Illustration by David Smith
The first time I met Stephen Harper was when I interviewed him on television. As we left the studio, he asked me how old I was. I told him. "Oh," he said, "we're the same age. Odd, you look much older." In other words, personal charm is not always the strong point of the Conservative Canadian prime minister and arguably the sole Western leader with a sensible, intelligent and consistent foreign policy. Harper is a relatively anonymous man from a relatively anonymous country — everybody knows Canada is there, but most people outside the second largest country in the world know very little about it.
That includes those just over the border in the United States. Then again, why would or should they? America is a superpower, Canada is a gentle parliamentary democracy with 35 million people, two official languages, a British political system and an obsession with ice hockey. The most famous politician it produced was also the one who did it the most damage. Pierre Trudeau was the Liberal prime minister who played social experiments with the country, turning Canada into an achingly liberal and socialised state, with ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union.
Unlike Harper, the arch snob Trudeau had charisma in buckets, and his legacy was a succession of governments, whether Liberal or Tory, that were soft in foreign policy, socially permissive, and addicted to nationalisation and state intervention. Then came Stephen Harper. He was one of the young men who managed to amalgamate the old Progressive Conservative Party with the new, populist and western prairie-based Reform Party. The Conservatives, pure and simple, emerged, formed a minority government and, earlier this year, swept to a comfortable majority, obliterating the Liberal Party — the natural party of government — and its leader, British television's Michael Ignatieff.
Domestically, Harper has yet to, and probably won't, touch issues such as gay marriage and publicly-funded abortion, but he is an advocate of the free market, has transformed the entitlement culture of Ottawa, the capital, and the civil service, and even dares to say "God bless Canada" on national television. This may seem trivial, but in a nation that defines itself by not being American, repeating anything that US leaders tend to say can be dangerous. Also, one of the ironies of Canada is that while it does not have a constitutional separation of church and state, its establishment despises religion, while in the US with its official church/state divide, politicians are effectively obliged to declare their faith — even if, as in the case of President Obama, they are probably lying.