Stephen Harper by John Ibbitson – book review

By Edith Cody-Rice

Stephen Harper by John Ibbitson 001I have always enjoyed the writing of John Ibbitson – a fine writer, and his book on Stephen Harper is no exception. Whether you love Harper or can’t abide him, the completeness of this biography provides insight not only into the formation of the leader he has become, but in a relatively even handed way.  At the conclusion, Ibbitson reveals that he believes that, overall, Harper has done a creditable job leading the country, but this does not prevent him from investigating Harper’s weaknesses and poor judgment in many areas: his legendary temper, his suspiciousness, his jettisoning of those who are no longer useful to him, his poor judgment of character in his appointees, his inability to work as part of a team, his holding of grudges. As he states, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper brooks no opposition and wouldn’t hire Stephen Harper.

The book traces the childhood and young manhood of Stephen Harper, raised in the suburban community of Leaside Ontario, to his maturity as leader of the Alliance and then the Conservative Party. The book is a surprise in some respects. Harper was brilliant as a high school student, then dropped out of university after a week – to the great disappointment of his father Joe. There followed a relatively lost period when Joe, unable to cope with his son, asked a colleague in Edmonton to give “Steve” a job. Steve became essentially a gopher office boy for three years living in spartan circumstances. His wife Laureen at first supported a political rival and prior to coming to Ottawa, had a successful business of her own that  supported the family in the tougher political times.

It is in Alberta that Harper found his element and a community that supported his values. Ibbitson characterizes Harper as always an outsider, even now at the pinnacle of power. He has a particular antipathy toward what Ibbitson calls the “Laurentian elites”, those eastern educated private school types who infest Trinity College at University of Toronto which Harper fled, and to him, the civil service and central institutions of Canada at the federal level. The concept of the Laurentian elites runs through the book and Ibbitson explains many of Harper’s actions as reactions to the values of this group.

I found some elements of this characterization a stretch. If Harper did not like the private school graduates at Trinity College, why did he choose it? Other colleges, Victoria (originally associated with the United Church) and University College (completely secular) have much different atmospheres and the concentration of the “Laurentian elites” is much lower – many students coming from the small towns of Ontario and elsewhere. His attack on Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, ostensibly for values espoused by these elites does not account for the fact that she was raised in  Pincher Creek Alberta, taught law in British Columbia and never moved east until she was appointed to the Supreme Court – hardly a private school product of the east.

What is revealing about Harper is his ability to analyze the Canadian electorate and identify the communities of support necessary to present winning conditions for the Alliance, then the Conservatives. We have always heard that Harper is a brilliant tactician but few have explained why.  He was able to see that it required the Alberta conservatives, combined with the Ontario suburbanites  and Quebec Nationalists to deliver victory. His break with Preston Manning had much to do with his determination to appeal to those voters. He also saw the necessity of combining with the Conservative Party that had  more support east of  the  prairies and when that party was at its weakest, he conceded nearly everything they wanted in a merger in order to make it happen. But he knew that he would be leader of that combined party and could control it in the end.

Ibbitson points to big things that Harper has accomplished in his ten year reign, in the fields of  federal-provincial relations, economic management, immigration and foreign policy while lamenting some of his failures, like the KeyStone pipeline and his attack on the Chief Justice of Canada. Like him or hate him, Harper is a true conservative and has governed according to conservative values. This is a valuable read no matter who wins on October 19.

Stephen Harper is published by McClelland & Stewart