Book Review “The Longer I’m Prime Minister” by Paul Wells

Andrew Park

“He won, but he won’t last…the people are on to him, and soon his own party will turn on him...” 

But of course Stephen Harper kept winning: in 2006, again in 2008, and by the time he won his majority in 2011, winning was getting to be a habit. 

Yes; in spite of a plurality of Canadians consistently voting for other parties, and millions actively hating the man, Harper keeps winning. And as inexplicable as it may be to you and me, millions of others have voted for the man because they like – LIKE! – what he represents. 

Paul Wells’ grand objective in his history of Harper in power is to tell this unpalatable truth to Canadians, and to explain how it came to be. His secondary objective, less successfully fulfilled, is to paint a portrait of Harper that delves more deeply into his personality than the stock in trade, often unflattering stereotypes that are often pinned on him. 

In fairness to Wells, he could never have realized this second objective. Harper, we are told, did not cooperate with him. But neither did he block the project, and the absence of Harper’s first person voice is compensated for by the compelling, colourful, and often expletive-littered testimony of his current and former staffers. 

The resulting book is a political rollercoaster that follows (and seeks to explain) the Harper machine as it lurches from crisis to crisis, and victory to victory. Because here’s the thing; for a guy that wins, as Wells insists, because he has a “superior understanding of Canada”, Harper is often his own worst enemy. At a trivial level, there was his offhand comment that the Financial Crisis was “an excellent buying opportunity”, which could have lost him the 2008 election. At a deeper level, his penchant for secrecy and denial has allowed a series of scandals to rise to the surface of the troubled waters of his administration. 

Whether it was Bev Oda’s $16 orange juice, Alan Ridell’s election expenses, or the Senate expenses scandal, these crises could have been mitigated if only Harper had been more honest, and not used money in clumsy attempts to make many of the problems go away. 

A key fact demanding explanation is why many Canadians keep forgiving Harper’s transgressions. In part, the answer lies with the Harper style of government. Political progressives may be feeling bruised after two rounds of Omnibus Bill extremism, but Harper has been an “arch-incrementalist”, fiddling with policies bit by bit rather than recreating them in a grand revolution. As Wells says “On any day he has a choice, he can do the big conservative thing that would be the end his career, or he can do some small conservative things that won’t.” 

It’s the politics of boiling frogs. Raise the temperature a degree; let the frogs get used to it, and repeat. For a policy wonk dedicated to the promulgation of Conservative ideas, Harper also works hard to erase himself and his ideas from speeches. When his speech writers deliver a draft, out go the action verbs and phrases like “we must”, or “I will never”, which are likely to make you look stupid when you later do something entirely different. He actually works hard not to be interesting, which is why he generally answers five questions from reporters, not six or seven. 

Staffers noticed that with each additional question, the probability that Harper would say “something interesting” increased markedly. Such loss of message control and vulnerable visibility could not be permitted. As for the man himself: Stephen, we hardly know ya, and that’s how he likes it. We learn that he likes skittles and gets most of his TV news from Fox (surprised much?). When he yells a blue streak at his staffers, it means that they have his confidence. Unlike conversations with some former PMs, a conversation with Stephen Harper is “a real conversation”; he engages you, is curious, and genuinely listens. On the other hand, “he has a profound ability not to care about being hated”, and he can hold a grudge like no-one else in Ottawa. 

But these vignettes just give us a bunch of dots without any lines to connect them, and they reveal little of his motives. It is in the Conservatives’ desire to protect Alberta and its resources that Wells finds Harper’s prime directive. His chosen route to achieving this objective is to hamstring the ability of his own and future Federal governments to intervene fiscally in provincial affairs or initiate new social programs. Seen in this context, the GST cuts, which pulled about $12 billion per year from Federal Government coffers, make perfect sense. 

The same can be said of his removal of accountability and cooperation criteria from federal-provincial health care transfers, which turned them into unconditional windfalls for the provinces. 

If you cannot forestall the actions of future governments by fiscal means, you can always attack the knowledge base that they require in order to act. Here Wells uncovers what is (to this reviewer) Harper’s most disturbing tactic yet. A conservative blogger, Stephen Tayler, reveals this agenda in uncommonly clear terms: “If you measure it, it matters’ is the motto of those net tax receiving organizations who only matter if they can make their case.” Harper, writes Taylor “has tried the ideological argument against these groups for years. But ideology is by its nature debatable; removing the framework of debate is his shortcut to victory.” And in case we still don’t get it: Harper’s “greatest challenge is to dismantle the modern welfare state. If it can’t be measured, future governments can’t pander.” 

And what of the opposition? They do not come off too well under Wells’ pen. To end the Harpocracy, all the combined opposition had to do was to beat him. But they didn’t, and indeed, have demonstrated a remarkable ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Dion’s campaign, in particular, had a keystone cops quality.

As for Ignatieff, he never had a chance from the beginning. There were just too many attack-worthy aspects to his personal history and persona. 

Of course, attack the Tories did, and their non-response to attack ads was among Ignatieff’s and Dion’s biggest mistakes. In the case of the “Michael Ignatieff: just visiting ads”, the Liberals allowed the Tories to define their leader to the country for almost two years. Here is one of the principal lessons that aspiring politicians can learn from this important book. When attacked, defend immediately, and if possible, counterattack forcibly. Otherwise Canadians will see you only as your opposition wants you to be seen. 

Another important lesson for political neophytes is not to do everything at once. Remember the lesson of “small conservative things”, and practice incrementalism. This does not necessarily mean you’ll move more slowly. Indeed, lots of small actions, following fairly rapidly on each other, can add up to a whole lot of policy. 

A final lesson: when crafting the public face of your policy platform, ‘keep it simple smartypants’. The Tories’ 2006 platform was summarized in five easy to read priorities, which provided accessible sound bytes for journalists and politicians alike. 

By the time we reach the closing chapter, Harper is deep into his scandal-plagued majority. Wells reminds us once more that Stephen Harper continues to be supported by millions of voters who approve of his policies. Divisive and disingenuous though he may be, “Harper endures, so Harper governs.”

It is in these closing pages that I find the books greatest weakness. Even as he summarizes the loss of “open, thoughtful debate” and the “extended ordeal” of political progressives, he somehow concludes that all this has been good for us. I respectfully disagree, but Wells comes neither to bury nor to praise Stephen Harper, and it is this even-handed treatment that makes The Longer I’m Prime Minister such an important book. 


Dr. Andrew Park is an Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Winnipeg, and the Environment Critic for the Green Party of Canada