Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada

By Ted Smith

A review of Stephen Harper And The Future Of Canada by William Johnson

Published on October 1, 2005

Stephen Harper And The Future Of Canada
William Johnson

McClelland & Stewart
$34.99
cloth
420pp
0-7710-4350-3

William Johnson’s biography of Stephen Harper ends in April 2005, with the Conservatives well ahead in the polls and a snap election likely. Such are the fortunes of instant biographers. But if Harper the man is (for the moment) becalmed, Harper the publication can still be read with profit as an alternative history of Canada since the Eighties.

Those who remember the author as a public affairs columnist or as an Alliance Quebec leader will know his attitude towards the established political order (vitriolic). He’s also reliably kind to everyone associated with Reform and its successors. Harper is “better than any other leader on the federal scene since Pierre Trudeau.” But isn’t he a policy wonk who gives dull speeches? No, or not only that, says Johnson. He’s a “public intellectual” who doesn’t “indulge in flights of oratory.”

Harper is definitely a neo-conservative. An astute writer of position papers, since 1989 he’s been hammering away at the conditions needed to elect a party of the economic Right. He seems like the perfect policy advisor. What’s remarkable is how far he’s gone in public office when his other constant is a repugnance for Parliament exceeded only by the author’s.

Popping up throughout the first two-thirds of the book, like a friendly ghost, is Tom Flanagan, Johnson’s best informant on the Reform era and co-author of many of those position papers. But when he’s named Harper’s campaign manager for the Canadian Alliance leadership, it’s as if daylight breaks on the spirit world. From that point forward he gets one mention per campaign, and for the rest he’s a Flanagan-shaped blank. You wouldn’t know he’s been Harper’s chief advisor ever since. In fact, you’d hardly believe Harper is advised. It may be that Flanagan isn’t as friendly with the author as he used to be, although he is one of this book’s dedicatees. Whatever the reason, the effect is a less corporate leader than is probably truly the case.

Elsewhere Johnson provides thorough political context, and readers will have no trouble deciding for themselves what Harper is and is not. He isn’t a right-wing religious fanatic – his interests are too narrowly economic for that – and yet there’s a whiff of God about Johnson’s version of him. The word “prophetic” occurs, it seems, after every political pronouncement like canned laughter in a sitcom, and with the same effect. Reform had the old NDP advantage of being able to fly ideas they weren’t obliged to carry out. Having ideas in this way doesn’t mean you have the inside dope on the truth. The closer Harper has approached real power, the less prophetic he’s become, to Johnson’s dismay.

Religious or mythopoeic language needs some sort of substance to work with. Most opposition leaders have had no history worth mythologizing, but Johnson tries anyway. So Harper is made hero of the 1995 Referendum. On the book’s own evidence he asked questions in Parliament and launched a private member’s bill that promptly sank; as a third party MP he could hardly do more. Otherwise his interest in Quebec has been fitful. You feel that when the author praises his subject’s Referendum speeches – which he does extravagantly – he’s praising his own opinion.

And you feel that Harper is placed at the centre of the debate on Quebec, which is central to this book, because that’s where Johnson places himself. Stephen Harper did not make himself available for his current biographer. When he publishes his own memoirs, his preoccupations may turn out to be quite different. mRb

Ted Smith is an Ottawa editor and writer.

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