A Political Awakening (1978-1993) [Stephen Harper]
LeaderPost.com – news – His passion for policy and anger over alienation of the West led a reluctant Harper to the federal stage
September 17, 2013. By Mark Kennedy, Postmedia News
Cynthia Williams remembers the day in 1982 she and her boyfriend, “Steve” Harper, went to their first political meeting: a town hall held by Calgary West Conservative MP Jim Hawkes. Neither knew yet that Harper was on the precipice of a discovery that would change his life: an interest in politics that would eventually transform him into a renegade who championed fiscal and democratic reform for Canada.
“What he really thought he was going to do is go work for the United Nations or for a global international company,” said Williams, a journalism student at the time, who would become Harper’s fiancée for a year.
In the University of Calgary’s economics program, Harper aced his courses.
“From Day 1, he couldn’t get less than an A+ if his life depended on it,” according to Williams. “So he constantly had people giving him suggestions as to where he should go with his career.”
One counsellor suggested Harper get involved in the community. So when he and Williams spotted an ad for the Hawkes town hall, they showed up, sitting near the front of the room.
“(Harper) would stand up and ask challenging questions, and Jim would look him in the eye and answer them,” recalled Williams. Stephen Harper had stumbled into politics.
“He never, ever intended to be a politician,” said Williams, who became a young Conservative activist with Harper. “He used to make fun of people who thought they were future prime ministers.
“But where Steve found a home in politics was the policy. He latched on to that.”
They had met for the first time in late 1981. Williams was studying at Mount Royal University, which didn’t have its own residence, so she stayed at the University of Calgary campus where Harper also lived.
She was an attractive blond with an infectious, outgoing nature. Harper spotted her in the university cafeteria and asked her out – to a Steve Martin movie.
They quickly became a couple.
Williams was drawn to what she calls his genuine nature.
“He’s very honest, and he’s very, very loyal. You can never question that. If you are somebody that he cares about, he will be there for you.”
She also found him funny, like the TV character Frasier Crane. The pair loved to watch hockey – he was an Edmonton Oilers fan – and often went to the Calgary Zoo.
“We liked going for long, long walks. We would read. We went to movies,” Williams said. “We worked well in the sense of I’m very social and I’m more of an extrovert. He’s more of an introvert.”
Harper did not work a room. Instead, he would plant himself in a corner, to be drawn into “long conversations,” said Williams. But that introverted character trait wasn’t shyness, she said.
“He’s somebody who, when he knows he wants something, he goes and gets it.”
Harper became president of the Progressive Conservative Youth Club in Calgary West. When Hawkes was re-elected in the 1984 election that put Brian Mulroney’s Tories in government, Harper was elated.
Although raised in Toronto, he had become a proud Albertan and was furious at how Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program (NEP) in 1980 held oil prices low and devastated Alberta’s economy. It instilled in him a visceral dislike of Trudeau and a distrust of Liberal policy.
Rod Love, an Alberta political operative who knew Harper in later years, said the NEP helped convince the young economics student the West was being mistreated.
“The whole basis of this western alienation was the feeling of Albertans that we were simply a feeder fund for Ottawa so that they could lavish complex social programs on Canadians and appease Quebec,” said Love.
Years later, within days of Pierre Trudeau’s death in 2000, Harper penned a sharply worded newspaper op-ed.
“Under his stewardship, the country created huge deficits, a mammoth national debt, high taxes, bloated bureaucracy, rising unemployment, record inflation, curtailed trade and declining competitiveness,” wrote Harper, lambasting Trudeau for his “radical, interventionist” energy program.
“The lives of honest, hard-working Albertans were upended and I came to know many of those who lost their jobs and their homes,” he wrote.
The memory would help define his philosophical approach.
In 1985, Harper moved to Ottawa as Hawkes’s legislative assistant. He kept a low profile among the bustling retinue of aides and made few, if any, friends. Williams occasionally
visited, and the two walked in the nearby Gatineau Hills.
But after a year, Harper grew disenchanted with the slow pace of change, even with Mulroney’s Tories in power. He returned to Alberta to study.
“He told me he was so fed up with what he saw in Ottawa and the way politics was carried out,” said Gordon Shaw, a family friend. “He said, ‘It didn’t really matter if you’re a Conservative or a Liberal. It’s all top-down. Things are decided and you really don’t have any influence.’ ” Hawkes said Harper reached a clear conclusion: He did not want to ever be elected, with all its cyclic uncertainty about winning or losing elections.
“But he did want to influence public policy,” said Hawkes.
The road to that was a doctorate. “He was planning to be a bureaucrat. He could see that politics at the bureaucratic level had control over enormous parts of that thing.
“And if you cared about trying to make it a better world, then that’s probably the way that you’re going to get it.”
By June 1986, Harper was back at the University of Calgary to earn his master’s in economics. He broke up with Williams, although they remained friends. She would later arrange a lunch encounter between Harper and her friend, Laureen Teskey – whom Harper married.
“We were growing apart,” Williams recalled. “We kept in touch a little bit. It wasn’t a bad breakup.”
Harper studied philosophy and read Adam Smith, the 18th-century thinker who wrote of the “invisible hand” of the marketplace. He soaked up the work of political philosophers such as Edmund Burke.
He also became reacquainted with John Weissenberger, a Montreal native studying geology at the University of Calgary, whom he had known from the PC Youth. Their deep friendship, which endures to this day, was fed by a common interest in history, policy, politics and a growing discontent with the federal Conservatives.
Mulroney had dropped plans to partially de-index old age pensions, wasn’t sufficiently reducing the deficit, and was filling many jobs with political cronies.
In October 1986, the federal government awarded a $100-million maintenance contract for CF-18 fighters to Canadair in Montreal – not to Bristol Aerospace in Winnipeg. For westerners it was a bitter symbol of how, even with a Conservative in power, their interests came second to those of Central Canada.
“There didn’t seem to be the political will to change the atmosphere and the way things were done in Ottawa,” Weissenberger said.
Harper and Weissenberger began meeting regularly, often over Chinese food dinners near the university. They pored through the work of Friedrich Hayek, whose Austrian school of economics promoted the benefits of a free market. They studied the success of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Their plan was to establish a network of true conservatives within the Progressive Conservative party.
Then, in early 1987, Harper met an Albertan with bigger plans: Preston Manning.
The meeting was arranged by University of Calgary economics professor Robert Mansell, who was already enjoying long debates in campus hallways with Harper.
Harper “was wise beyond his years,” Mansell said. “He had a very practical but visionary sense of what Canada could be.”
The timing was propitious. Manning was forming a conservative political movement to counter Mulroney’s Tories and needed a policy chief.
“Of course we had very little money so I had to figure out where can I get a policy guy and not have to pay him very much,” Manning recalled. “I immediately thought of graduate students.”
On May 2, 1987, Manning spoke to several hundred conservatives in Vancouver. The awkward populist son of a former Alberta premier wowed his audience with a pitch for a new party. Also present, keeping a low profile, was Harper. He had come bearing an 11-point manifesto for change, entitled A Taxpayers Reform Agenda that he and Weissenberger had prepared. Harper left a stack of copies on a table at the back of the hall. It went largely unnoticed.
He was 28 years old – in the political world, just a kid. Yet here, in 277 words, was the foundation for a principled philosophy he hoped would shake up politics.
Among the proposals: Offer strong “conservative prin-¦ ¦ciples” as an alternative to the “NDP-Liberal-Red Tory philosophy”
so that Canada would be a democracy of “real debate, not ‘sacred trusts.'”
Create a party controlled by “private citizens, independent of its politicians and political insiders.”
Replace the “carnival atmosphere of political conventions” with “solid candidates” and policy – “not image and personality.”
Unveil the “mysteries of party solidarity” by publicly revealing how MPs voted in caucus before a unanimous position is taken in the Commons.
Ensure the “termination of patronage appointments and positions, as well as of the public funding of special interest groups.”
¦mplement a “new economics” of “smaller government, regional diversification … privatization (and) fair trade.”
Oppose the recent Meech Lake accord that promised constitutional changes to assuage Quebec.
The idealism of Harper’s words foreshadowed how he would seek to change Canada a quarter-century later.
But it also stood in partial contrast to the politics Harper eventually practised – defined at times by compromise, secrecy and hardedged partisanship.
To this day, Weissenberger says that although Harper compromised on some ideas once in power, his core beliefs have not changed.
“I think he is basically a smallgovernment conservative. Free enterprise, free markets, personal freedom. A classical liberal in that sense.
“There’s a difference between having principles and compromising them with your eyes open, as compared to having no principles and just blowing whichever way the wind is blowing.”
On a cold Halloween weekend in 1987, at Winnipeg’s Convention Centre, Harper and Weissenberger attended the founding assembly of the Reform party, where Manning was chosen as leader.
Harper delivered a speech highlighting a “political culture” that was biased against Western Canada.
He blasted three things: a “national policy” dating back to Sir John A. Macdonald that ravaged the western economy to feed central Canadian interests, a “welfare state” that had “taken its logic to a modern extreme,” and a “Quebec question” in which the province was given “special treatment,” including the transfer of funds from western taxpayers.
“It is time for Canada’s federal government to significantly reduce its size and to decentralize power from bureaucrats to ordinary Canadians and from Ottawa to the regions,” Harper said.
“Whatever the merits of many government programs, they are not, and never were, acts of God. The welfare state is not the politicians’ ‘sacred trust'; it is the taxpayers’ burden – a burden which has been disproportionately borne by western Canadians.”
Harper received a standing ovation. He had become a rising Reform star, and was made the party’s chief policy officer. He would eventually run for Reform against his old mentor, Hawkes – unsuccessfully in 1988, then successfully in 1993.
At the time of Reform’s birth, Harper received some prophetic advice from Williams’s father, Cyril, with whom he had developed a close rapport.
The older man could see the danger of the new Reform party splitting Canada’s conservative vote, making it easier for Liberals to win majority governments.
“Dad told him, ‘If you do this, you are ensuring that the Liberal government will be in power for the next 10 years,'” Cynthia Williams said.
Many years after, Harper sent her father a note.
It said simply, with no explanation: “Cy, you were right.”
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