David Macfarlane is a writer based in Toronto. His most recent novel is "The Figures of Beauty." He has written for the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, The Walrus, and The New Yorker, among many other publications. He has won numerous magazine awards, a national newspaper award, and his first novel, "Summer Gone" was nominated for the Giller Prize.
Blaming Stephen Harper for the diminishment of hope will infuriate Conservatives. “I suppose you’ll blame him for the weather next,” they’ll say.
And they’ll be right. Someday everybody who is still above sea level will blame the likes of Stephen Harper for the weather.
But it’s the smallness of Stephen Harper that interests me here. It’s the common denominator of his many thoughts, and as a result of the PMO’s stranglehold on caucus, it’s the common denominator of his government’s many policies.
Consider this simple test. In the following list of three legislative options decide which one represents a small idea and which a big one:
- Either the Prime Minister can block international progress on setting minimal standards for reducing CO2 emissions. Or he can seriously engage in dealing with what is, almost certainly, the most challenging and complex problem the world faces.
- Either the Prime Minister can dismiss 1200 cases of murdered or missing Aboriginal women as individual crimes. Or he can marshal the power of the federal government to grapple with a serious and deeply systemic domestic problem.
- Either the Prime Minister can, against all evidence, oppose safe-injection sites. Or, based on all evidence, he can support safe-injection sites.
As this quick checklist makes clear, a predilection for the small option is Stephen Harper’s defining characteristic. Some might consider this a flaw. But then, they wouldn’t be Conservatives, would they? Smallness has succeeded in guiding Stephen J. Harper all the way to Sussex Drive.
And how is this possible? So liberals do nothing but wonder. Well, it’s possible because it has not escaped the attention of someone as tactically smart as Stephen Harper that smallness has its advantages. That it’s almost always the wrong option is neither here nor there. It’s one that many people prefer and that, apparently, is good enough for Stephen Harper.
Throughout his career, smallness has proven to be a successful strategy for Harper -- a man who, on the face of it, seems to lack many of the qualities required of a successful politician. Warm blood, for instance. And smallness may well work again. Small is so manageable, so understandable, and so sellable it could be enough to re-elect a prime minister who, were he a character in an American sitcom, would be suspected by many viewers of being an imperfectly disguised alien.
His media consultants have improved things slightly over the years. But hair that now moves in high winds has done nothing to make him appear more expansive in vision. If anything his worldview has grown more microscopically partisan during his terms of power.
Forty percent of the Canadians who voted in the last federal election voted for the Stephen Harper Conservatives. That’s not an insignificant proportion of the population. But it’s a smaller constituency than the sixty percent who didn’t. And when compared to the future generations who will be called upon to deal with the aftermath of Stephen Harper, the forty percent of Canadians who voted Conservative in 2011 is a small number indeed.
But small numbers are not bad things when it comes to the dynamics of wedge politics. When parts are your priority, and not the sum of them, the more the divisions, and the smaller the constituencies, the better.
The most common description of Stephen Harper in the popular press is that he is a micro manager. And my guess is that this assessment is true – so long as “micro” is taken to be a noun and not an adjective.
It’s not the intensity of his focus that is key to Stephen Harper’s success. (He seems to have been very asleep at the switch when it came to Senate appointments, didn’t he?) No, our Prime Minister is a micro manager in the most miniaturized sense of the term. He is someone who recognizes the political advantage of managing small things.
Vengeance rather than justice, for one example. Domestic political calculation rather than foreign policy, for another. The future of oil rather than the future. Ideology is always an easier portfolio to handle than something big and complicated. Like science. Like facts. Like hope.
Approaching issues in a small way as opposed to approaching them in full recognition of their complexity doesn’t necessarily get better results. In fact, it never does. But that doesn’t really matter in the short-term if enough people prefer the smallness of fearful policies to the uncertainty of imaginative ones. Snip by snip Stephen Harper has cut away at hope for fairness, for justice, for moral leadership, for environmental responsibility, for democracy. He’s made everything he touches smaller. And he is, alas, a prime minister who likes to touch everything. Snip by snip he has managed to make Canadians forget how big their hopes for their country used to be.