Naturally, many on the left were aghast at Harper’s performance in London. The media sputtered over this new sheriff. His relations with them have been contentious, and this was particularly true in the first years. Soon after he was elected, Harper said, “Unfortunately, the press gallery has taken the view that they are going to be the opposition to the government.” They are still against him. But they are not as hot against him as they once were. As the previously quoted Conservative insider puts it, they have a “grudging respect” for him. They no longer treat him as a hick from the West, someone who ought to be in the Texas legislature rather than 24 Sussex Drive (the prime-ministerial residence). If anything, he is an “evil genius,” says the insider.
The Harper style is very low-key. He ought to be hard to demonize. He is without drama, without flamboyance — without flair or charisma, some think. He is routinely compared to an accountant. Why that profession is perpetually lampooned is a little unclear. Harper’s father was an accountant, incidentally. To see the Harper style in action, go to YouTube and call up videos of the parliamentary Question Period. Opposition politicians are apt to hurl thunderbolts at him, with usual politician’s demagoguery. Harper is apt to answer softly, wearily, factually, blandly — and effectively.
He is said to have let his hair down in 2009, when he made a surprise appearance onstage at a gala concert — a concert featuring Yo-Yo Ma. Harper came out, sat down at the piano, and started to play and sing: “What would you think if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me?” This was a Beatles song. And he did not really sing out of tune. Repeatedly, he sang, “I get high with a little help from my friends,” which is odd for a national leader to sing. At any rate, he may have had his hair down, but he was still polite, self-contained, unassuming, and somewhat awkward. Also endearing, in this critic’s mind.
The Canadians had another election in October 2008, two years and about nine months after the election that brought Harper and the Conservatives to power. They won again, by a bigger margin. They were still a minority government, however. Then, in 2011, they won a majority of seats. As Harper said, he and his party had managed to paint regions blue, greatly reducing the red that had dominated Canada. (Up north, they still have their colors right: Conservatives are blue, and the Left is red. The reversal of the natural colors in America still rankles some of us.)
So, Harper is making progress, year by year, bringing the Canadian Right from a splintered mess to a majority government in under a decade. At his party convention in 2011, he made the following statement: “By saying what we will do and doing what we say, one step at a time, we are moving Canada in a conservative direction, and Canadians are moving with us.” He is a patient man, an incrementalist, with the long game in mind. He has a “brutal pragmatism,” says a Conservative analyst, and admirer of the prime minister. If the country is not ready for a change, he will not propose it. He is of the view that cultural shifts need to precede political shifts. Abortion on demand, national health care — these things are apparently off-limits, sacrosanct in the Canadian mind. (As one Conservative politician tells me, Canada, a supposedly moderate nation, is immoderate when it comes to abortion.)
The central government has gotten smaller, thanks not just to the Harper government but to the Liberal governments that came before: Canada was such a basket case, the “natural governing party” had to act. Harper has acted further. Canada came out of the recent recession in a stronger position than virtually any other country. Harper has cut taxes repeatedly, able to boast to Canadians that they enjoy “the lowest federal tax burden since John Diefenbaker was prime minister.” (That was during the Eisenhower and Kennedy years.) The government indulged in deficit spending, when the financial crisis hit, and now they are about $21 billion in the hole. But they expect to be in balance in 2015. Forbes magazine ranks Canada the best G-8 country in which to do business. The corporate tax there is famously low — 15 percent, down from 21 percent when Harper and the Conservatives took over. (As Charles Lammam of the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute points out, however, one has to consider provincial rates on top of the federal.) Paul Ryan cited Canada’s kindness to business in the vice-presidential debate last fall: Why can’t we be more like Canada? That is the new American plaint, from conservatives, at least. Harper is a serious free-trader: His government has completed nine different free-trade deals, and is working on more.