Tristin Hopper (The National Post):
Behind closed doors, Canada’s 22nd prime minister can swear like a “longshoreman,” is known to greet unwelcome news with “volcanic” outbursts of fury and has an uncanny talent for pitch-perfect impersonations. But to most Canadians he is a poker-faced cipher: never angry, rarely laughing, awkward in social settings and most comfortable when talking fiscal policy.
Stephen Harper is a nerd who came from nowhere, corralled an estranged coalition of Canadian conservatives and smashed his way into nearly a decade of power. And he did it without being cuddly, charismatic or particularly quotable. Nine years in, that’s probably just the way he wants it.
“He’d ditch all the public obligations that come with the job tomorrow, if he could,” says Jim Armour, a former director of communications for the Conservative leader.
Other prime ministers have thrived on galas and state dinners. But aside from the occasional chance to meet hockey greats, Harper would pass up ribbon-cuttings for strategy sessions. (…)
He’s ruthless at destroying opponents, but — strangely for a career politician — takes no joy in it. (…) “He’s like a predator; there’s no emotion to it,” says Gerry Nicholls, who worked with Harper at the National Citizens’ Coalition, a conservative think tank. “When a wolf goes after a rabbit, it’s not because it hates rabbits.” (…)
He “reads everything,” becoming the bane of a privy council that had grown accustomed to prime ministers skimming their reports. He is known to catch the tiniest of spelling errors — and respond with swift reprimands scribbled in the margins.
He gets angry. But it’s not the out-of-control BlackBerry-throwing tantrum so common to Ottawa, it’s a measured expulsion of rage designed chillingly to drive a point home. One staffer has described it as a “spectacular thing.” (…)
The Conservative leader’s political genius, say staffers, is he figured out Canadians don’t need to like a politician to choose him as their leader.
“Bland works. If Canadians want entertainment, they’ll turn on Netflix,” says Armour. (…)
Frank Atkins used to get mocked for being the prime minister’s thesis adviser.
Now at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Atkins is an associate of the “Calgary School,” the name given to an informal group of University of Calgary academics advocating small government, low taxes and balanced budgets.
But by 2010, his wunderkind student was suddenly running up the largest deficit in Canadian history.
Once, while the professor strode into a crowded room, a colleague shouted out derisively, “There’s Frank Atkins, the architect of the stimulus package!”
Harper’s 1991 master’s thesis, ironically, railed against the concept of using government stimulus packages to rescue an ailing economy.
The dense 162-page tome is officially titled “The Political Business Cycle and Fiscal Policy in Canada.” But according to Atkins, it could just as easily be called “Keynesian economics is really a stupid idea.” (…)
Atkins says he’s “come to grips” with the actions of his former student. He says Harper has needed to compromise to stay in power and keep a less economics-minded leader out of the Prime Minister’s Office, but he guesses there’s still a libertarian-minded man in the PMO.
“You’ll never know — because he’ll never tell you — but I suspect he still believes that, deep down inside,” he says. (…)
On rare occasions, Harper has been candid about what he really thinks. In a 2011 interview with Peter Mansbridge, he said he “personally thinks there are times where capital punishment is appropriate.”
But he also noted “I don’t see the country wanting to do that” and vowed not to touch the issue as prime minister.
Even so, this brief moment of honesty was swiftly punished with a backlash of headlines, opposition outrage and condemnations from the head of Amnesty International.
It might be why — even to close aides — Harper never betrays certain private views. (…)
The tactic works, but while few speak of a “hidden agenda” anymore, there are few who know just what Harper’s agenda is.
Armour says the prime minister is an incrementalist. “He decided that the longer he was there, the more changes he could make,” he says.
Gerry Nicholls’ theory is more Shakespearean. He believes Harper is still working on his 1990s vow to smash the Liberal Party and inaugurate Canada as a two-party state shared between the Tories and the New Democrats.
“It’s about grinding the Liberal Party into little bits of red dust,” says Nicholls.
Others, like Brison, speak of a gradual plan to starve the machinery of government. Most, though, suspect Harper simply enjoys being in power.
“He doesn’t care about the adulation that comes with holding high public office,” says Flanagan.
“He thinks he knows what to do and wants to be able to do it.” (…)
Post-politics, he will sit on corporate boards and likely take up a teaching position. But chances are also good he will go to the grave while keeping mum on what really motivated him during his meteoric time in power.
“The public image is not the private man, and unfortunately, the Canadian public will never get to see that side,” says Beardsley.