OTTAWA - It was somewhat heartening to learn this week, via a new book on power change in Canada, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper looked to Jean Chrétien for lessons on leadership.
That’s someone, at least.
From the highest court in the land to lowly public servants, scientists, statisticians and staffers, it’s a perilous business telling this prime minister something he doesn’t want to hear.
Moreover, we can’t say we weren’t warned. Harper’s signature line to last year’s big Conservative convention in Calgary, recall, was this memorable phrase: “I couldn’t care less what they say. We will do the right thing.”
How many other people in Canada, leaving the Chrétien exception aside, have also been told at some point that Harper couldn’t care less about their advice? Here’s just a rough tally:
• Seven chiefs of communication, plus one still standing, Jason MacDonald, during eight years in power. That’s about one a year. The list gets even longer if you count communications chiefs when Harper was in opposition. If all former communications advisers to Harper were to run for office and be elected, they would qualify for official party standing in the Commons.
• Chiefs of staff don’t last much longer. Their tenure averages roughly two years: Ian Brodie, Guy Giorno, Nigel Wright and now Ray Novak. Again, though, if you go back to opposition days, and then look at the news this week, you’ll see former chief of staff Tom Flanagan, emerging from the flames of his experience with Harper with two books out this year, describing his former boss and mentor this way: “There’s a dark, almost Nixonian, side to the man. He can be suspicious, secretive and vindictive, prone to sudden eruptions of white-hot rage over meaningless trivia.”
• Stepping out of Langevin Block and people who work directly for the prime minister, it’s almost impossible to count all the people who have prompted a government temper tantrum when they uttered a discouraging word. There’s Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand, vilified for getting in the way of Fair Elections Act and former auditor-general Sheila Fraser, for the same offence. Then there’s the former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page; former chief statistician Munir Sheikh; former nuclear safety commissioner Linda Keen; former RCMP public complaints commissioner Paul Kennedy; former veterans’ ombudsman Pat Stogran; as well as Marty Cheliak, ex-head of the gun registry; Remy Beauregard, the late head of Rights and Democracy; Adrian Measner, former head of the Canadian Wheat Board; and Richard Colvin, the former Canadian diplomat who spoke out on Afghan detainees.
When Harper lashed out at the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court last week, critics asked whether he could go much higher in his disdain for dissent. As a matter of fact, he already has. In late 2008, when Harper needed the Governor-General’s approval to fend off the defeat of his minority government, Conservatives talked of “going over the head” of the Queen’s representative in Canada.
From all authoritative accounts of that “crisis,” the governor-general at the time, Michaelle Jean, agreed to give Harper an extension of his power mainly because it was clear a public relations attack was planned in retaliation if the wrong advice was given.
So from the highest constitutional offices in the land to ordinary public servants, there’s a chill on giving this prime minister advice or questioning his authority. Whenever Harper does decide to write his memoirs, “I couldn’t care less” might make a fine title.
No one else in Canada gets to live this way — firing, marginalizing or launching expensive ad campaigns against challengers to authority. Keep that in mind the next time the prime minister claims to be just an ordinary Canadian.
Meanwhile, there are lots of other fascinating insights into Harper and other prime ministers in David Zussman’s new book, Off and Running, about how handovers of power have taken place in Canada. Dozens of former high-ranking advisers are quoted in the book at length, giving us some rare glimpses into how prime ministers grapple with the power they are gaining — or losing.
The news in the book, as mentioned, is that this prime minister did have moments of uncertainty about decisions he was making — at least in the early days — and that he did need advice, asking “what would Chretien do?” Harper also apparently took some advice from his wife, Laureen, on hiring staffers.
So Harper isn’t talking about everyone in Canada when he says he “couldn’t care less” what “they” say. He means everyone except his wife and a former Liberal prime minister.