Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Not the most impressive political leader of his generation

Professor David Cameron wrote the following incredible set of statements about the Prime Minister in early December, during a conference on the Governor General's decision to prorogue parliament:
"While Barack Obama, building his team of rivals, rises to the occasion and gives his people hope, Stephen Harper stoops to conquer, filling a great many Canadians with a feeling of despair and hopelessness. There is no bridge he will not burn, no low road he will not take, to stay in power. Beyond the deceit and the intentional obfuscation, what cannot be forgiven is the Prime Minister’s willingness to conjure up our national-unity demons for the sake of discrediting the proposed coalition. That, surely, is the lowest blow of all, and in itself a disqualification from high public office."
I was reading Cameron's essay on the plane ride home Sunday and that part jumped out, in light of Ignatieff's repeated appeals during his Saturday speech to national unity themes. It's clearly a weakness Ignatieff sees in Harper, admittedly an obvious one, and intends to pursue, deservedly so.

A few days later I read Andrew Coyne's piece from Monday with this component:
...polls still show Harper leading or level with Ignatieff on a range of traditional leadership questions: “best prime minister,” “strong and decisive,” and so forth. Understandably so. No one doubts Harper’s abilities. He is easily the most impressive political leader of his generation. It’s his style, the way he does politics—the chippiness, the intolerance of dissent, the relentless partisanship—that puts people off. Once, people would have described him as dull but decent; a bit of an ideologue, but a straight arrow; principled, consistent, ethical to a fault. Now, the word that more usually comes to mind is Machiavellian. (emphasis added)
Easily the most impressive political leader of his generation. Coyne criticizes Harper's style, however, and does go on to more thoroughly criticize Harper, in terms of strategic and performance errors:
The calling of an early election, in defiance of his own fixed-term legislation; the decision to campaign without a platform, even in the shadow of an oncoming economic crisis; his own erratic performance as a campaigner, notably with regard to Quebec; the fall economic statement, with its ill-judged lunge for the opposition’s vitals; the desperate, borderline unconstitutional lengths to which he went to stave off a vote of no-confidence; the sudden lurch into deficit in January’s budget, the enthusiastic embrace of corporate subsidies, the massive increase in spending—all this has bewildered the government’s supporters, even as it has alienated swing voters.
Coyne also points out another key failing, the inability of Harper to groom any successors, a key responsibility for any leader of an organization, be it corporate or public. Yet in view of all this, he nevertheless still found it appropriate to ascribe the flattering mantle to Harper within that piece. How do you reconcile such a statement with the litany of errors? Harper should be credited, along with others, for putting the PC/Reform Alliance together and building that theoretically unified Conservative party. But in terms of his manner of governing and the results he is creating - throw in that deficit prior to any global recession's onslaught, for example - it's difficult to see how he warrants such a label.

It's also, of course, difficult to reconcile that label with the view set out above by Cameron. Cameron is hardly alone among constitutional scholars who are expressing significant cause for concern about the PM and what his tenure in government has represented as a precedent in governing.

We know that Professor Peter Russell has referred to Harper as using "authoritarian" tactics in suing his political opposition. Additionally, in a recent essay on Harper's views of minority government, Russell describes Harper's new "rules" (e.g., no alternative government possible without an election) as totally new and and an unprecedented challenge to our traditional understanding of parliamentary democracy, where minority governments may indeed fall and the next largest party holding seats can be asked to form a government without an election.

Professor Ned Franks has also disfavourably weighed in on Harper's performance during the December prorogation crisis:
Normally Canadian prime ministers work toward encouraging national unity and a common sense of purpose among Canada's French and English populations. Not so Mr. Harper in this political dogfight. His rhetoric was the most anti-Quebec, and by inference anti-French, of any major party, let alone a government, of at least the post—Second World War period.
While these opinions emanate largely out of the December/January parliamentary crisis, those are the kinds of significant, historical moments for the testing of Canadian political leaders that are likely to factor heavily in how they will be judged. The judgments being made by such scholars are important. I'd argue that they're circulating and are influencing the way some media are seeing Mr. Harper. Mr. Harper may not care about such academic opinions, but many others do.

We'll see how history will ultimately judge Harper and Coyne may or may not be right about Harper's ability to pull a rabbit out of a hat electorally down the road (looking highly doubtful at this point). But put me down with the Camerons, Russells and Franks of the nation as to Mr. Harper's impressiveness.