Tom Flanagan on Stephen Harper

Written by  //  June 15, 2009  //  Canada, Politics, Public Policy  //  Comments Off on Tom Flanagan on Stephen Harper

The way Mr. Flanagan sees it now, Stephen Harper is adrift in a vacuum of policy and principle, conniving only to retain power while hemorrhaging respect as a flawed political strategist.

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It’s too harsh to qualify as constructive criticism, even if the author was once Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s mentor and academic advisor.

The words are too deadly to be considered friendly fire, even if the writer was still running the Conservatives’ election war room.

And if Tom Flanagan were still serving as Mr. Harper’s chief of staff, his new assessment of the Prime Minister’s post-election debacle would probably result in a firing by a boss who takes bad news badly.

The University of Calgary political scientist served in all of these roles to this Prime Minister, yet he’s come to the startling conclusion his star student and political protege is battered, tattered and almost beyond repair.

If this glum assessment were written by any columnist in the land, it would be vilified by party faithful as the predictable rantings of a Liberal-loving mainstream media.

But it’s penned by an insightful Calgarian once described by former Reform party insider Rick Anderson as an “intellectual, philosophical soulmate” to a Stephen Harper he had nursed back onto the federal stage and nurtured along as he rose to become Conservaitive.

As such, his words deliver a painful punch.

Mr. Flanagan’s appraisal is part of an updated conclusion to his two-year-old Harper’s Team, an insider’s account of the Conservative leader’s rise to power, a friendly account reportedly vetted by the Prime Minister’s Office prior to its original publication.

But the way Mr. Flanagan sees it now, Stephen Harper is adrift in a vacuum of policy and principle, conniving only to retain power while hemorrhaging respect as a flawed political strategist.

Mr. Harper’s greatest gaffe was inserting the elimination of public financing for political parties into last fall’s economic update — “his single-worst mistake, not just as prime minister but in his career as a party leader,” Mr. Flanagan writes.

He had perfected the art of keeping political opponents squabbling among themselves, but the public subsidy gambit united all three parties under a common survival strategy that gave the Conservatives a near-death experience.

It dealt a mortal blow to Mr. Harper’s vaunted reputation as a brilliant tactician.

“Before the fall fiasco he wasn’t exactly loved by the public, but he was widely respected by political observers as a competent manager and a shrewd strategist,” Mr. Flanagan concludes. “But after his misadventure with the political subsidy issue, many are saying that his strategic sense has been over rated. This is a dangerous development for if you are not to be loved, you must at least be respected.”

What’s worse, Mr. Flanagan lists the reasons the once-principled leader has “tattered” his credibility by embracing corporate subsidies, violating his own fixed election date law, diving into deficit and breaking election promises on income trust taxation and equalization calculations.

“Taken together, along with other less publicized reversals, they have created a widespread impression that Harper stands for nothing in particular except winning and keeping power. This is a major loss for a political leader who was once seen as a man of conviction.”

Well, ouch.

All is not lost, Mr. Flanagan sighs. If Mr. Harper gets back to his base with moderate conservative policies, ending the partisan trickery and reaching out to opponents, he could still rewrite the premature obituaries.

Of course, the fundamental flaw with Mr. Flanagan’s salvage strategy is that Stephen Harper surrounds himself with yes-prime-minister types who tell the boss only what he wants to hear. He’s certain to turn a deaf ear to Mr. Flanagan, believing that the solution to having friends like these is to find new friends.

But Mr. Harper’s survival demands a colossal shakeup of his government’s senior staff, bringing fearless professionalism and fresh perspectives to a productive minority reign riding out tough economic times. If they can deliver that, getting the government re-elected will take care of itself.

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