to prorogue. Harper's own inclination, over the first weekend of the self-inflicted crisis, was to allow a vote that would have seen the certain defeat of his government - and the probable end of his leadership of the Conservative Party.

Encountered in a fourth-floor corridor of the Centre Block the following Monday, a very senior minister of the government asked what Mulroney's advice would be. "Prorogue," he was told. "The PM's not there yet," the minister replied. "We're trying to get him there."

The next day, a meeting of the cabinet priorities and planning committee got Harper to understand that his first duty as prime minister was to assure the survival of his government.

The worst was yet to come in terms of public opinion, in the form of blowback in Quebec over Harper's rhetorical framing of "the separatist coalition."

But the January budget, following Jim Flaherty's listening tour, got the government back onto its message of managing the economy through recession to recovery. And the infrastructure program, all $40 billion of it, would provide the money to choreograph Harper's summer announcement tour.

Since that low point a year ago there have also been several other important events that helped Harper find his groove.

The first was the visit by Barack Obama in February, followed by the Canada-U.S. bailout of Detroit in the spring. At their joint news conference in Ottawa, both the president and prime minister were impressively in command of their briefs. There was one subtle shading of difference--Obama had read his files, but Harper really knew his. The GM bailout, with Canada's 20 per cent share, not only kept the auto industry in Canada, it also sealed a partnership between Obama and Harper.

Then in June, when Michael Ignatieff started sabre-rattling over EI reform, Harper's measured, magisterial response was entirely prime ministerial. He met Ignatieff at the Langevin Block and 24 Sussex, away from the media circus on the Hill. Harper saw that Ignatieff was grasping at straws and didn't really know the EI file. In other words, he took the measure of his new opponent.

In the fall session, while Iggy walked out on an election ledge with no way to climb down, Harper's response was to stay focused on governing, which was just what the voters wanted. And at a series of international summits, he has looked very much at home. Finally, Harper was a prime minister who had grown comfortable in his own skin when he took to the stage of the National Arts Centre in October. Rather than laughing when he sat down at the piano, they cheered.

A year after his near disaster, Harper has become a solid, if not yet commanding, figure, attuned to the role that is more than a job. What he hasn't done yet is anything big. But opportunity beckons at Copenhagen, and at next June's G8 and G20 summits which he will host. After Copenhagen, when the House returns, he can easily pass a bill to reduce GHG emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, with a North American cap-and-trade regime.

Then he really would be prime minister, in every sense of the word.

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