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Stephen Harper may surprise a lot of people

The Globe and Mail

December 12, 2005

Page A17

Stephen Harperís campaign bus rolled into Victoria last week and the first surprise was the improvement in his stand-up performance. While the new haircut and mock turtlenecks come across well on television, the news reports donít convey the self-deprecating humour and more polished delivery -- thanks, in part, to the teleprompter that political leaders now use in the hope of looking as intelligent as Peter Mansbridge or Lloyd Robertson.

The second surprise came after the rally, when I was ushered into his suite for a one-on-one interview. Figuring that no focus-group-tested talking point had been prepared, I asked which world leader he most admired.

ďTony Blair,Ē he unhesitatingly replied, after assuring himself I wasnít going to describe him as a closet social democrat. In truth, it was the answer Iíd been half-expecting since watching him carry the same-sex-marriage debate. (Coincidentally, Mr. Blairís Civil Partnerships Act came into force last week.) What surprised me was Mr. Harperís explanation.

Though coming from the opposite end of the political spectrum, Mr. Harper admires the British Prime Ministerís ability to explain principled positions to people who are not always receptive. Somewhat wistfully, he observed that Labourites donít much like their leader, and that it was unclear how much longer theyíd tolerate him. I came away with the impression that Mr. Harper, too, will try his best to bring a party of perennial losers back into the mainstream and back into government -- and, if he succeeds, will try to keep them there for a good long stay.

The timing could not be more propitious. Itís a truism of Canadian politics that the Liberals campaign from the left and govern from the right. But the unprecedented situation that prevailed in the 38th Parliament led Paul Martin to abandon that successful formula in favour of a de facto alliance with the NDP.

In the process, Mr. Martinís reputation has declined precipitously; Canadians now see him as a man who will say and do virtually anything to stay in power. More important, Mr. Martinís way of governing opened up a vast swath of political territory that the Conservatives are ready and able to fill.

Mr. Harper had just come from Vancouver, where he had taken a hard line against crime and drugs, and had lambasted the federal NDP as an elitist organization led by an out-of-touch Torontonian. In the last election, Jack Layton supported the legalization of selling, buying and growing cannabis, and said the party will continue to accept the financial and other support of B.C.ís ďprince of pot,Ē Marc Emery. In the last Parliament, meanwhile, the Liberals chose not to proceed with sensible legislation that would have decriminalized possession of small amounts of cannabis.

On health care, too, the Liberals have been paralyzed into inaction by their rivals on the left. Mr. Layton has been blowing a lot of smoke about privatization, U.S.-style health care and credit-card medicine, but his real agenda is to protect the monopoly of public-sector trade unions. Rather than moving into the Blairite territory of using private clinics to shorten wait times, the Liberals allowed Mr. Layton to set their agenda on the issue that matters most to Canadians.

To be sure, with Quebec Premier Jean Charest making Alberta-like noises, and with the albatross of Mr. Martinís personal private physician, the Liberals had their own reasons to waffle rather than to take the debate to the NDP. In doing so, they turned their back on the report of a Senate committee co-chaired by Liberal Michael Kirby in favour of the more pinkish pronouncements of Roy Romanow.

Mr. Harper has jumped eagerly into the gap, firmly opposing the development of a parallel system, while appropriating the Senate reportís patientsí guarantee -- an idea borrowed from Britain. Many Conservatives believe firmly in their right to purchase private medicine and are apoplectic about their leaderís concession. But Mr. Harper will remain firmly in charge -- at least until the night of Jan. 23, and possibly longer.

Like Tony Blair, Mr. Harper has been effectively positioning himself as the spear carrier of middleclass values. Based on what I saw in Victoria, the kid from Leaside will play much better in Ontario than most observers have been expecting.


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