By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
OTTAWA–When an “instinctively combative” Stephen Harper reached across party lines to deliver the historic apology to Indian residential school survivors, it marked a rare moment when he attempted “consensus” during a centralized and secretive minority rule, according to a blunt assessment contained in a “confidential” U.S. diplomatic cable obtained by APTN National News.
The Jan. 2, 2009 cable, titled, Never Apologize: PM Harper’s Governing Style, describes a prime minister who trusted only an “extremely small” circle of “like-minded” confidantes and kept caucus and cabinet members in the dark on major decisions.
The cable was written by former U.S. ambassador to Canada David Wilkins and was released to APTN by whistleblower website WikiLeaks.
Parts of Wilkins’ assessment was based on conversations with Conservative caucus members.
APTN was one of two Canadian media organizations to receive the full batch of diplomatic cables, including secret and confidential dispatches, originating from the Ottawa embassy and U.S. consulates.
WikiLeaks released hundreds of unclassified cables on its Web site last week.
Wilkins notes that, up to the point of writing, the only times Harper reached out across partisan lines came when he delivered the apology to Indian residential school survivors and secured an extension to the Afghanistan mission.
“In office, Harper has rarely made the compromises typical of a minority (prime minister), nor built the bridges and informal channels that usually get things in a minority Parliament,” wrote Wilkins. “He reached across the floor only twice: in March 2008 to achieve bipartisan consensus on the extension of Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan through 2011; and in June 2008 to resolve the Indian Residential Schools issue.”
In the House of Commons, just before he began the June 2008 apology, Harper acknowledged the role NDP leader Jack Layton played leading to that moment.
“For the past year and a half, he has spoken to me with regularity and great conviction on the need for this apology,” said Harper, at the time. “His advice, given across party lines and in confidence, has been persuasive and has been greatly appreciated.”
The apology came after the government secured a multi-billion dollar settlement with residential school survivors.
Most of the diplomatic cable, however, deals with Harper’s centralized governing style where everyone but his small circle of advisors were kept out of the loop on major decisions. The cable also notes how fear kept his ministers and MPs in line.
“Harper’s inner circle appears extremely small. Notoriously hard on staff … (Harper burned through a series of communications directors as opposition leaders and once reportedly told an aide that he liked to see the ‘fear’ in the eyes of prospective employees) he has tended to surround himself with like-minded people,” wrote Wilkins. “As a result, some insiders say he lacks staff willing or able to act as an effective sounding-board or check his partisan instincts.”
Wilkins compares Harper to former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, saying the he lacked his predecessors’ ability to connect personally with his caucus.
“Unlike former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney who famously called his MPs when their kids were sick and kept their loyalty even when his personal popularity plunged to historic lows, Harper lacks the personal touch,” wrote Wilkins.
The cable also describes how major decisions, like the controversial announcement to end public subsidies for political parties in November 2008, caught his cabinet and caucus by surprise.
“Discussions with Conservative caucus members over the past year have also made it clear that they are often out of the loop on the prime minister’s plans,” wrote Wilkins. “Many senior Conservatives admitted that they were stunned to hear about the ban on public financing of political parties…neither cabinet nor the caucus apparently had any clue this was even part of the long-range agenda, much less subject of an immediate confidence vote.”
The announcement triggered a crisis that forced Harper to shut Parliament down to avoid being toppled by opposition parties through a coalition.
Wilkins said former Governor General Michaelle Jean was also apparently considering rejecting Harper’s decision to prorogue Parliament and asking the opposition parties to form a coalition government.
“The opposition’s ability to turn the tables with a proposed coalition in turn apparently caught the PM by surprise, as was perhaps the rumoured unwillingness of the Governor General to rule out this option against his advice (sic),” wrote Wilkins.
Wilkins said Harper’s reputation as a master political chess player took a major blow as a result.
“He has played the game of high-stakes, partisan politics well, but his reputation for decisiveness and shrewdness has been tarnished by a sometimes vindictive pettiness,” wrote Wilkins, who was appointed by former U.S. president George W. Bush to the position and left the post in Jan. 20, 2009.
Wilkins also describes a conversation with a junior cabinet minister as an example of the “short-leash” around the necks of cabinet ministers.
“At a December conference, one Minister of State confessed privately that he did not ‘dare’ to deviate from his pre-approved text, even though fast-moving events had already overtaken his speech,” wrote Wilkins.
Wilkins’ assessment concludes that the Conservative leader needed a more conciliatory approach to deal with the country’s fiscal situation and global economic slowdown.
“However, this will go against the grain for such an instinctively combative prime minister,” wrote Wilkins.