Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Autumnal Roar: John Ibbitson on Stephen Harper

Canada's 42nd election is heating up and the heat was definitely felt in the Centretown United Church on a surprisingly warm September evening. The house was full of attendees fanning their programs trying to catch a breath of air and eager to get a glimpse into the life of the incumbent up for re-election and the subject and title of John Ibbitson's latest book – Stephen Harper. John Ibbitson himself described the evening as ‘sultry’, which I found a marked understatement considering he had dressed for the occasion in a suit and tie and was surely melting from the inside. Before yielding the podium to Ibbitson, Andrew Cohen listed the staggeringly impressive list of achievements that John Ibbitson has accomplished – the two have a long history together, Cohen describing them as “old friends who agree on nothing.”


As Ibbitson stepped up to speak he explained that to rile up his old friend, he would pre-emptively ask and answer the questions he's heard most while on his media tour for this book. The first; why doesn’t the book have a subtitle? Ibbitson knew from the beginning that he didn’t want to write what he deemed a ‘colon’ book. He noted that whether you are a fan of the man or not, you cannot deny that as Canada’s sixth longest serving PM the country has been shaped and changed because of him in ways the author claims will be hard to undo. In the spirit of full non-partisanship, Ibbitson disclosed that the book lists both Harper's good and bad accomplishments, but that the focus is largely on the man himself. Ibbitson says he likes politicians for the social creatures that they are and admires the fact that most enter public life to make the country a better place, even if he may not agree with what the problems or solutions are. 


We learned that the first half of the book follows Steve Harper, as he was then known, and how influences by his father Joe and his growing dissatisfaction with Canada's political landscape shaped him into the man who would eventually become Prime Minister. Ibbitson sees as seminal the fact that, although as a student with perfect grades, Harper dropped out of Trinity College within the first month. This would go on to inform Harper's regionally-focused politics as he rejected entering the ranks of the ruling class of Ontario and Quebec, the Laurentian Elites, as opined by Ibbitson in a previous work. Ibbitson claims Harper can hold a grudge and has a large chip on his shoulder, which he channelled into his running as a candidate for the newly-formed Reform Party of Preston Manning. Harper soon discovered the anti-Laurentian consensus sentiment was shared by most western voters and once he realized the same could be said for many suburban ridings across the country, laid out a strategy for success in a 22 page memo to Manning, who disagreed. Harper would go on to use this strategy to win the highest office in the country years later. 


Through previously unattainable access to close confidants and friends, of which Harper has very few, Ibbitson shed light on a loner and introvert. A loyal son and brother. A devoted father. A loving husband and equal partner to his wife Laureen, who he met while she was campaigning against him. Ibbitson made clear that beyond family there are very few people Harper will confide in. Perhaps this is because, as Ibbitson later claims while answering a question on disgraced Senate appointments, the man is a poor judge of character. The author points to the many moments throughout Harper's life when he could not accept his place under any figures of authority, which may be why he eventually sought the only job where he wouldn't have to take orders. Jokingly, Ibbitson points out the tarnished relationships Harper has with the last two authority figures a Prime Minister must defer to; the President of the US and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. As a PM who ran a rather tight and secretive administration, this book successfully humanizes the man many have come to see as stern, cold and calculating – something voters of all opinions can benefit from. It turns out the private man and the politician are closely tied, as Ibbiston stated: “The face of Stephen Harper’s government is Stephen Harper’s face.” 


The book goes into details about Harper's handling of federalism, his revamping of the Conservative movement in Canadian politics, the running of campaigns during many elections, his foreign policy, and the many other fundamental changes to Canada implemented while in office. Each decision was made after long and reclusive contemplative sessions, revealing the extent of Harper's intellect. Yet none, as the author answers to an attendee's question, illustrate just how shrewd Stephen Harper is as what many will only discover years after his tenure is over: Mr. Harper re-polarized the Canadian political landscape to leave a lasting legacy of what he set out to accomplish in the first place, specifically, the most basic of conservative tenets – to make government less of a factor in people's lives. On this, Ibbitson believes he has succeeded, but far beyond the current administration. Harper expected the rise of the NDP as a counterbalance to his leaning further to the right and he won't see a swing back to the left on October 19th as much of a setback. The polarization of Canadian politics is here to stay, and empirical data the world over shows that countries with such political landscapes tend to sway right more often than left over time. This profound notion of the multi-levelled implications of the Harper Government's stratagem left me with a more nuanced understanding of the current elections, and, as I returned home through Ottawa's downtown core, I still felt the punishing heat, but now too the thick political tension in the air over who will lead this country into the future.