Prime Minister Stephen Harper is seen during an exclusive interview in his office on Parliament Hill Ottawa Wed Sept 13, 2012.
Credits: ANDRE FORGET/QMI AGENCY
Harper-haters — found mainly on the progressive side of the spectrum, but not exclusively — consider the prime minister to be a black-hearted social conservative, perpetually scheming to crush dissent and push Canada further to the right. (When, in fact, he spent like a liberal during the post-recession stimulus period, and has pledged to vote with Liberals and the NDP to keep abortion legal.)
Harper-lovers — most often conservatives, but also a wide swath of Canada’s media establishment — regard their man as a latter-day St. George, slaying the twin-headed dragon of socialism and liberalism, and remaking Canada in the image of our WASPy antecedents. (When, in fact, he has piloted his Conservative party to the centre of the ideological road, and leads the most ethnically diverse caucus in the House of Commons.)
His detractors are flummoxed by Harper’s position atop the polls, as in the Abacus survey which showed his party is still the dominant force in Canadian politics, more than six years after he became PM. His acolytes believe his popularity can be traced to conservative orthodoxy. Harper’s haters, and his helpers and hangers-on, are misinformed. Both sides believe Harper is an activist. Both sides believe he never rests in aggressively pursuing his agenda, whether they approve of it or not.
They’re wrong. Harper has survived and prospered for one reason: He stays out of your face. Long ago, a former prime minister revealed to me one of the wellsprings of his impressive popularity levels.
“Stay out of the papers,” this prime minister said. “The people, they don’t want to hear from you all the time. Do your job, and keep your mouth shut. You don’t have to comment on every single goddamn issue.” (Three guesses who the former prime minister was. The first two don’t count.) When you think about it, the former PM is, of course, right.
Harper disappeared into a political Bermuda Triangle over the summer. Before that, he did some travel, he answered some questions in the House of Commons, and he won an election. But reflect for a moment: Can you recall three big things that Harper did in that period?
Chances are you can’t, for a reason. Harper is one of the canniest politicos to slink through the doors of 24 Sussex in a long time. He knows that, in politics, familiarity breeds contempt. He knows that, ultimately, incumbency is a curse. Experience and statesmanship count for naught.
In the end, prime ministers can be defeated by an issue, sure. But, most of the time, leaders are felled by their unwillingness to move on. By staying too long at the party.
The people, in their wisdom, will give Stephen Harper two possible exit scenarios. One, of his own volition, to memoir-writing, speech-making and generous corporate sinecures. Or, two, against his will. Shipped home in a political pine box.
Which door will Harper choose? Who knows? Power is beguiling. It mesmerizes. Once achieved, it is hard to let go. But Harper knows that if he overstays his welcome — if the people grow sick of his face — he is a goner. And that is why Stephen Harper mainly stays out the papers. The best way to maintain power, always, is this: Don’t be spotted wielding it.