Meet Harper


TORONTO, Canada — On Jan. 27, the conservative government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will present its first budget since winning reelection last October. For a country seeking relief from recession, it can’t come soon enough.

With an unemployment rate of 6.6 percent, Canada ended 2008 hemorrhaging jobs — 105,000 in the last two months of the year. That pales in comparison to the economic blood-letting taking place south of its border. But with so much of the Canadian economy dependent on the U.S., the economic outlook is grim.

Venomous partisan politics, meanwhile, left Canada facing an economic crisis without Parliament, which is where politicians conduct the nation’s business. If U.S. residents need further proof of the perils of partisanship, they need only look north of the border.

On Dec. 4, Harper convinced the governor general, Canada’s acting head of state, to suspend the cornerstone of the country’s democracy for seven weeks. The move came as Harper faced a vote that would have brought down his minority government less than two months after it was reelected. So to avoid it, he got rid of Parliament.

The move attracted unsavory references to despots past and present. Harper, a 49-year-old economist, has only himself to blame.

In 2006, he became one of Canada’s most right-wing prime ministers by beating a scandal-ridden Liberal Party.

His Conservative Party, based in the western part of the country, won a minority government without a single parliamentary seat in the major urban centers of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. (Canada is divided into 308 ridings that are contested during a federal election. Each riding represents a "seat" in the House of Commons, a branch of Parliament. A party that wins more than half the seats forms a majority government and is assured enough votes to pass its legislation. Minority governments need support from rival parties to pass legislation and stay in power.)

Commentators quickly labeled Harper a “control freak.” Senior bureaucrats, diplomats, even cabinet ministers dared not speak to reporters without clearance from his office. Suspicions of a hidden agenda took hold, along with a sense that only his government’s minority status prevented the “hang 'em high,” survival-of-the-fittest streak in his party from transforming the country. It didn’t help that, for the first time in recent memory, regular gatherings of cabinet ministers went unannounced. Harper insisted Canadians had no right to know when their political executives met.

During the U.S. presidential primaries and caucuses, there were strong indications that Harper’s close aides leaked a memo damaging to Obama. It claimed a top Obama adviser reassured Canadian diplomats that his pronouncements against the North American Free Trade Agreement were nothing more than political posturing. The memo made news in the U.S. and hurt Obama in the Ohio primary.

“Quick, hard and mean is Mr. Harper’s default mode,” wrote Rex Murphy, one of Canada’s best-known political commentators.

After two-and-a-half years in power, Harper called a national election last fall. He insisted Canada’s economy was sheltered from the global financial meltdown and vowed his government would never run a deficit. When the stock market plummeted, he encouraged Canadians to buy low.

His main opponent was the weakest Liberal Party leader in memory. Yet Canadians refused to give Harper a majority government. The three opposition parties can, if they choose, gang up and defeat him in the legislature. Humbled, Harper suggested his second term would be less partisan and talked of deficit spending to stimulate the economy.

But in late November, the old Harper reemerged. His finance minister delivered an economic statement to Parliament that painted an unbelievably rosy picture of Canada’s economy. Unlike other Western governments, Harper made no commitment to spending big money to stimulate the economy.

Instead, he proposed measures that pandered to his conservative voting base: a temporary ban on public service strikes, removing the right to tribunal appeal for female government employees demanding equal pay with male colleagues, and ending the public funding of political parties.

Rival parties went ballistic. The end of public funding — parties receive an annual allowance of $1.75 for every vote they won in the most recent election — threatened their survival. They formed a coalition, vowing to replace the government with their own.

Commentators spewed scorn on the prime minister. Rex Murphy said Harper was “either too dumb to know the furies he was releasing or too arrogant to care.”

Harper tried to save his political skin by dropping the public funding proposal and stoking the demons of the country’s fragile unity, warning intemperately against a coalition that included the Bloc Quebecois, a party devoted to breaking up Canada by making the francophone province of Quebec an independent country. He then pulled the plug on Parliament.

Harper faces a tougher opposition when Parliament resumes Jan. 26. The Liberal Party used the suspension period to replace its hapless leader, Stephane Dion, with Michael Ignatieff, a former Harvard University professor. Still, few observers expect Harper’s government to be defeated immediately: Canadians don’t want an election and the Liberal Party isn’t ready for one.

Harper has also been making the right noises, offering $4 billion in emergency loans to auto companies and signaling a stimulus package that could result in a $40 billion deficit. But who knows? This is a prime minister who, in the words of one commentator, “can’t see a belt without wanting to hit below it.”