His former chief of staff, Tom Flanagan, writes in his new book: â€œThereâ€™s a dark, almost Nixonian, side to the man. He can be suspicious, secretive and vindictive, prone to sudden eruptions of white-hot rage over meaningless trivia.â€
The list of officials who have felt the sting of Harperâ€™s white-hot rage is long: Remy Beauregard, Marty Cheliak, Richard Colvin, Sheila Fraser, Linda Keen, Paul Kennedy, Marc Mayrand, Adrian Measner, Kevin Page, Munir Sheikh and Nigel Wright.
Then there are the political opponents. Harper has systematically bombarded Stephane Dion, Michael Ignatieff and Justin Trudeau with simple-minded attack ads.
Politics is a nasty business, since a key part of convincing people to vote for you is convincing them that your opponents are bad news. But Harper has brought it to a new level, bringing to Canada a style that appears to have been inspired by Lee Atwaterâ€™s brutal dismantling of Michael Dukakis for George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election.
Conservatives can take pride in many things Harper has done â€” steering the country through the recession, cutting taxes, cutting spending with less suffering than the Liberals did in the 1990s â€” but it was all accompanied by Machiavellian machinations and ugly denunciations of perceived foes.
The prime minister has built a fearsome team, promoting remorseless MPs like Dean Del Mastro, Pierre Poilievre and Paul Calandra, and overlooking gentler characters like Ted Menzies and James Rajotte.
Harper gains advantage from his authoritarian attacks, because everyone in Ottawa is afraid of crossing him, but it has all made our national discourse unnecessarily unpleasant.
You ought to be able to say that you donâ€™t agree with Sheila Fraserâ€™s criticism of the elections act without implying that she is making her comments for money, as Poilievre did.
It feels like all of this nastiness has started to catch up to the prime minister, and he is in trouble in Ontario, the key to the next election. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is attacking him daily on the campaign trail, which can only be because he is less popular than Tim Hudak. Eve Adams didnâ€™t move from Mississauga to Oakville for the scenery.
The Conservative government’s tough rhetoric over Russiaâ€™s actions in Ukraine may play well to some voters domestically, but analysts doubt it will have any impact on curtailing Moscow’s policies in the region.
“I think the only people Putinâ€™s going to pay any attention to, if he pays any attention at all, are going to be the United States and the European Union, above all Germany,” said Randall Hansen, director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies.
“The United States, because itâ€™s the global super power, and Germany because itâ€™s a major importer of Russian gas, which on the one hand gives Putin leverage, and on the other hand, he’s also dependent on Germany.
“Canada doesnâ€™t matter in this in the slightest. We can rant and yell and threaten. It will make no difference.â€
Heâ€™s not alone
Piotr Dutkiewicz, a political science professor at Carleton and the former director of the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, said it’s relatively easy for the government to criticize because Canada doesn’t have extensive economic relations with Russia and there are no large Russian investments in Canada.
However, he notes that Canadian companies do have $3-billion worth of investment in Russia and the government should take that into consideration when speaking out.
“I think we should take a more balanced, Iâ€™m not saying uncritical, Iâ€™m saying more balanced position, taking into the equation Canadian interests in Russia,” Dutkiewicz said.
“If the Canadian government decides to be critical it should be critical, but at the same time we should watch what others are doing and how, by our criticisms, weâ€™re really helping Ukraine.”
Dutkiewicz said that Canada is losing its reputation as a negotiator and instead is engaging in rhetoric stronger than that of the U.S., Germany or France.
â€œWith their very heated rhetoric and no action weâ€™re becoming a paper tiger in this process,” he said. “I really donâ€™t like Canada to be seen as a paper tiger who is roaring without having any tools to implement its outrage.”
But the experts agreed that the government’s words have little to do with foreign policy.
“Harper and Baird, I think, are both principled democrats and have a principled commitment to liberal democracies such as Israel and a principled opposition to autocratic governments,” Hansen said. “But this is really about domestic politics. So they’re making a play to the Ukrainian community in Canada.
As part of their severance, those who serve 20 years or more are offered a last move, at government expense, after they retire. Soldiers are asked to live in many places; the policy recognizes that the house you occupy at the end of your career may not be where you want to remain.
Leslie served 35 years at home and abroad and moved 18 times. When he left the military in 2011, he wanted to simplify things. He moved from a bigger house to a small one, in the same neighbourhood. The move cost some $72,000, of which the real estate fees could have come to perhaps $60,000. The rest went to packing and moving.
All expenses were covered by government.
So, whatâ€™s wrong here? Whatâ€™s the offence? A distinguished soldier does his duty, retires honourably and sells his house. The bills are settled by the government, because thatâ€™s the arrangement.
But thatâ€™s not really the story, is it? The story here has less to do with General Leslie than Citizen Leslie, or perhaps, in the future, Minister Leslie. Itâ€™s about politics.
While Rob Nicholson asks his officials to explain this long-standing government policy â€” one he could have changed but hasnâ€™t â€” here are a few questions for him.
Why is Andrew Leslie the first veteran to come under this kind of public scrutiny? Is $72,000 egregious? If so, what is the average figure for moves involving such neighbourhoods?
And how is it that Leslieâ€™s expenses found their way to CTV News, which first reported this on the weekend? Is there a breach of privacy in your department, Minister? Your office suggested the document was acquired under the Access to Information Act, but CTV did not.
We know what is going on here. Andy Leslie is a Liberal. His father was a Liberal. His service notwithstanding, that displeases the government. Tell us, Minister Nicholson, would you have ordered an inquiry if Leslie had been running as a Conservative? Would your question have been as sharp, your anger as hot?
Could it be that Leslieâ€™s expenses would never have found their way into the media at all? And could it be that the Conservatives wanted Leslie to join them, when they learned that he was going to the Liberals? Let us see this for what it is: a drive-by smear.
Argue, if you want, that after years of dislocation and adjustment, that Leslie and his wife had no right to move to a smaller house. Make it another great moral failing of another public servant, as we like to do these days in a country filled with accountants of envy.
If you do, though, remember that soldiers spend their lives disrupting their families, often with little notice and at great cost. Ask yourself why soldiers are committing suicide. Ask yourself about divorce, domestic violence, addiction and other consequences of military life.
As we disparage a decorated general, seeing scandal that isnâ€™t there, consider the greater affront of a government that tolerates a minister, Julian Fantino, who insults veterans as he cuts their services. Now thereâ€™s gratitude.
Then ask yourself why Andrew Leslie and other good people would even contemplate entering our soiled, sorry public life.
Almost all you need to know about Canadian politics in the next two years can be summarized in one simple number â€“ 10 per cent.
Ten per cent is the share of the electorate that has deserted Stephen Harperâ€™s Conservatives since the last election. In that contest, the Conservatives captured a shade less than 40 per cent of the votes. For months now, polls have given the Conservatives about 30 per cent.
At 40 per cent, the Conservatives would win again, likely with another majority; at 30 per cent, they would lose power. Their aim â€“ and it will drive almost everything they do in the next two years â€“ will be to recapture all or most of the difference.
What about the other 60 per cent of the voting public? The Conservatives could care less about them. The overwhelming majority of those people arenâ€™t going to vote Conservative, period.
Nik Nanos, the pollster, asks this interesting question on an ongoing basis: Could you imagine voting for a given party? He consistently finds that 60 per cent of voters reply that they could not imagine voting Conservative. The partyâ€™s ceiling, therefore, is 40 per cent.
No matter what the Conservatives have successfully done in office, no matter how hard they have tried and how much money they have spent, no matter how favourable the economic circumstances, no matter how inept the other parties, the Conservatives have never shattered that 40-per-cent ceiling. But if they donâ€™t crawl back close to it by the time of the next election, they will struggle to be re-elected, let alone to win another majority.
Given this strategic imperative, you might think that midway through a majority governmentâ€™s term, a party mired at 30 per cent would be rethinking its strategy. That would be to misunderstand the Harper government.
Instead of rethinking, the Prime Minister has doubled down on his long-term strategy, which depends on polarizing the electorate and identifying and mobilizing the Conservative vote. He reshuffled his cabinet to add younger ministers of the same type as the more experienced ones: hard-edged communicators and sharp-elbowed partisans. He regrouped people in his office and at party headquarters who are unreserved loyalists. There are no even mildly discordant voices, let alone fresh faces or new views, in Mr. Harperâ€™s inner political circle.
Finance Minister Jim Flahertyâ€™s appearance at a meeting of Canadaâ€™s finance ministers this week has renewed backroom speculation about whether his health will allow him to continue in his job.
As meetings at Meech Lake began on Monday, Flaherty was seen to struggle to get out of his car, and his voice was painfully weak as he addressed reporters later.
In the hours-long meeting with his provincial counterparts, he sat in silence most of the time, sometimes with his eyes closed, allowing minister of state, Kevin Sorenson, to chair the meeting.
â€œHe did not seem like a well man,â€ said a person who was in the room. â€œHe kind of closed his eyes a number of times, but whether that was just him sitting there listening or not, I donâ€™t know.â€
Tuesday on Parliament Hill, Flaherty was seen by a reporter walking with great difficulty.
In January, Flaherty went public with news about his health condition, bullous pemphigoid, a rare skin condition that produces painful blisters. He is taking the steroid prednisone, which can cause weight gain and, in large doses, can spur severe mood swings.
His staff did say that Flaherty was suffering from a cold at Meech Lake which could explain his mood there but he does seem to be suffering. Â I can’t imagine the requirements of the job make it any easier to deal with his health condition.