Harper is the political player of the decade

PM has had a few stumbles, but he's grown into the job

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The Gazette, Wednesday, December 30, 2009

There's no doubt that Stephen Harper is the player of the year in Canadian politics, and a very strong case can also be made that he's the player of the decade.

And this is a guy who, as the decade began, was out of politics, working as a lobbyist as head of the National Citizens' Coalition. Harper, who always saw himself as more of a backstage strategist, went on to become the leading political actor of the decade.

Consider: When Stockwell Day invited a challenge to his leadership of the Canadian Alliance in 2002, Harper stepped in where no one else would - and prevailed.

Then in 2003, Harper and Progressive Conservative leader Peter MacKay successfully completed a merger that united the right, a prerequisite for winning an election. More than a united right, Harper also got the PCs' most important asset - the Conservative brand, the one Canadian voters always turn to when they get tired of the Liberals.

That was the moment, just as Paul Martin was becoming Liberal leader, that a fourth consecutive majority slipped away from the Grits.

In the 2004 election, only a late surge of strategic voters to the Liberals saved Martin a minority government. It was also a good lesson for Harper. His team wasn't ready to govern, and the voters sensed it in the closing days of the campaign, in which the Conservatives allowed the Liberals to define their leader as a scary guy with a hidden agenda. It wouldn't happen again.

In 2005, the Conservatives staged a big policy convention in Montreal, where they took a lot of scary stuff like abortion, and Reform-era initiatives like recall of MPs, off the table.

In the 2006 election, Harper actually went into the campaign behind, but over the course of eight weeks, proved the point that campaigns matter. He announced five priorities for government - including a health-care guarantee and child-care allowances for parents - that got the attention of the middle class. In Quebec, his "open federalism" speech just before the holidays gave Quebecers a respectable alternative to the Liberals and the Bloc. It was no accident that his breakthrough in the polls in Quebec, resulting in 10 seats, occurred after Quebecers had discussed it over the Christmas holidays.

In 2008, Harper had only himself to blame for a missed rendezvous with a majority, as well as for the self-inflicted parliamentary crisis that nearly cost him his government.

But in 2009 he has been the Comeback Kid, thoroughly dominating politics and public policy on the federal stage. Aside from an unforced error by his office, when it stupidly suggested Brian Mulroney was no longer a member of a party he twice led to massive majorities, Harper has enjoyed a rise in the polls that has taken him once more to the threshold of majority territory.

Of course, he has also been fortunate in his opponents, first with Stéphane Dion in the 2008 election, and now with Michael Ignatieff giving a very good impersonation of Hamlet. To be or not to be in an election, that was the question for Iggy.

First Ignatieff said he had the government on a short leash, demanding quarterly updates as a condition of supporting the January budget. That only allowed Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to put out a quarterly statement, complete with graphs and charts, on what a great job the government was doing steering the economy through the recession to recovery.

Then Ignatieff famously said, "Mr. Harper, your time is up," a foolish declaration that left him no room to climb down except in the humbling way he finally did, taking it all back. Now his position is that there's no way he'll force an election in 2010. There doesn't seem to be much of a middle ground in Ignatieff's world, only extremes. Meanwhile, he has handed Jack Layton the balance of power, and the NDP leader, who enjoys being visible and relevant, is coming off his most effective session in the House.

Ignatieff can take some comfort in that a year ago Harper was in a bad place. Flaherty's listening tour, and his January budget, were instrumental in saving the government and reversing the political course of the year.

Subsequently, the government's message was twofold - first a steady hand on the wheel through the recession, and then staying in Ottawa to run the country's affairs through to an economic recovery. The core attribute of government is competence and the government has passed it, from the GM bailout to the H1N1 rollout.

But as the year and the decade end, the biggest change has been in Harper himself. From the February bilateral meeting with Barack Obama to a series of international summits, Harper has developed a comfort zone on the world stage, a role he will grow into more next year as he hosts the G8 and G20 summits.

At home, in the House and on the hustings, he has grown into the role, as well as the job, of prime minister.

All of which makes him Canada's political player of the year and, indeed, the decade.

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