Reporting on the Harper Decade

Reporter, pundit and Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells, BA’89, has released The Harper Decade (Maclean’s, $4.99), an e-book compiling Wells’ best writing on Stephen Harper over the decade he’s been a party leader. For a man who spends his time looking out for what’s next in Ottawa, taking the time to look back has been an interesting exercise for Wells. Western News editor Jason Winders spoke with him about his new book. Just don’t ask him to sign it.

Looking back as you have for this e-book, what’s the most surprising thing about the Harper Decade to you? Are you amazed we are where we are today?

I’m not really amazed we are where we are – with a 6-year-old government, now a majority, led by Stephen Harper – because like everyone else I’ve lived through all the intervening years since he became Canadian Alliance leader in 2002. And it’s been a slow process. But if I’d claimed in 2002 Harper would be prime minister in 2012, and his power would then still be on the rise, people would have started pointing at me behind my back. So perhaps the biggest surprise of the Harper Decade is that it’s lasted 10 years.

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WELLS

What aspect of his rise didn’t you notice at the time that is way too obvious to you now? Anything driving you nuts that you missed?

There’s actually something I noticed, but whose significance I didn’t understand. The first piece in the e-book, my endorsement of Harper for Conservative leader in 2004, says he’s “unapologetic.” That’s actually huge. Harper’s refusal to admit error or bad faith infuriates some people, but if you look at other leaders and other regimes, the beginning of the end is when they admit weakness. The thing about Harper – and this is hardly an unadorned compliment, but it works for him – is how brazen he is. He toughs things out. It disarms his opponents and gives his supporters a brassy champion they can get behind.

Not really a greatest hits collection, the book is more a reflection of your personal journey (through columns and blog posts) covering Harper during his rise. What’s the one column you wish could be included in this collection that you never wrote? What would it say?

This isn’t quite what your question is getting at, but I’d love to have a column full of Harper’s thoughts on the Iraq War. But he’s never given that interview, so I can only guess.

Which of the collection drew the biggest reaction from readers?

I wrote a piece called Harper’s Hard Right Turn, which said 2010 was the best year for social conservatives – faith-and-family conservatives whose politics are often motivated by religion – in 40 years. The comment board on our website went crazy over that one.

Progressives thanking me for unmasking Harper. Progressives denouncing me for throwing in my lot with Harper. Conservatives thanking me for telling it straight. Conservatives furious at me for questioning a great man.

My colleague Andrew Coyne helped by writing a blog post almost immediately arguing I was full of baloney. But my point was not that 2010 marked a return to theocracy in Canada, only that after decades of constant setbacks (on abortion, same-sex marriage and more), Harper had started to make incremental moves social conservatives could take as victories. It’s a subtle point but I think it’s key to understanding why conservatives are so happy this guy is prime minister, which in turn makes his base very difficult for other parties to erode.

Is the prime minister a reflection of an overall shift to the right among Canadians? Or are the demographics (especially the rise of Western influence) and circumstances (bumbling opposition) just working out right for the guy?

I think he is both a mirror and a motor of change. The Liberals, with their medium-scale kickback scandal amped to 11 by the Gomery commission, did their best to delegitimize the entire idea of state action. Harper benefited from that, and has further benefited from a decade-long resource boom. But I’ve spent 18 years covering, mostly, prime ministers who were widely thought to be lucky. My rule of thumb is Chrétien and Harper win because they’re good at this.

Do you think Harper has the staying power to define the country for a generation, or is he the conservative shelter voters seek in uncertain times? I guess I’m asking if you should start collecting for Harper Decade II, published in 2022?

Well, I’m working, increasingly frantically, on a full-dress, old-fashioned book, freshly reported, printed on paper, about Harper in power, which Random House will publish in 2013. This e-book began as my attempt to go through my own record to refresh my memory for that project. And no, I’m not at all sure that will be my last book on Harper. I didn’t set out to spend my career writing books about Harper. I’d have been happy to write about something else. But I cover the government of Canada, and he’s what’s there when I show up for work.

And an e-book, eh? How are you going to display that in your home? What are you going to sign on the book tour? I am a fan, but you’re not getting anywhere near my iPad with a Sharpie.

I’ve had people complain that there’s nothing to sign. I’m reading more and more e-books myself, but I keep buying physical books if the thing itself, its design or its photos or something about the subject, is worth it. But this is a Maclean’s project. We’re about getting news and analysis to people any way we can, and this e-book pipeline we’ve opened up will be followed soon by many more projects.

Click the link to order your PDF copy of The Harper Decade, or the Kindle version, via the Maclean’s iPad app featuring 10 years of coverage and commentary from Paul Wells.