In Canada, new prime minister viewed as shrewd, bland
Colleagues say Conservative's style won't change
TORONTO -- On March 20, 2003, as the United States launched its invasion of Iraq, Stephen Harper rose in the Canadian House of Commons and bitterly condemned his country's refusal to join the fight.
The government ''has betrayed Canada's history and values," he thundered. ''The government has for the first time in our history left us outside our British and American allies in their time of need."
It was a vintage performance for the Conservative leader: self-assured, serious, claiming the moral high ground, and caustically critical of the liberals then in power. Now Harper, 46, has reached the pinnacle of a political career. After his party's victory over the ruling Liberal Party in parliamentary elections last week, he will become the 22d prime minister when Parliament reconvenes in the coming weeks.
Last Tuesday, Canadians awoke uncertain whether Harper's customary role would change, and whether his history of opposition is well suited for building the alliances he needs to support the new minority government.
Those who know Harper insists he will not change.
''I expect him to be straightforward," said Diane Ablonczy, a conservative parliamentarian who has known Harper for 19 years and may join his Cabinet. ''We won't get a dizzying round of rhetoric. He will say what he means and mean what he says."
Despite Harper's years in public life and a long record of speeches, however, many Canadians feel they do not know him well. The political strategist has never been a warm, approachable public figure. He had to overcome a reputation for stiffness that left him at a disadvantage compared with his garrulous opponent, Prime Minister Paul Martin.
''He's not an extrovert. Clearly," John Weissenberger, a longtime friend and geologist, said in an interview Tuesday. ''He approaches his work in a very serious, professional way."
Harper even incorporated jokes about his blandness into his standard campaign speech.
Policy and conservatism have been his obsession. When he and Weissenberger were graduate students at the University of Calgary, they debated free-market theory and plotted political strategy over meals at a mall.
''It sounds kind of incredible to have two guys in their 20s sitting down to say how should we change the way the government works," said Weissenberger. ''But that's what we did. We were both kind of political junkies and policy junkies."
Harper's father was an accountant in Toronto, where Harper was born and raised in a white, middle-class neighborhood. Completing the Canadian portrait, Stephen and his two younger brothers were absorbed in ice hockey, and Harper still is a master of hockey trivia.
Childhood friends remember him as polite, studious, and quiet. After high school, Harper set out to work in western Canada. He soon enrolled in the University of Calgary, where his political interests blossomed, according to the biography ''Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada," by William Johnson.
On campus, he became immersed in the Canadian equivalent of the Young Republicans. Harper and Weissenberger were avid fans of conservative William F. Buckley's weekly television debate show ''Firing Line."
The students traded political tomes, debated political theory, and hungrily followed the growing popularity of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States, according to Johnson.
Harper ran unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1988 and won in 1993, but left four years later to take a job as head of the National Citizens Coalition, a conservative advocacy group. There, he forcefully argued that Ottawa and the eastern power structure treated western Canada unfairly. In 2001, he signed a letter urging the Alberta premier to ''build firewalls around Alberta" against a ''hostile federal government."
It became a controversial letter. And it was not the only position that later caused Harper trouble after he returned to Parliament in 2002 as leader of the opposition party. In their first matchup, in the 2004 national election, the shrewd Martin used Harper's support for the Iraq war and other pro-American statements to portray the Conservative as too closely aligned with Republicans in the United States.
''It's a very difficult balancing act," said James Blanchard, a former US ambassador to Canada who is now a lawyer and consultant in Washington. Canadian prime ministers do not want to be seen as too close to Washington, he said.
Harper learned the lesson. He avoided foreign policy and politically explosive social policy issues in this campaign, focusing instead on government overhaul, tax cuts, healthcare, crime, and transferring more power to provinces.
Even detractors give Harper credit for rescuing his party. He engineered the merger of feuding conservative wings into a single party in 2003, applied lessons from their defeat in 2004, and then commanded a tightly disciplined campaign with no major mistakes leading to this election.