Friday, June 09, 2006

Book Review: Taking a second look at Stephen Harper

The Pilgrimage of Stephen Harper, by Lloyd Mackey

It is amazing what a difference eight months, and a stunning electoral victory makes. When this, the latest, Stephen Harper biography came out in 2005, it is safe to say there was a very low level of interest among political junkies for a faith-oriented biography of one of the least charismatic political leaders in recent Canadian history.

Fast forward to June 2006. Harper is the prime minister of an upwardly mobile minority government. His Conservative party is ahead of the Liberals by 10 points nationally, and is neck and neck in popularity with the Bloc in Quebec. He has arbitrarily changed the relationship between the Ottawa Press Gallery and his office. His government recently signed a five year soft-wood lumber deal with the United States resolving this contentious long standing issue. And, he has undertaken a "beau risque" style foreign policy, hinged upon military victory by Canadian forces over the Taliban in Afghanistan and, consequently, exposed the serious internal divisions within the Liberal Party of Canada. In short, he is on track to be a remarkable and contentious Prime Minister.

In this context, Harper - his life, his inspirations - more than merits a serious second look. A great place to begin that re-examination is this powerful and very positive biography by Ottawa press gallery member Lloyd Mackey. And while it is true that a lot has happened to Stephen Harper since the publication of this book, it has lost none of its relevance.

In fact, what is most interesting about this book is that the themes that it identifies for further discussion about Harper, his discipline, his petulance, his intellect, are also many of the themes that have emerged as characteristic of his reign as Prime Minister.

Observers who are surprised by Harper's recent overtures toward the voters of Quebec should remember that it was Harper himself, as documented in these books, who led the initiative to unite the Alliance/Reform and Progressive Conservative Parties of Canada. This overture came after years of writing off any possible rapprochement with Joe Clark's Progressive Conservatives. At the core of this flexibility is a discipline and focus that allows Harper to work towards his long term goals - namely Prime Ministership and, more ominous to those who are not conservatives, the replacement of the Liberals by the Conservatives as the natural governing party of Canada.

One of the great blind spots of the mainstream media is religious faith. For understandable reasons of respect for privacy, the mainstream media goes out of its way to not report on politicians' religious beliefs. What I really appreciated about Mackey's work is that he goes out of his way to find the religious underpinnings of Harper's beliefs and then relates them to his political actions.

At its worst, this work loses momentum when it goes into the minutiae of the Harper's intellectual and religious heritage. And, no matter how well done, the subject matter simply does not take your breath away. It is tough to get worked up about this book.

I can, however, easily recommend this work; it is readable and has a fresh perspective and a focus on intellectual roots well suited to its elusive subject - Stephen Harper.

Love him or hate him, this man is going to have a big impact on Canada for the foreseeable future - and this book will give you a fresh and revealing understanding of the man.