What I wish I could have asked Stephen Harper

By Steve Paikin - Published on Aug 30, 2016
Stephen Harper announced his retirement from politics on Aug. 26. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

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In January, 2013, I found myself at an event at which then-prime minister Stephen Harper was the guest speaker. At one moment in the evening, he was holding court with a small number of people I knew. So I sashayed over and joined the crowd.

I began by asking the PM when he was going to sit down for an interview on The Agenda. To my surprise, he said, “Oh yeah, I really should do that someday.” He spoke favorably about the program and gave me every indication it was just a matter of finding the right time. Harper made several ensuing trips to Toronto, and we did try to work out the logistics with his staff.  But, alas, we never could quite get him into our studio.

Now that Harper has stepped down as the Conservative MP for Calgary Heritage and left public life, I’ve given some thought to the questions I’d still like to ask him. There are plenty, but here’s a list of just twelve.

  1. You won elections in 2006, 2008, and 2011. And you’re the only PM in Canadian history to have won a majority government after winning only a minority. Given how difficult it would have been to win four consecutive elections, you must have known it was an uphill climb to emerge victorious from the 2015 election campaign. So why didn’t you retire on a high note in 2014 and let someone else lead the Conservative Party into the 2015 election?
  2. When you ran the National Citizens Coalition in the late 1990s, you were a libertarian conservative. As prime minister, you did some very un-libertarian things such as using public funds to bail out automakers General Motors and Chrysler. How did you intellectually justify those kinds of decisions to yourself?
  3. This may be an odd question, but in his book about you, author John Ibbitson suggested  ̶  and I’ve heard many others say it  ̶  that you really don’t like people all that much.  He quotes you as saying you do like people, just not the people liked by the old, centrist Canadian establishment. So let’s clarify: do you like people?
  4. Of course politicians and members of the media spar on a regular occasion. It’s the nature of the job. But almost every politician I’ve ever spoken to secretly admits they enjoy the parry and thrust of that relationship. You clearly didn’t. You seemed to hate the media. Why?  
  5. At that event I described in the introduction to this column, you and I talked about why you felt uncomfortable revealing your personable, charming, and funny side more often. I have seen that side of you. And you occasionally showed that facet of your personality, for example when you played the piano at the National Arts Centre, or demonstrated some very clever self-deprecating humour at your finance minister Jim Flaherty’s funeral. But clearly by the end of your tenure, too many Canadians thought you were too mean and too dour.  Why didn’t you show that funnier, more personable part of you more often?
  6. So many observers think you brought a new meanness to politics in Canada. Do you think so?
  7. In hindsight, any reservations about getting into that unprecedented, public spat with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada in 2013, when she and her colleagues rejected your nominee for the Court?
  8. You were a Reform Party MP from 1993 to 1997, then left politics. When you came back into public life in 2002, the centre-right forces in the country were split among the Canadian Alliance, the Progressive Conservative Party, and the Bloc Quebecois. How high up your list of achievements would you say re-unifying the centre-right forces into the new Conservative Party of Canada was?
  9. You leave office as the sixth longest-serving prime minister in Canadian history  ̶  nine years and 271 days  ̶  only behind William Lyon Mackenzie King, Sir John A. Macdonald, Pierre Trudeau, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and Jean Chrétien. How do you think history will regard your prime ministership?
  10. Tell us one significant decision you wish you’d done differently?
  11. There are two kinds of leaders in politics: transformational leaders, who truly leave a mark on their country; and transactional leaders, who manage the store but don’t transform the country. The previous conservative PM, Brian Mulroney, was the former (Free Trade, Goods and Services Tax, Meech Lake Constitutional Accord, Charlottetown Accord, sanctions on South Africa, etc.). Which do you think you were?
  12. What was the one thing you think Canadians misunderstood about you the most?

Now that Harper is setting up his own global affairs consultancy in Calgary, I don’t imagine he’ll be sitting down with us at TVO anytime soon.

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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But I’d still love to know how he’d answer these twelve questions. My door’s always open, Mr. Harper. Our invitation still stands. Maybe someday?  

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