- - Wednesday, September 30, 2015


By John Ibbitson

Signal/McClelland & Stewart, $35, 448 pages

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Stephen Harper became the 22nd prime minister of Canada on Feb. 6, 2006. The Conservative Party leader has focused his time and energies on important issues such as lower taxes, smaller government, fiscal responsibility and strong foreign policy measures. It has helped Canada grow in stature, and earn the respect of the international community.

Few Canadians understand Mr. Harper beyond his public persona, however. (Full disclosure: I’ve known the PM since 1996, and worked as one of his speechwriters). His leadership is a puzzling dichotomy between political strategist and man of mystery. He’s a true black and white politician, with no detectable shades of gray. You either love Mr. Harper’s vision for Canada with a great passion, or you hate it to its very core.

Various authors have written sympathetic or scathing assessments of Mr. Harper’s leadership, including Paul Wells, William Johnson and Mark Bourrie. Yet, John Ibbitson’s new book, “Stephen Harper,” could end up being the most impressive examination of this multifaceted prime minister.

Mr. Ibbitson is an author and writer-at-large for the Globe and Mail. He’s an intelligent, talented columnist with an admirable penchant for fiscal conservatism. While he praises the balance of Mr. Harper’s tenure in office, he isn’t blindly partisan. Some controversial Tory policies on politics, economics and constitutional matters are laid bare for all to see.

One of Mr. Harper’s earliest influences was his father, Joe. He was a “very guarded, introverted man” with “strong views” that he “typically only shared with people he was close to.” He led a “very private, self-contained life” working as an accountant for Imperial Oil. His strong views on Israel — through his friendship with Harvey Gellman, who had lost family during the Holocaust — were passed on to his son, who also “hated intolerance” and believed “the Jews had a right to their own homeland.” These positions, and others, “would help shape Stephen Harper’s world view, and his destiny,” Mr. Ibbitson writes.

In his youth, Mr. Harper was an avid reader of the right-leaning Economist magazine. Leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who “were imposing a new conservative revolution on their societies,” formed his core values. He was inspired by John Stuart Mill, Edmund Burke, William F. Buckley and Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, “which was any good conservative’s answer to John Maynard Keynes.”

The book weaves an impressive analysis of Mr. Harper’s rise to power. As readers will discover, there were many steps involved. This includes a stint as a legislative assistant for Progressive Conservative MP Jim Hawkes, and his “anger toward the Red Tory movement” and switch to the Reform Party. He had a “complicated relationship” with Reform leader Preston Manning, worked for Reform MP Deborah Grey, and formed a friendship with University of Calgary professor Tom Flanagan — who was later “banished from the prime minister’s inner circle.” He became a Reform MP, and promptly left politics for several years out of frustration. He returned to become leader of the Canadian Alliance (Reform’s successor), and merged his party with the faltering Progressive Conservatives. He suffered a close 2004 election loss to the Liberals, and finally achieved victory in 2006.

Through it all, invaluable details about Mr. Harper’s personality are revealed. Mr. Ibbitson eloquently writes that the PM can “fly off the handle,” “goes into funks,” “is suspicious of others” and has a “legendary temper.” Meanwhile, when he’s “really angry at you, he’s very calm,” and has a “perceived lack of loyalty toward others.”

Which isn’t to say Mr. Harper doesn’t have good qualities. He’s highly intelligent, well read, and politically strategic. He has the “ability to correctly analyze a situation and act firmly to address it.” In public, he’s “almost invariably calm, measured, and careful in what he says and how he says it.” He loves music, hockey and has a sense of humor that he rarely shares with the outside world. He cares deeply about his family, too.

Harper’s character flaws are the reverse side of his character strengths: one would not exist without the other,” writes the author. In effect, “[h]e has been prime minister for a decade not despite these qualities but because of them.”

Will Mr. Ibbitson’s analysis, “A more conservative Canada made Stephen Harper, and Stephen Harper made Canada more conservative,” come to fruition? Those who support the prime minister’s informal 10-year plan to build a conservative Canada certainly hope so. When all the votes are counted in the Oct. 19 Canadian federal election, we may have an answer.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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