The Meaning of Harper

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VICTORY: Harper celebrates with wife Laureen and children Benjamin and Rachel

On a cold day in Ottawa last week, Stephen Harper sauntered into the fifth-floor cafeteria in Parliament's Centre Block and ordered a cheeseburger, a Coke and a Caesar salad. He loaded the food onto his tray and, as he does most lunchtimes, headed back to his office. As ever, Harper projected the image of a cerebral, shy, slightly standoffish man, a politician who has never seemed quite at home in boisterous Ottawa. Yet there was one thing changed in his routine: next to Harper stood two bulky plainclothes bodyguards. You get them when you're No. 1.

On Feb. 6, Harper will be sworn in as Canada's 22nd Prime Minister, along with a freshly minted Cabinet--which means that his lunch-hour escapes on Parliament Hill will probably become rare events. The onetime political outsider whom Canadian voters brought in from the cold of western politics will suddenly be thrust into the very center of the national political scene. And for the first time in a dozen years Canadians will find out what it's like without the Liberal Party in charge.

Harper, 46, a policy wonk, hockey-trivia buff and father of two, is one of the youngest PMs to occupy 24 Sussex Drive. He may also be one of the most forthright. "What's going to shock the nation is he means every word he says," says Jim Hawkes, a retired Calgary Tory M.P. who gave Harper his first job in politics, as a researcher in his Ottawa office. Although he will lead a slender, 124-member minority Conservative caucus in the 308-seat House of Commons, Harper seems resolved to fulfill the campaign pledges that brought the Conservatives to power. "Minority governments are never easy," Harper told reporters last week in his first press conference as Prime Minister-designate. But, he added, "Canadians want us to get to work on delivering change, and we will be ready to lead that change."

But what kind of change? It's a question that puzzles even Harper's supporters, who watched him transform himself from a crusader for limited government into a family-friendly mainstream politician. That shift was partly an expression of pragmatism in a nation that tends to shun extremes. But it also reflected a rare political trait: the ability to rise above the ideological-hothouse atmosphere of Reform Party politics in the west to become a leader capable of attracting support from skeptics. His core economic conservatism is unlikely to have changed as much as some suggest--Harper is not and never will be a Red Tory--but his stolid textbook campaign managed to attract a diverse group of voters, from rural Albertans to southern Ontarians to nationalist Quebeckers. If Harper proves he can govern as inclusively as he has campaigned, it may give him the makings of a new national Conservative coalition for the 21st century. Says Hawkes: "I think he could be Prime Minister for a long time."

Perhaps this is the dawn of a lengthy Harper era, but he faces a steep learning curve. Harper, who has never run a government agency, was in back-to-back meetings last week learning the ins and outs of managing a C$230 billion federal budget and the complex government machinery that goes with it. Characteristically, he reached out to the same senior coterie of professional Tory advisers that helped smooth out the kinks in his campaign. The five-person transition team, which has met every day in the fourth-floor office of the Langevin Block, where Canada's Prime Ministers have their office, is headed by Derek Burney, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and a former Canadian ambassador to the U.S. The team's members, all volunteers, are arranging high-level briefings for the new PM with key organizations like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Before he takes office, Harper is also trying to absorb some lessons from recent history. Insiders say he has telephoned former Prime Minister Mulroney--whose government he once accused of "running the largest deficits in Canadian history"--for advice on the pitfalls of power. One model he surely hopes to avoid: the short-lived minority government of Joe Clark, who entered power with as little experience as Harper's Tories and spent months largely out of sight of the Canadian public while learning the tricks of governance--only to be turfed out by the resurgent Liberals under Pierre Trudeau.

Harper can probably count on a honeymoon while the opposition parties take his government's measure. But the grace period may well be brief. Harper will probably have little trouble winning passage of his clean-government accountability act, the first of five major campaign pledges--the others being a cut in the gst, guarantees on health-care waiting times, tougher measures on crime, and direct cash payments to families for child care. But in the back of his mind, no doubt, is the fact that minority Parliaments in Canada rarely last more than two years.

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