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Has Harper Really 'Evolved'?

Insiders say he's changed his image, not beliefs.

Tom Barrett 16 Jan
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The old Stephen Harper was an inflexible neo-conservative ideologue.

That was the guy who thought that Canadians were content to live in a "second-tier socialistic country," that the federal Liberals conspired to stack the courts in favour of gay marriage and that Alberta should build a "firewall" to preserve its values against a hostile federal government.

The new Stephen Harper is a very different guy. More flexible, way less ideological.

He wants to cut the GST, a position that runs contrary to neo-conservative philosophy and orthodox economic teachings, which hold that it's much better to slash income taxes than consumption taxes like the GST.

He supports marketing boards and the agricultural supply management system, an object of disgust for free-market thinkers across the country.

He's even denounced two-tier health care in front of the Fraser Institute, which is kind of like badmouthing hockey from centre ice at GM Place.

On the face of it, Harper seems to have undergone the most dramatic character transformation since Ebenezer Scrooge sent the kid to buy the goose.

But those who know Harper and have followed his career tell a more complex story. They say he was never as inflexible as the media once painted him. And some say he's nowhere near as moderate as he seems now.

Whatever it takes

Geoffrey Hale, a University of Lethbridge political scientist who has known Harper for some time, has long maintained that the Conservative leader is, essentially, a political pragmatist.

"On balance, Mr. Harper has treated this election as the classic definition of politics (and pragmatism) as the 'art of the possible,'" Hale said via e-mail. "He appears to have done the most effective job of rebranding himself and his party in the public mind of just about any major party leader in Canadian history - with the possible exception of Jean Chretien in the 1993 election."

After his 2004 defeat, Harper listened to criticism of his leadership and style and responded, Hale said.

He put together a fairly diverse team of advisors and gave them the freedom to run this campaign. With large federal surpluses expected well into the future, he's offered voters a range of goodies - a move that Hale said reflects an attitude that it is more "politically prudent to offer voters a wider choice of desserts than to try to close the dessert bar."

Harper has also "reverted to the politics of the 1970s" in offering targeted benefits such as tax breaks to selected groups of voters. These benefits have the advantage of being more visible to the beneficiaries and can be implemented more quickly, Hale observed.

'Packaged…more friendly'

"Taken together," said Hale, "these measures help to diffuse the notion that Harper is an ideologue - somebody so tied to an ideology that they don't compromise their tactics or adapt to changing circumstances."

Hale still sees elements of the old Stephen Harper, however, in the Conservative leader's commitment to free votes, to giving more power and resources to the provinces, and to increased military spending.

Others who know Harper are wondering how much of the apparent change is real and how much is rhetoric.

University of Calgary political scientist Barry Cooper was described in The Walrus as the "de facto spokesman" for the "Calgary school," a group of academics who have shaped Harper's thought. Recently, Cooper told the Toronto Star's Thomas Walkom that what has changed is Harper's image.

"He's presenting a friendlier face to our fellow citizens in Ontario," Cooper said. "I think he hasn't changed his mind exactly, but packaged things so the rhetoric seems more friendly. The packaging has changed so it's not as scary."

Added Cooper: "Whether he's changed or is just being politically shrewd, who knows?"

Walkom also quoted University of Calgary historian David Bercuson, another member of the "Calgary school," who asked: "Is the tone of moderation real? I think there was a sharp epiphany after the last election. The people around Harper realized the only way to win power was to transform themselves and their message."

'Evolving' in the Globe

In a front-page Globe and Mail story last week, Harper said his views on individual issues have "evolved," but that his fundamental beliefs remain unchanged.

But he has definitely transformed his image, if nothing else. It's been a process of trial-and-error, highlighted by Harper's awkward barbecue tour of last summer. In an apparent attempt to cast off the perception that he was aloof and stuffy, Harper appeared at the Calgary Stampede in an ill-fitting cowboy outfit, complete with bolo tie, leather vest, and Tom Mix hat that brought to mind the expression, "all hat and no cattle."

During the campaign, Harper's advisers have settled for a softer haircut and turtlenecks as the best way to humanize their leader. They have also sent him to the back of the Conservative jet to joke and chat with reporters, a move that appears to have made him more acceptable to the national press corps. So far, as the news media have feasted on the hobbling Liberal campaign, Harper's pronouncements have been reported largely at face value.

Meanwhile, polls suggest that voters trust Harper far more than they do Prime Minister Paul Martin - a reversal from the beginning of the campaign.

Skeptics unswayed

Simon Fraser University political scientist David Laycock believes that Harper is still fundamentally Harper.

"I have a great deal of difficulty believing that someone who is as intellectually committed and sure of himself as Stephen Harper has done the degree of switching ideologically … as is suggested in the current campaign," Laycock said.

Despite his pro-medicare speech to the Fraser Institute and his subsequent endorsement of the five principles of the Canada Health Act, Harper's views on health care are apparent from earlier comments, said Laycock, author of The New Right and Democracy in Canada.

"Harper's philosophical orientation on the public provision of things like health care has not, in my view, changed in any significant way."

Harper's intellectual mentor, "Calgary school" member Tom Flanagan, is very heavily influenced by Nobel-laureate economist Friedrich Hayek and tends to favour market provision of goods and services wherever possible, Laycock said.

Despite that intellectual commitment, "This is a party that wants to gain power, that understands that there is very, very strong support for universal health care in Canada. They understand that they will not make any headway as a potential governing party unless they formally commit themselves to universal health care."

'Withering away' Medicare?

Despite Harper's rhetoric, Laycock believes the Conservative leader would be content to see the public health care system wither away from neglect.

"He thinks - and certainly his close political advisors are of this view - that if you can, over time, diminish the attractiveness of the public system by making it less useful and less valuable to citizens, then they will vote with their pocketbooks and they will start buying into private systems," Laycock said. "He doesn't have to say, 'Listen, I'm fundamentally opposed root and branch to public provision of health care.' Because strategically, what he knows, and what people advising him understand, is that it's possible to undermine a public system over time."

Laycock said it is revealing that, according to the Globe and Mail, the Conservatives are modeling their campaign on the surprise 2004 re-election of Australian Prime Minister John Howard. Howard crafted a moderate image during that campaign, but since his victory "has been introducing all kinds of draconian measures," Laycock said.

The 'incremental' strategy

An indication of Harper's pragmatism and strategic thinking can be found in an article he wrote for Report magazine in June of 2003, when he was leader of the Alliance party. The article, which was based on a speech Harper gave to the right-wing think tank Civitas, stressed an incremental approach to gaining power.

"Rebalancing the conservative agenda will require careful political judgment," Harper wrote. "First, the issues must be chosen carefully. For example, the social conservative issues we choose should not be denominational, but should unite social conservatives of different denominations and even different faiths. It also helps when social conservative concerns overlap those of people with a more libertarian orientation.

"Second, we must realize that real gains are inevitably incremental. This, in my experience, is harder for social conservatives than for economic conservatives. The explicitly moral orientation of social conservatives makes it difficult for many to accept the incremental approach.

"Yet, in democratic politics, any other approach will certainly fail. We should never accept the standard of just being 'better than the Liberals' - people who advocate that standard seldom achieve it - but conservatives should be satisfied if the agenda is moving in the right direction, even if slowly."

The article was largely concerned with the creation of a new conservative coalition made up of both social and economic conservatives. At the time it was written, Canadian conservatives were consumed with the idea of uniting the right by bringing the Alliance together with the Progressive Conservative party.

The Reagan model

In the article, Harper warned that a new conservative coalition might not have room for more moderate Red Tories, such as Joe Clark.

"This is not all bad," he wrote. "A more coherent coalition can take strong positions it wouldn't otherwise be able to take - as the Alliance alone was able to do during the Iraq war."

"More importantly, a new approach can draw in new people. Many traditional Liberal voters, especially those from key ethnic and immigrant communities, will be attracted to a party with strong traditional views of values and family. This is similar to the phenomenon of the 'Reagan Democrats' in the United States, who were so important in the development of that conservative coalition."

Economic and social conservatives are, more often than not, the same people, Harper argued.

"Except at the extremes of libertarianism and theocracy, the philosophical fusion has become deep and widespread. Social conservatives, more often than not, demand the government stop intervening in individual decisions, just as classical liberals [i.e., laissez-faire conservatives] often point to the religious roots of their focus on the individual."

Harper wrote that more tax cuts, debt reduction, deregulation and privatization are needed, but on the whole, conservatives have won the fundamental economic battles: "The real agenda and the defining issues have shifted from economic issues to social values."

The "moral nihilism" of the left forces conservatives to confront "values questions," Harper wrote.

'Key' to Harper's agenda

Harper stated that "a range of issues involving the family," including "banning child pornography, raising the age of sexual consent, providing choice in education and strengthening the institution of marriage" are "key to a conservative agenda."

However, the article made no mention of abortion or same-sex marriage. Indeed, Harper adopted a very broad definition of moral issues.

"Conservatives must take the moral stand, with our allies, in favour of the fundamental values of our society, including democracy, free enterprise and individual freedom. This moral stand should not just give us the right to stand with our allies, but the duty to do so and the responsibility to put 'hard power' behind our international commitments."

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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