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Recently I wrote about why I was planning to vote Conservative in the Federal election. I invited other opinions and specifically, I asked Dale Peacock, who makes no secret of her left of centre political philosophy, to review John Ibbitson’s recent book, Stephen Harper, and she did. Here it is. ~ Hugh Mackenzie
Doppler Book Review of Stephen Harper by John Ibbitson
“There may never have been a politician elected to high office as temperamentally unsuited to it as Stephen Harper” is the first sentence on the dust jacket of John Ibbitson’s new book on Stephen Harper. Those unfamiliar with Ibbitson’s writing might start this book wrongly assuming that his views are liberal and that he’s out to skewer Harper but it is far more complicated than that.
Ibbitson – The Globe and Mail‘s national political affairs columnist – supports fiscally conservative causes such as smaller government, lower taxes and increased military spending. On the other hand he advocates same-sex marriage, increased immigration and aboriginal rights. These are not typical positions for a right-wing columnist but Ibbitson is not typical. He is not particularly loyal to a single ideology and that is fairly evident in his newest book.
The book is extremely well written and an enjoyable read – at 436 pages – regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum. It gets a bit ‘draggy’ when the writer delves into political history, unless you are truly fascinated with the subject, but on balance it is well worth the time.
This is a very complete biography that gives some insight into Stephen Harper the man, the politician and the enigma that he is to so many. It traces Harper’s childhood and makes much of the fact that he is the first/only Prime Minister to be raised in the suburbs, who came of age in a time of turmoil by a father that exerted a powerful and permanent influence. Harper’s inward-looking character is rooted in his genes and in his past.
Some readers have suggested that the book will help to understand Stephen Harper but in some ways it invites more questions than it answers. Given Harper’s childhood in a loving home by principled and supportive parents and siblings who remain his best friends, it is hard to reconcile the introverted, suspicious and cold adult Harper, with Harper the child. He began life in fairly modest circumstances, but as his family fortunes improved he quickly became a youth of some privilege.
One surprise is that while Harper was a brilliant student, he dropped out of university for three years and took a job his father found for him as an office boy in Edmonton in circumstances that can only be called ‘spartan.’ Rarely do young people return to their studies after such a long hiatus but young Stephen Harper wasn’t most young people. Like him or hate him, that at least seems to be incontrovertible.
Two widely held ideas about Harper seem false if Ibbitson’s portrayal of Stephen Harper is accurate. Harper’s pilgrimage as one author called it, from “teenage agnostic to adult evangelical Christian” mirrors his political conversion from “uncertain liberalism to devout conservatism” according to Ibbitson. He is not a fundamentalist as many believe and has a fairly non-demonstrative approach to faith despite identifying as a born-again Christian. The other commonly held belief that Ibbitson debunks is that Harper suffers from depression: numerous insiders acknowledge that his mood can get very dark very fast but that it is always in relation to some real issue as opposed to one of brain chemistry.
Within his very small circle of friends – he trusts almost no one – Harper is revealed to have a great sense of humour. One amusing anecdote is that in describing his decision to study economics he explains that he didn’t have the personality to be an accountant like his father or brothers so he became an economist instead.
Other surprises, which could endear Stephen Harper to some undecided readers, are his musical ability, his fascination with all things hockey, his lack of athleticism and his love of cats!
It was in Alberta that Harper was finally in his element but his journey to the PMO was a slow, convoluted and fractious trip from Alliance to Reform to Conservative. He is the first prime minister to come from the newly reconstituted Conservative Party, which formed after a merger of the Progressive Conservative Party and the Canadian Alliance Party.
His wife Laureen, who originally supported one of his early Alliance Party rivals, had a successful graphics art business of her own and was the one who supported the family in leaner times. Laureen Harper’s warmth, intelligence and charm seem at odds with her husband’s own temperament but she is his best friend, most trusted confidant, his fearless defender and mother of their two children.
Ibbitson characterizes Harper as an outsider who has always seen himself in that way as he has achieved the pinnacle of power. Harper has a real aversion to what he calls the ‘Laurentian elites’ that attend institutions like the U of T’s Trinity College; they seem to represent all that he dislikes in Eastern, educated, private-school types. That these people from the political, cultural and media classes have driven Canada’s power structure for well over a century particularly rankles Harper.
It doesn’t help that they are mostly easterners from Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. Given Harper’s own good education, comfortable upbringing and own political interests such antipathy seems odd: it’s not as though he was the struggling son of a coal miner and fought his way from the bottom of the socio-economic heap or anything. Whatever the origin of this disdain, the concept of the Laurentian elites’ runs through the entire book.
Harper is portrayed as a true son of the West in Ibbitson’s book, even though he was born and raised in Ontario. Indeed it is the energy-rich West and surprisingly the immigrant populations throughout Canada that gave the Harper Conservatives a 2011 majority.
Ibbitson uses his own superb writing skills and an even-handed tone to try to persuade readers that despite Stephen Harper’s many flaws he has had huge successes and has ‘on balance’ left Canada better than he found it. He makes the point that you can’t or shouldn’t criticize a Conservative for behaving like a Conservative, but many readers will disagree. Ibbitson also catalogues some of Harper’s most egregious failures such as his vicious attack on the judiciary, eroding the power of Parliament, undermining the census and worsening our relationship with the U.S.
Ibbitson enumerates Harper’s many failures both of character and action. He calls him petty and vindictive, moody, secretive to a fault and not particularly loyal. He says that he has given Canada a very different voice in the world and very different politics – more partisan, more ideological and more polarizing. He also lists what he considers his successes: lower taxes, maternal health initiative, the Franklin Expedition mystery solved, hands-off the provinces. What he doesn’t do is demonize him, which adds balance to the story.
You won’t find a comprehensive accounting of three Conservative governments in these 436 pages. Ibbitson’s book is a biography that seeks to reveal the man as much as the politician. He believes that we do what we do because we are who we are and that we become who we are very early on. And in the main he seems to be a fan of Stephen Harper, warts and all.
There will be readers who feel that they have a much better understanding of our 22nd Prime Minister from reading this book. Others may feel that they know him better but will still not understand how or why he came to be who he is. Still others will like Stephen Harper even less than they did because they won’t be able to see any good reasons for him being who he is. The book does not explain him by revealing facts about him, regardless of the author’s intention. Nonetheless, it is a very good read about an intelligent, complex and difficult man who may be the least liked Prime Minister in Canada’s history.
Authored by Dale Peacock
Following a career in the hospitality sector and the acquisition of a law and justice degree in her 50s, Dale embarked on a writing career armed with the fanciful idea that a living could be made as a freelancer. To her own great surprise she was right. The proof lies in hundreds of published works on almost any topic but favourites include travel, humour & satire, feature writing, environment, politics and entrepreneurship. Having re-invented herself half a dozen times, Dale doesn’t rule anything out. Her time is divided equally between Muskoka and Tampa Bay with Jim, her husband of 7 years and partner of 32 years. Two grown ‘kids’ and their spouses receive double doses of love and attention when she’s at home.