Stephen Harper once told an Alberta magazine that his motto is "don't listen to what politicians say, watch what they do." With a national election about to be visited upon us, we'll rightly be hearing a lot about what Stephen Harper has said in the past. After all, he's never been afraid to express opinions that would be regarded as unconventional at best outside southern Alberta. He's said parents should be able to pull their children from "union-run" public schools, he's argued that Canada should adopt a U.S. congressional-style system of government, and he's said Canadians are content to live in a "second-tier socialistic country." He's urged Alberta to build a "firewall" to preserve its values against a hostile federal government, he's alleged a federal government conspiracy to stack the courts in favour of gay marriage, and he's said human rights commissions amount to "totalitarianism" and an "attack on our fundamental freedoms and the basic existence of a democratic society." It's those kinds of comments that have earned Harper an image in the media as an inflexible ideologue - a phrase that pops up in virtually every media portrait of the 45-year-old Conservative leader. If you look at what this politician has done, however, a different picture emerges. Despite the reputation for inflexibility, Harper was responsible for pulling together a badly divided Canadian Alliance party. He then united the right with a merger with the Progressive Conservative party. The man who once said there were only two kinds of Tories - red ones and yellow ones - has welcomed red Tories into the new Conservative party. After running for the Alliance leadership as the moderate who would preserve the party from the moral crusaders clustered around Stockwell Day, Harper reached out to social conservatives and took a tough stance against gay marriage. More recently, Harper has tried to stake out the middle ground in the health care debate, advancing a policy that not only mimics the Liberals' stance, but goes beyond the governing party's plans in terms of expanding the publicly funded system. 'Oldest young man' "Stephen Harper is a consummate pragmatist," says University of Lethbridge political scientist Geoffrey Hale. Hale, who has known Harper for some time, describes the Opposition leader as "a pragmatic conservative. He views politics as the art of the possible. "Hale said that within the old Reform party - which did contain a number of ideologues - Harper always had the ability to draw a distinction between political theory and practical realities. So what kind of policies might we see from a Stephen Harper government? "I would think that would very much depend on the circumstances that he was dealing with," says Hale. "Mr. Harper is someone who likes to manage expectations and then exceed them. "Harper's subdued, policy-wonk persona has helped him keep expectations low. Alberta political scientist David Taras once wrote that if Harper were a colour, he would be grey. "He seems perpetually burdened," Taras wrote. "There is nothing light or whimsical about him. In some ways, he is the oldest young man in Canada. "Harper has made this charisma shortfall the topic of a number of self-deprecating jokes. He says he became an economist because he didn't have the personality to become an accountant like his father and two brothers. He met his wife, Laureen, at a Reform party convention in 1991 and he is supposed to have told friends that he was attracted to her in part because she read The Economist. They have two children, 4-year-old Rachel and 7-year-old Ben. When he's not reading policy documents, he likes to read mysteries, including Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. He loves the Beatles and, his staff insists, AC/DC. He has a flair for political impersonations and is said to do a wicked Jean Chretien and Joe Clark. Manning's protégé Born in Toronto in 1959, Harper grew up in the suburbs of Toronto and moved to Alberta in search of work straight out of high school. He ended up at the University of Calgary, where he took a BA and a master's degree in economics. He also got involved in politics, going to work as an executive assistant for Jim Hawkes, the Tory MP for Calgary West. By the mid-1980s, Harper was disillusioned with the federal Tories, however. He gravitated to the nascent Reform party, catching the eye of party founder and leader Preston Manning. By 1987, at the age of 28, Harper was chief policy officer for Reform. Harper ran against Hawkes in the free trade election of 1988 and lost; he ran against him five years later in the great Tory meltdown of 1993 and won. In Ottawa, the bilingual and articulate Harper stood out in a Reform caucus that was often ridiculed for the unpolished and unconventional performances of some of its members. Harper and Manning, however, had been quarrelling for some time. Those who know the two men have said that Harper's cerebral approach clashed with Manning's populism. The two had fallen out over the Charlottetown Accord; Harper's supporters in the party have said that Harper had to convince Manning to oppose the deal. Nor did Harper endear himself to Manning when he criticized the leader in 1994 for taking a $31,000 clothing allowance from the party. In 1997, Harper quit the Commons to head up the National Citizens Coalition, a right-wing lobby group. He issued a press release saying that he had no intention of becoming a "career politician" and that he wanted to spend more time with his family. When Harper left Reform, one party insider predicted that the intellectual capacity of the party would drop by 25 per cent. Harper re-entered federal politics in late 2001, challenging Stockwell Day for the leadership of the Alliance. Under Day, the party had virtually collapsed, with seven members of its caucus joining a coalition with the Tories. Harper wooed those dissidents back into the Alliance and set about rebuilding the party. As Alliance leader, he helped bring about the merger with the Progressive Conservative party, then swept to the leadership of the new party in March of this year. Although the new Conservatives are stuck in the low- to mid-20 per cent range in national polls, voter discontent and the prospect of a Liberal minority government have made Harper a force to be taken seriously. Harper's motto about actions speaking louder than words points up a fundamental truth about political rhetoric - there is often a low correlation between politicians' promises and their subsequent actions. But words can be a clue to character, as well - especially when the words are as provocative as the ones Harper has written and spoken over the years. His buttoned-up demeanor belies a talent for tart rhetoric. Some samples: Harper on Canada In December, 2002, Harper wrote an article in the National Post that ran under the headline "Separation, Alberta-style: It is time to seek a new relationship with Canada." In it, Harper wrote: "Alberta has opted for the best of Canada's heritage - a combination of American enterprise and individualism with the British traditions of order and co-operation. We have created an open, dynamic and prosperous society in spite of a continuously hostile federal government. "Canada appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its economy and social services to mask its second-rate status, led by a second-world strongman appropriately suited for the task. "On Alberta and "the Firewall" In January, 2001, Harper co-signed a letter to the National Post that called upon the Alberta government to wall itself off from the rest of Canada and "build a society on Albertan values." A response to the inability of the Reform party to elect candidates east of the prairies, the letter was first known as the "Harper plan," although today it is usually referred to as the "firewall" letter. The letter urged Alberta Premier Ralph Klein to "build firewalls around Alberta." This would allow Albertans, like Quebecers, to become "maitres chez nous," limiting the extent to which a "hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction. "The letter urged Klein to replace the Canada Pension Plan with an Alberta pension scheme; set up a provincial income tax system, rather than allow Ottawa to collect the tax on Alberta's behalf; replace the RCMP with an Alberta provincial police force; create a provincial health care plan; and "force Senate reform back onto the national agenda. "Harper has since said that the letter could have been more diplomatic, but has defended its content. As he told Canadian Press in March, 2002: "The premier chastised us for the tone, which he found too negative, and that's probably an accurate assessment. But it's interesting how little the ideas have been challenged. "Lately, though, Harper has been less willing to discuss the letter's ideas. In April of this year, CanWest News reported: "When asked whether he still supports his firewall plan Monday, Harper dodged the question saying it is not his responsibility, as leader of the federal Conservatives, to tell a province like Alberta how to run its affairs. In fact, he would not even say if his personal views are still supportive of his 2001 plan." On Health Care Although he's been de-emphasizing it recently, Harper is a long-time proponent of allowing more for-profit delivery of health care services - although he stresses that private delivery should occur within the public system. He's made a number of comments on health care that the Liberals will use to attack him during the coming election campaign. Consider this statement, made in the Commons on Oct. 28, 2002: "A government monopoly is not the only way to deliver health care to Canadians. Monopolies in the public sector are just as objectionable as monopolies in the private sector. "In the next breath, however, Harper added: "It should not matter who delivers health care, whether it is private, profit, not-for-profit or public, as long as Canadians have access to those services through the public insurance system regardless of their financial needs. "We are going to have to become a lot more innovative and flexible in how we deliver health care while holding fast to the principle of universal access regardless of ability to pay. "This is an idea - allowing private delivery within the publicly funded health care system - that the Liberals have tolerated, and the Conservatives have a long list of quotations on their website designed to show that Harper's stance is the same as the Liberals'. But just as Harper is de-emphasizing some of his past comments, the Liberals are also de-emphasizing their stand on private care within the public system, as we saw recently when Health Minister Pierre Pettigrew did a very public about-face on this very question. Earlier this month, Harper promised an expansion of the publicly funded health care system, including a federal pharmacare system. He was not always so enthusiastic about the expansion of the public system, however - especially expansion of the federal government's role in that system. Some excerpts from his Oct. 28, 2002, Commons speech: "Several provinces are involved in pushing for alternative private delivery, even on a profit basis. This is a natural development. In a properly functioning system, profit is the reward that businesses obtain for making substantial, long-term capital investments.... "Our party, the Canadian Alliance, must tell the truth to Canadians and Quebeckers. Our health care system is experiencing serious long-term problems. We can inject more money into it. We advocate this, but money alone will not solve the problem. The federal government must recognize that the health care system is first and foremost a provincial responsibility, that it was the provinces that established the system, that run it, and that, in the end, must solve the problems that are plaguing it..... "A number of provinces are currently trying to cope with the problem by attracting more private investment into publicly insured services. The federal government must support this initiative." On Parliamentary Reform Harper has promised to bring in fixed election dates, like those in B.C. He would also push for an elected Senate. In a May 28, 2001 article in The Report magazine, Harper argued in favour of swapping Canada's parliamentary system for a congressional system with an unelected cabinet: "[T]he superiority of Congress over Parliament pales beside a comparison of the executive branches in our systems. The difference between the calibre and experience of the Bush cabinet - or even the worst American cabinet in recent years - to any Canadian equivalent is embarrassing to us. The consistency with which the American executive system recruits top people compared to our 'fused' system, in which cabinet members are chosen from among MPs, is one reason why the United States has made the long climb from peripheral outpost to the world's sole superpower." On Iraq In April, 2003, Harper went on Fox News in the U.S. and attacked the Chretien government's failure to support the war in Iraq. At the time, CTV.ca reported his remarks this way: "Harper said he endorsed the war and said he was speaking 'for the silent majority' of Canadians. Only in Quebec, with its 'pacifist tradition,' are most people opposed to the war, Harper said. 'Outside of Quebec, I believe very strongly the silent majority of Canadians is strongly supportive,' the Canadian Alliance leader says. "He and the then-foreign affairs critic for the Alliance, Stockwell Day, also wrote The Wall Street Journal denouncing Canada's decision to "stay neutral" in the war. The Province recently reported that "Harper now claims he 'did not advocate sending additional soldiers or equipment to Iraq,' but merely 'insisted we should morally support' Bush." However, on March 26, 2003, six days after the U.S.-led coalition began bombing Iraq, Harper told the House of Commons: "We should be there with our allies when it counts against Saddam Hussein. "In August, 2003, Harper told Maclean's that Canada's refusal to support the coalition meant that "Canada remains alienated from its allies, shut out of the reconstruction process to some degree, unable to influence events. There is no upside to the position Canada took." On Taxes Harper has said repeatedly that he wants to make Canadian tax rates lower than those in the U.S., and a key plank in the Conservative platform is Gordon Campbell-style income tax cuts aimed at middle-income earners. Harper is also committed to what he calls a "legislated taxpayer protection plan" that would make deficits illegal. On Federalism and the Regions As a Reform MP, Harper pushed a "get-tough" stance with Quebec that was eventually adopted in the Liberals' "clarity" act. In a 1994 speech to the NCC, at a time when Quebec separatism was a serious threat, Harper said the need for national unity was secondary to the need for small governments. "Whether Canada ends up as one national government or two national governments or several national governments, or some other kind of arrangement is, quite frankly, secondary in my opinion," said Harper, who was at the time constitutional affairs critic for Reform. "What matters and should matter to politicians and people who believe in the kind of values that I believe the National Citizens' Coalition share and the Reform Party share is not whether the Canadian state prospers, but whether the Canadian people and the land we call Canada prosper. "Added Harper: "Whether Canada ends up with one national government or two governments or 10 governments, the Canadian people will require less government no matter what the constitutional status or arrangement of any future country may be. "Harper also holds the unique status of having been condemned by the Nova Scotia legislature because of comments he made about the Maritimes. In 2002, Harper said the people of Atlantic Canada had a "defeatist" attitude due to a history of government handouts. "It's the idea that we just have to go along, we can't change it, things won't change," he said. "I think that's a sad part, a sad reality the traditional parties have bred in parts of Atlantic Canada. "Harper has since said that the Maritimers who denounced him for the comments misinterpreted his remarks. He says he would replace subsidy programs such as the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency with corporate tax cuts. On Social Conservatism In an April, 2003, speech, Harper defined social conservatism as "respect for custom and traditions (religious traditions above all), voluntary association, and personal self-restraint reinforced by moral and legal sanctions on behaviour. "In the speech, which was later reprinted as an essay in the Citizens Centre Report magazine, Harper argued that to be successful, the Alliance must offer socially conservative policies in addition to fiscally conservative ones. In 1994, the Calgary Herald ran a headline stating "Two Calgary Reformers Back Gay Rights." Harper, who was one of the Reformers named in the article, would later tell Western Report magazine: "I really got burned in the press on this one." Harper explained to the magazine that his true position on gay rights was "don't ask, don't tell. "Gays, he said, should be protected from discrimination in commercial or employment practices. He said he would accept the inclusion of "sexual orientation" in the Canadian Human Rights Act if it were "clearly defined, but not if it were used as a precedent for further benefits like marital status," the magazine stated. Harper has opposed gay marriage - not unlike, he points out, some Liberal MPs. In 1994, he told the Commons: "I do not support the legal recognition of same-sex relationships." This year, however, he told CanWest News that his position on the issue has evolved. Harper now says he would accept the concept of same-sex civil unions under provincial laws but opposes requiring churches to confirm same-sex marriages. In September, 2003, Harper said characterizing gay marriage as a civil-rights issue was "disgusting." Canadian Press reported that Harper said: "Regarding sexual orientation or, more accurately, what we are really talking about, sexual behaviour, the argument has been made . that this is analogous to race and ethnicity. (For) anyone in the Liberal party to equate the traditional definition of marriage with segregation andapartheid is vile and disgusting. "He also accused former prime minister Jean Chretien of conspiring to promote same-sex unions. After courts in B.C. and Ontario ruled that same-sex marriages should be recognized under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Harper charged the Liberals "wanted to introduce this through back channels. "They didn't want to come to Parliament, they didn't want to go to the Canadian people and be honest that this is what they wanted. They had the courts do it for them; they put the judges in they wanted, then they failed to appeal, failed to fight the case in court. "Despite the fact that at least five of the judges involved in the two appeal court judgements were originally appointed to lower courts by Brian Mulroney's Conservative government, Harper insisted: "It was the government that decided to put the judges on the bench, the government that decided not to appeal, the government that decided to lose the case and the government that decided not to come back to Parliament. In fact, the government decided to do all this while Parliament wasn't sitting, so it wouldn't be debated. "On abortion, another key topic for social conservatives, Harper said while running against Day that the Alliance could not afford to focus on the issue. Harper told Southam News in 2001 that he leaned toward a pro-life stance, and added that he supported the Alliance's policy of dealing with moral issues such as abortion and capital punishment through citizen-initiated referendums. While referendums were a cornerstone of Reform-Alliance policy, the mechanism has not been dealt with by the newly merged Conservative party. On Left-wingers In the speech that urged the Alliance to embrace social conservatives, Harper also said that left-wing Canadians stand for "radical, responsibility-free individualism" and "tribalism in the form of group rights." Such thinking will lead to "the actual banning of conservative views, which some legislators and 'rights' commissions openly contemplate," he warned. On Education Harper supported the Mike Harris Tory government in Ontario when it proposed an unpopular plan to give tax credits to parents whose children attended private schools. In 2001, the Hill Times wrote that Harper argued that "pulling their children from 'union-run' schools should be a viable option for all parents." On the Environment Harper would withdraw from the Kyoto Accord, which he calls a "boondoggle." He has pledged to redirect the money currently earmarked for Kyoto to provide "clean air, clean water and clean land." On Being Flexible "I don't think I'm incapable of changing my views if the facts change," Harper once told Canadian Press. "Being principled doesn't mean you adhere only to your own inner voice at the expense of the important views of your supporters and who you claim to be speaking on behalf of." Veteran political reporter Tom Barrett is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.