U.S. on Harper: "combative", "unapologetic", "sometimes vindictive pettiness"

Canadians are about to find out what up to five years of majority government are like with Stephen Harper as Prime Minister.

We all have our own opinions of the Prime Minister, of course, but for a foreign view it is well worth reading the U.S. State Department’s analysis (or the analysis of one of its officers, at least), as reported in this January 2009 cable released last week by Wikileaks:

¶1. (C) Summary: Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s reputation as a master political strategist is somewhat tattered in the wake of November’s stunning near-fatal mis-step to abolish public financing for all political parties. However, at least on the surface, he remains unbowed and unapologetic. Relying on an extremely small circle of advisors and his own instincts, he has played the game of high-stakes, partisan politics well, but his reputation for decisiveness and shrewdness has been tarnished by a sometimes vindictive pettiness. With only a few exceptions, he has not built the bridges to the opposition typical of a minority PM. Moving from surpluses to deficits, he will face new imperatives in the changed economic and political landscape of 2009 to adopt a more conciliatory and inclusive approach. However, this will go against the grain for such an instinctively combative Prime Minister. End Summary….

¶6. (C) Tight focus on the leader and close-hold of information have been the hallmarks of Harper’s governing style. Initially, strict discipline and scripting made sense for a new government on probation, whose members had almost no experience in power. However, Harper has centralized communications and decision-making within the PMO (an ongoing trend since the 1970s) to an unprecedented degree, according to commentators familiar with the public service and Conservative insiders. “The Center” (PMO and Privy Council Office) is clearly the arbiter of even the most routine decisions.

¶7. (C) For their part, cabinet ministers have mostly kept on message and in the prime minister’s shadow. Since July, under new Chief of Staff Guy Giorno and communications director Kory Teneycke, media access to ministers has been loosened, but ministers are still on a short leash. At a December conference, one Minister of State confessed privately that he did not “dare” to deviate from his pre-approved text, even though fast-moving events had already overtaken his speech. Discussions with Conservative caucus members over the past year have also made it clear that they are often out of the loop on the Prime Minister’s plans, including key committee chairmen in the House of Commons. Many senior Conservatives admitted that they were stunned to hear about the ban on public financing of political parties in the Fall Economic Statement; neither the Cabinet nor the caucus apparently had any clue this was even part of the long-range agenda, much less subject to an immediate confidence vote.

Inner, inner circle

¶8. (C) Harper’s inner circle appears extremely small. Notoriously hard on staff (Harper burned through a series of communications directors as opposition leader, and once reportedly told an aide that he liked to see the “fear” in the eyes of prospective employees), Harper seems to operate largely as his own strategist, tactician, and advisor. Often described by observers as self-consciously the “smartest guy in the room,” he has tended to surround himself with like-minded people. As a result, some insiders say he lacks staff willing or able to act as an effective sounding-board or check his partisan instincts. Following the departure in July of long-term advisor and chief of staff Ian Brodie and communications director Sandra Buckler, their replacements Giorno and Teneycke are known as highly partisan veterans of two controversial majority Ontario provincial governments that polarized public opinion….

¶11. (C) According to one insider, Harper “likes surprises,” not least to keep the opposition off balance. For the opposition, Harper’s unpredictability has been more dangerous due to his fierce partisanship and his willingness to take risks. Harper and senior Conservatives prefaced the 40th Parliament with calls for greater conciliation, a new “tone,” and a common resolve to work together to tackle the economic crisis. However, the government’s provocative Economic and Fiscal Statement immediately revived the bitterness and threat of an election that had hung over the parliament until the prorogation.

Further coverage:

Amber Hildebrandt, “U.S. cables dissect Canada’s leaders: WikiLeaks,” CBC News, 1 May 2011

Tags: Elections, Stephen Harper, wikileaks