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Harper muddles past first full majority year

OTTAWA - Stephen Harper, we hardly know you.

Almost seven years after Harper led his Conservatives to office and ended more than a decade of uninterrupted Liberal power, the prime minister remains a polarizing figure who inspires a bewildering array of reactions.

Steely ideologue, pragmatic centrist, unprincipled partisan: Harper's political management has inspired all these descriptions — sometimes on the same file or issue.

With political 2012 now in the books, Harper has finally completed his first full, unfettered year with a majority mandate. Are Canadians any wiser about the man and his Conservative party that are leading the country?

"If success is measured by getting your agenda accomplished, I think for the most part they have. They're making strides," says Alex Marland, a political scientist at Memorial University in St. John's, N.L., who specializes in political messaging.

"In some ways you could make the argument that they've been quite successful, and yet for some reason in the public opinion polls, they just can't seem to move. That's the disconnect that I find interesting."

The prime minister dished up a textbook example to close out a year of mixed government signals and muddling along.

Harper permitted a Chinese state-owned company to buy up a significant Canadian-owned player in the Alberta oilpatch, but in so doing, he effectively barred further such ownership bids.

The Solomonic decision managed to inflame equally strident — and contradictory — opinions from around the dial.

Harper also attempted to turn the page on a multi-year propaganda exercise designed to sell Canadians on the F-35 stealth fighter. Government stonewalling over the ballooning cost of the developmental jet helped spark the 2011 election, when Conservatives said it was the only option and vowed to complete the purchase.

The government announced on Dec. 12 that it was "hitting the reset button" — a term heard so often that day, it was surely tested extensively with focus groups — on the F-35 procurement.

Conservatives took a pounding on the F-35 file for a variety of sins, from mismanagement to deceit — "incompetence tainted by arrogance," in the words of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair — but ultimately made the right call.

Perhaps that was why Harper, usually an efficient but dour performer in the Commons, appeared uncommonly jovial in the final sitting days, unburdened at last of weighty decisions on foreign investment and military procurement.

"I think the issues are getting rougher for them," Bob Rae, the Liberal interim leader and former Ontario premier, said of the Conservatives and Harper in a year-end interview.

"I think every government learns from experience. He's a very shrewd guy. I don't underestimate him at all."

But Harper, Rae argued, is "limited by the nature of his message and he's limited by the kind of (political) movement that he felt he had to create."

If so, 2012 was a year that showed Harper testing the boundaries of those perceived limitations.

On April 26, Harper's government whip, Gordon O'Connor, led off the Conservative response to a private member's bill (from a Conservative backbencher) that would have re-opened Canada's abortion debate.

"I cannot understand why those who are adamantly opposed to abortion want to impose their beliefs on others by way of the Criminal Code," O'Connor stated in a speech that cited the prime minister's own feelings on the issue.

"There is no law that says that a woman must have an abortion. No one is forcing those who oppose abortion to have one."

The legislation was defeated. And although much was made of the fact 10 cabinet ministers defied Harper and voted in favour of the bill, the message from the top was clear.

On gun control, the Conservatives vanquished the long-gun registry that was such a touchstone for the party.

Yet by autumn the government was clearly reining in any signs of firearms triumphalism, choosing to downplay developments such as the destruction of the registry data.

Harper ended the year with a public rebuke of the government's own, hand-picked firearms advisory committee, which has been pushing for further easing of gun control regulations.

Communications consultant Gerry Nicholls, a longtime conservative commentator and former colleague of Harper at the right-wing National Citizen's Coalition, said 2012 tells him that Harper "is not a conservative prime minister or an ideological prime minister."

"If anything, his actions of the past year prove he's first and foremost a pragmatic politician pursuing pragmatic political policies," Nicholls said in an email.

And lest you take that as praise, Nicholls concludes that "he isn’t motivated by what's good for the country or by what's good for conservatism; but by what's good for the Conservative party."

Yet despite Nicholl's harsh assessment, ideology remains.

It was a year that saw several courts begin to chip away at the government's punitive new suite of mandatory minimum sentences, but no evidence of any softening in the Conservative "tough on crime" stance.

An unrelenting emphasis on expanding trade helped in part explain Harper's extensive global travels, which included separate trips to China, India, Australia, Russia, Colombia and the Congo.

Almost inextricable from trade was the government's focus on resource extraction, pipelines, the oilpatch — and the demonization of those opposed to environmental deregulation.

"Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade," Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver wrote last Jan. 9 in an open letter that would set the government's tone for the year.

On Dec. 13, the last sitting day of the fall session of Parliament, Harper blasted the NDP for being "against the development of the oilsands entirely."

"People know the only government that will defend the interests of this industry and Canadians is this government," the prime minister concluded.

Through it all, the unparalleled Conservative fundraising machine has not faltered.

The party raked in $12 million in heavily taxpayer-subsidized donations through the first three quarters of 2012, down somewhat from the 2011 election year but exactly matching its total through nine months in 2010.

By contrast, the NDP and Liberals together raised only $10.5 million in the first three quarters of this year.

Perhaps not coincidentally, what would a year in Canadian politics be without the Conservative party battling its perceived institutional enemies?

That persecution complex helps drive the party fundraising machine but it may also feed a chippy, paranoid and ruthless governing style that's willing to cut corners and bend rules.

An ongoing investigation into fraudulent election calls from 2011 raised a great cloud of smoke, but as yet no fire — pending the outcome of an Elections Canada investigation into a seemingly widespread voter suppression scheme by parties unknown.

The government fought the parliamentary budget officer, nursed new media grudges and lambasted environmentalists, "big union bosses," the United Nations, immigrant "queue-jumpers" and crooked consultants.

Harper has been compared to William Lyon Mackenzie King, the Liberal prime minister who was unloved and little understood but governed Canada for a record 22 years using wile, guile and political street smarts.

Harper's also fortunate to have the same kind of fractured opposition that helped Jean Chretien to three consecutive Liberal majorities from 1993 to 2000.

As Parliament's fall sitting wrapped up, the NDP's Mulcair was asked about the prospect of co-operation among Canada's "progressive voters."

Standing behind a podium bearing an almost comically oversized "Official Opposition" placard, in both official languages, Mulcair responded: "My No. 1 job as leader of the NDP is to rally all progressive forces in Canada under the NDP banner and defeat Stephen Harper in 2015."

A phalanx of NDP MPs posed behind him whooped and applauded.

Conservative MPs were likely applauding, too, as they watched the Mulcair scrum on TV. For the same reason, Tories could be cheering on Justin Trudeau and Liberal fortunes in the coming year.

If it seemed to some that Harper's Conservatives just muddled along in 2012, it should be remembered that's how governments in Canada frequently survive.

"I don't think this is a government that is doing stuff with immediate big bangs," said Marland, the Memorial University professor, who credits "incremental conservatism."

He cites the termination of the penny, a tiny move "that affected every single Canadian," as emblematic.

"Is it a hidden agenda?" asked Marland. "Well no, it's an agenda that's in plain sight."

Successful Liberals, the once "natural governing party," campaigned on the left and governed from the centre.

Marland posits that "you could possibly make the same argument that Conservatives, in some ways, campaign on the right and govern from the centre."

It's an assessment that will satisfy no one in the polarized debate over Canada's 22nd prime minister — a state of affairs that just might make Harper happy. He certainly looked it at year's end.

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