Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Book Review: The Longer I'm Prime Minister by Paul Wells

The Longer I'm Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006- examines how Stephen Harper gained and maintained power and the philosophy behind his leadership. Stephen Harper has been the prime minister for nearly ten years now. His doom has been foretold by many. Several pundits, academics and political rivals saw the 2015 election as his Waterloo and it would be the end for him, but now we see in the polls that he has eked out a lead and seems in very little danger of total implosion.

Paul Wells, and others he cites in his book, describe Harper as an incrementalist. He has studied successful and failed prime ministers and come away with some conclusions. The first being that prime ministers who tackle big projects often destroy their own legacy, see Brian Mulroney and his constitutional gambits. Instead the longer one's party is in power and can hold it and make incremental changes towards their goals the safer the legacy is and the more assured a long hold on power is. Revolution isn't the goal, the goal is to progressively erode the state as defined by the Liberals.

This strategy has been part of the reason that Harper's detractors have gone nowhere. The allegations of a hidden agenda have never born fruit because he doesn't want to break his coalition with a bold, sweeping policy. This is an example Wells uses in the book: the Insite program came up for review, which is the clean needle exchange in Vancouver. Harper moved to shut down this pilot program. Under a Liberal or New Democratic prime minister it may have been made permanent, or the project expanded to Toronto and Montreal. The day-to-day decisions may matter more in the long run than the big sweeping agendas that can be undone with a few pieces of legislation.

Wells also dives into some of the intellectual and academic roots of Harperism. He suggests, for example, that Peter Brimelow's The Patriot Game: National Dreams and Political Realities have played a big role in shaping the ideas that move Stephen Harper and his allies. It's an interesting notion and Wells manages to successful support these intellectual threads with tangible evidence.

It is important to note, as Wells does, that among a segment of the population Stephen Harper is very popular. I certainly do not fit within that camp, nor do many of the people in my circle, but we're not supposed to. For many years we watched Harper build a coalition of voters to bring him a majority government, one step at a time. Incompetence by his opponents has helped make him the success he has today. Wells spends a great deal of time looking at the politics during the Harper years. The campaign missteps of his opponents has as much to do with his success as his own strategies.

The book concludes in 2013 with the 2015 election looming and already things look tricky. Wells suggests that if Harper looses power it will be because of his own missteps, as evidenced in the past. But for the first time he faces competent opposition, in the form of Thomas Mulcair and a popular Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau. Wells also comes to this point, Harper's vision for the future of Canada is limited. Incrementalism often means no grand strategy but it is not entirely clear what Mr. Harper would do with a second majority. Wells provides amble evidence that Harper will pursue policy goals, such as pipelines, wooing Quebec, or trade with China until obstacles become too numerous and he quits. If he wins a majority it is hard to know what Canada will look like in 2019 because it seems Harper doesn't have a vision for it despite what his critics and supporters say.

I really enjoyed this book. I believe it to be a fair analysis of the Harper's years in office and how he has exercised and held power. The prose is often witty, snarky and clever and weaves together the last ten years into a narrative that fits and frames them within context that is hard to see in the day-to-day coverage. If you're curious how Stephen Harper has held on to power over the last ten years and the philosophy behind his actions I would strongly recommend this book. I believe it also made an excellent companion to Susan Delacourt's Shopping for Votes, which I read at the same time.

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